PARIS -- The trees are up, the colorful lights are on and the new women's scents are on the shelves, but except in the U.K., European fragrance shoppers are still dawdling at the window.

The continuing trend of buying late in the season makes it difficult for retailers to accurately project where they will stand after Dec. 25, but most on the Continent, noting smaller purchases and high unemployment, expect this holiday season's sales to hover close to last year's.

Besides taking the retail temperature, a survey of 14 fragrance merchants in France, the U.K., Italy and Germany with more than 700 doors uncovered these trends:

In France, the unchallenged leader emerging from the 10 major women's fragrance launches this past fall is Tocade by Rochas. Every French retailer said it was a bestseller, usually the top new launch.

"It's pretty, it smells nice, it makes the customers happy. What more can you ask for?" asked Marcel Frydman, head of the 44-store La Parfumerie group.

Frydman is negotiating with the Lyon-based chain Ophelia to acquire 10 stores. The deal would give him the most doors, although not the biggest turnover, of any chain in France.

In Milan, perfumeries were enthusiastic about Gianni Versace's latest fragrance launches, Red Jeans (for women) and Blue Jeans (for men).

For November, perennial giant Tresor by Lancome was the top seller at the 350-store German chain Douglas; Laura by Laura Biagiotti was in second place and Karl Lagerfeld's Sun Moon Stars was third.

The remainder of the Douglas top 10, in order: Sculpture by Nikos, Roma by Laura Biagiotti, Dune by Dior, L'Oreal's Naf Naf, Escape by Calvin Klein, Bulgari and Tocade by Rochas.

The Zurich-based discounter Alrodo had the most original business strategy. The company, headed by Silvio Denz, has set up shop in two Zurich post offices, a deal that grew out of its mail-order business through the Swiss post.

"It's a kind of joint venture, and the post office is getting a percentage of the turnover," Denz explained.

Even more unusual, Alrodo is sponsoring bingo games on television. The company donates fragrances for prizes and money for the jackpot, and in exchange, Alrodo gets publicity as a sponsor.In France, retailers are stepping up their independent promotional activities, too.

The Empreinte chain has launched a promotional magazine distributed in stores. Discounter Bernard Marionnaud ran a bus shelter campaign, and Sephora, France's biggest chain, undertook a big-budget TV and magazine campaign for fall. But Sephora executives decided it was too esoteric and cancelled it in midstream last month.

In the U.K, House of Fraser moved its beauty promotion to November from late October to spur Christmas shopping. And for the second year in a row, Harrods distributed a 36-page catalog of fragrances that was mailed to customers and inserted in The Sunday Times of London.

Retailers in several countries mentioned that customers were asking for smaller sizes. In France, retailers complained that manufacturers refuse to supply them with the same 30-ml. sizes they offer in Germany.

Traditional retailers in southern Germany are weathering their first Christmas with widespread discounting. Hopes have been raised, however, by government discussions to allow retailers to offer rebates to consumers in cash or products. But these talks are only preliminary.

Some have already begun to experiment. One involved Tresor, which had been discounted in the market. "We offered it at full price with a gift attached, and sold more at full price than when we had it at a discount," said Loy Hammerich-Pagels, Aurel's marketing and advertising director.

Even with stepped-up promotions and unusual strategies, the only really good news comes from the U.K., where retailers are projecting sales increases of 10 to 15 percent during Christmas 1994, on top of a strong holiday period a year ago. They said a strong crop of launches and stepped-up advertising and promotional gift packs from beauty brands were behind the growth.

"Christmas is always unpredictable, but we are up 12 percent on last year and are very, very happy," said Hilary Dart, perfumery buyer at Selfridges.

That's well above the small 3.5 percent increase that Dart had expected this Christmas period, considering that sales were up 22 percent in yule 1993.

In France, a few retailers reported advances of 5 to 10 percent, but the majority said this Christmas has been flat to date. However, the retailers hope serious shoppers will rush the stores in the last week.Most retailers said traditional bestsellers like Chanel No. 5, Tresor and Opium from Yves Saint Laurent were holding up fine under the pressure of all the new launches, but reported middle-of-the road brands were taking a hit.

In Germany, it's going to be a very merry Christmas for the discounters. The trend is expected to spread from the south and sweep the rest of the country by mid-1995.

The 38-unit Alrodo group, one of the main instigators of the German price wars, reported sales were up 15 to 20 percent in its stores in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, excluding new shops.

However, at the 100-door Yaska Parfumerie based in Osnabrück, sales were flat and at the 390-store Aurel Group of Wiesbaden, executives said they expected sales to fall 5 to 7 percent.

"Discounting has become a significant problem, and discounters are taking away business from the traditional perfumeries," said Aurel's Hammerich-Pagels. "It's been catastrophic in Vienna, but also more and more [in Germany]."

Most Italian retailers said they were showing sales close to last year's.

At least a few retailers said that besides Tocade, the following were strong sellers among the new launches in France: Kashaya by Kenzo; Deci Dela by Nina Ricci; Sun Moon Stars, and Sculpture by Nikos.

However, the last three also received less than glowing reviews from some major retailers.

Among recent launches, Calvin Klein's Eternity, Thierry Mugler's Angel, L'Eau d'Issey by Issey Miyake and Jean Paul Gaultier seemed to be doing well.

While Cacharel's Eden has not performed well on the whole, the most powerful French perfumery chain, Sephora, reported that the scent had done well in its 50 stores.

Champagne is not doing as well as last Christmas, and in most cases it ranks only as YSL's third strongest scent, but retailers were quick to point out that last year's court case, which forced the company to drop the name Champagne in France, made comparisons unfair.

In the U.K., standouts in women's fragrances included Sun Moon Stars, which was given its own promotional site at Selfridges during Christmas because of its strong performance.British retailers also cited Gianni Versace's Red Jeans and Blue Jeans, which they said have a clever marketing concept and great value at $31.38 (19.99 pounds) apiece.

Retailers also praised Ricci's Deci Dela; XS Pour Elle from Paco Rabanne, which has lifted the sales of the XS men's fragrance; Angel; Wings from Giorgio Beverly Hills; Elizabeth Arden's Sunflowers, and Christian Dior's Tendre Poison.

"[Tendre Poison] has outperformed expectations," said Janet Saunders, fragrance buyer at the 56-store chain House of Fraser. "They have done an excellent marketing job."

Some of the same names surfaced in Germany, but bestsellers also included Laura by Laura Biagiotti and Chopard's Heaven, which some said was showing promise.

Tocade was not so strong in Italy. In addition to the solid showing by Versace Jeans, Dolce & Gabanna was still performing. Most said Eden had not been very strong.

--Sarah Raper, with contributions from James Fallon, London; Luisa Zargani, Sarah Raper, with contributions from James Fallon, London; Luisa Zargani, Milan, and Melissa Dreier, Berlin.

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