NEW YORK — Beauty is in the process of finding out if the stars are in alignment — at retail, that is.

The first wave of this season’s new celebrity fragrances and multimillion-dollar star-powered ad campaigns are hitting the market now, as are several long-awaited designer offerings. And if early indications are any barometer, the news is hopeful, say top North American beauty retailers.

As a whole, the fragrance category in U.S. department stores rose 1 percent in dollar sales for the first half of the year, reaching a total volume of $1.05 billion, according to NPD Beauty, a division of The NPD Group, a market information company. That’s compared with a 4 percent slide in the first half of 2003.

But while things may be improving in single-unit sales, sets aren’t necessarily the blockbusters they once were. In the first half of 2004, sales volume of purchase-with-purchase sets decreased 3 percent to $25 million, the firm added.

Still, many retailers are optimistic — despite hurricanes, earthquakes and even pending volcanic eruptions. Thia Breen, executive vice president of cosmetics for the Federated Merchandising Division, is bullish on the current market trends, noting that they bode well for the fourth quarter of this year. Although the hurricanes in Florida — all of which took place over weekends, Breen wryly observed — didn’t help Florida business, sales were strong elsewhere in the U.S.

“With all of the launch activity, we’ve seen an increase in business and in the velocity of the business,” Breen said. “Britney [Curious Britney Spears, the singer’s first scent] is just unbelievable — the business has been outstanding. Certainly her name has a tremendous pull, but it is on an adorable bottle with a great juice. It’s drawing consumers on a lot of levels. True Star [Beyoncé Knowles’ effort with Tommy Hilfiger Toiletries] has been a good fragrance for us; there is still a lot of marketing to come on that, too.”

Eternity Moment — the new Unilever Calvin Klein scent for which Scarlett Johansson is the face — is currently in Macy’s West and expanding elsewhere in the Federated chain, and is showing strong sales where it is, said Breen.

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