By and  on January 7, 2005

NEW YORK — A week before Christmas, the department store fragrance business was hanging on a hope and a prayer. And those prayers were answered — at the last minute. “I don’t know how much more last-minute the business could have gotten, short of customers not showing up at all,” said one department store executive.

The fragrance category, which had been dragging through negative numbers in mid-December, rallied on Dec. 23 and 24 to produce what is widely seen as a flat to slightly up December season. Salvation was provided by a handful of winners, both red-hot celebrity scents and the stalwart classics. 

Curious Britney Spears, launched in September, was the undisputed holiday winner among the celebrity entries, drawing unanimous praise from U.S. department store retailers. Perennial bestseller Chanel No.5, always a strong holiday draw, was further buoyed by a new advertising campaign featuring Nicole Kidman — and Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, released during the last star fragrance blitz in the Eighties, ranked in Federated Department Store Inc.’s top 10 for December. Classics such as Donna Karan Cosmetics’ Cashmere Mist, Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio Pour Homme, Estée Lauder’s Beautiful and Thierry Mugler’s Angel also proved that customers like what’s familiar.

The women’s fragrance market strongly outpaced the men’s fragrance market in December, something that surprised few executives; in general, the men’s market generates half the sales of the more robust women’s market. Still, over the past several years, sales on both sides of the scent aisle have been lackluster, despite a flood of newness that has threatened to consume existing favorites, not to mention other departments’ floor space.

A top department store executive, who wished to remain anonymous, noted that Chanel’s beauty business was “off the charts” chain-wide, while Curious Britney Spears, DKNY Be Delicious and Armani’s Acqua di Gio Pour Homme were “blockbusters for us.” That particular lineup of fragrances made the best-seller list of nearly every U.S. retail chain, in fact. The executive noted that Paris Hilton’s scent, on counter for less than a month, was also trending well in stores.

“Christmas was a cliff-hanger,” said Howard Kreitzman, vice president and divisional merchandise manager, cosmetics, for Bloomingdale’s. “The strength of the business in the final two days was significantly better than I expected, particularly on Christmas Eve. The 24th is always a shorter business day, but this year, in dollar volume, it produced close to as much business as the 23rd. That’s out of character. And we were a bit concerned about the week after Christmas, but it was nothing short of fabulous — it seemed like there was a lot of gift card redemption. Overall, the month ended far better than we thought it would.”

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