By and  on December 17, 2004

NEW YORK — What’s in a name? If you’re a prestige fragrance retailer, it’s your last hope.

Stores in the U.S. and Canada are praying mightily that this season’s celebrity fragrances will continue to sparkle at retail. But even if they do, the best they could hope for would be sales that are flat to very slightly up for Christmas, once the two extra selling days are added in.

That glimmer of hope isn’t completely without merit. According to Maria Ianni, beauty account manager for NPD Beauty, a division of The NPD Group, market information company, over the past eight years December has accounted for as much as 30 percent of yearly fragrance sales — in both the men’s and women’s categories.

And while this fall’s fragrance sales have been pretty much flat to slightly down across the board, “fragrance sales tend to depend on the week before Christmas and the week of Christmas,” said Ianni. “December’s sales will ultimately determine year-end results, and could mean the difference of a virtually flat or slightly positive year versus a declining fragrance market at yearend.”

One influential department store retailer, speaking not for attribution, said a great deal is riding on the two extra selling days. “We are all praying for flat,” the executive asserted.

Those last-minute shoppers have no shortage of new scents to choose from. Already topping the charts are  Curious Britney Spears, Donald Trump’s eponymous men’s fragrance, Prada’s new women’s scent and Donna Karan Cosmetics’ Be Delicious. A few of the classics are also cleaning up — most notably, the iconic Chanel No.5 — buoyed by luminous new advertising starring Nicole Kidman — and Christmas stalwarts Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds and Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio.

“As the year is quickly drawing toward an end, price increases, along with new launches, will minimize downward performance,” predicted NPD’s Ianni. “Increased competition will result in continued trends such as celebrities and spokesmodels, niche launches, limited editions, flankers, personalized scents, and promotional activity, to name a few. Signs point to a December similar to 2003, indicating a possibly flat yearend for women’s, while men’s may be hit harder, posting a decline from a year ago.”    To some retailers, one of the biggest surprises is the enormous success of Curious Britney Spears. But while the public may never know what to expect next from pop princess Spears, the retailers carrying her fragrance say they do: big sales.

“Curious Britney Spears will be our number-one launch for the fall season and, without a doubt, potentially one of the biggest launches we’ve had with any fragrance, period,” said Debbie Murtha, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of cosmetics and fragrances for the May Co., in a statement.

“It’s been incredible,” agreed Thia Breen, executive vice president of cosmetics for the Federated Merchandising Division. “With a fragrance that opens that big, you’re always worried about it holding up through the holidays. But we have no worries with this one. It’s doing absolutely incredible business.”

Donna Karan Cosmetics’ Be Delicious has been another “tremendous” launch for Breen, and also ranking at the top of her charts are Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio, Kenneth Cole Reaction for Men, Chanel No.5 and both the men’s and women’s versions of Burberry Brit. Lauren Style from Ralph Lauren Fragrances, as well as True Star, the Tommy Hilfiger scent that is headlined by Beyoncé Knowles. Donald Trump The Fragrance is just hitting wide distribution in Federated doors, but “it is doing terrific business in all the doors it’s in,” Breen says.

In Federated doors, basic business is outstripping gift-set sales, although Breen expects the gift-set trend to pick up in the days immediately before Christmas. “Two additional days [as compared with last Christmas] before Christmas are going to swing the trend dramatically,” she said. “While it’s too soon to predict exactly how Christmas will shake out, all the indicators are there that we will finish strong.”

In fact, most retailers are liberally using that most hated of phrases: “cautiously optimistic.”

“Based on sales to date, I think we’ll end the holiday season up in the mid- to high-single digits,” said Dave Steiner, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for cosmetics and fragrances at Marshall Field’s. Men’s fragrance sales for the retailer got a big boost last week from a personal appearance by business titan Donald Trump, who racked up close to $32,000 in sales of his scent during a visit to Field’s State Street store in Chicago. The scent ranked number one for the week, said Steiner.“Those categories that were strong going into the holiday season are continuing that way,” said Howard Kreitzman, vice president and dmm, cosmetics, at Bloomingdale’s. Among the fragrance brands trending well at Bloomingdale’s: Prada, Be Delicious, Narciso Rodriguez and Burberry Brit for Men. Kiehl’s new installation at the retailer’s 59th Street flagship is also doing very well, he said.

“The impact of the additional days prior to the holiday is not as predictable as we’d hoped,” Kreitzman added. “Still, we are hopeful that we will end the holidays on a positive note.”

When asked what side of zero the fragrance category will end up on for December, Jon Pollack, executive vice president and gmm at Belk, said, “We think we’re going to be on the plus side in women’s fragrances.”

 Pollack is optimistic that the women’s category could be up in the high-single digits, while the men’s category, he said, could break even.

“In terms of outstanding performance thus far,” said Pollack, “the Chanel franchise has been extraordinary, and the new [Nicole Kidman] marketing campaign has been very impactful.” Pollack also is seeing good results from Curious Britney Spears, Lauren Style, Be Delicious, True Star and Realities by Liz Claiborne Cosmetics. Of existing scents, Pollack has seen strength from Donna Karan’s Cashmere Mist. “Sets, too have helped drive the early business,” said Pollack.

On the men’s side, Pollack noted, Belk is “not anniversarying [the] very strong, powerful launch numbers [from] last fall. Beyond Paradise for Men is the big winner in terms of newness for this fall,” he said. “Acqua di Gio is very strong, on the men’s side, as is Liz Claiborne’s Curve and Ralph Lauren’s Romance.”

“We’re very encouraged with our sales and expect to have another record high season,” added Betsy Olum, senior vice president of marketing for Sephora. Fragrance, in particular, has been a strong point for the retailer. Olum cited fragrance launches like Prada and Be Delicious as strong sellers, as well as Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, a more established offering. Sephora continues to have success with brands such as Dior, Philosophy, Smashbox and GoSmile for holiday, while sales for items like gift sets have also been very strong, according to Olum. Claudia Lucas, senior vice president and gmm of beauty for Henri Bendel, noted that the Bendel’s collection of candles, fine fragrance and home fragrance, now housed in a separate section on the ground floor, has been particularly successful.

Other strong performers, according to Lucas, have been MAC, Trish McEvoy and Laura Mercier. “Color has been strong, and there’s been growth in skin care with Rodan & Fields and Freeze 24-7,” she said. Lucas also noted that classic fragrance lines, such as Annick Goutal and Comptoir Sud Pacifique, have been selling well, and she attributed much of the success to a recent change in strategy: doing away with heavy discounting, and focusing on the quality of the “customer’s experience” instead. “Last year, we did some events that involved discounting in the eight weeks prior to holiday,” she said. “This year, we feel that we can entertain our customer without discounting.”

“Right now, we’re in really good shape, but I always hold my breath until the end, because you never know what will happen,” said Shelley Rozenwald, senior vice president of cosmetics, skin care, fragrance and beauty services at Holt Renfrew.

Earlier in December, Rozenwald said, fragrance was up in the high-single digits, and she was hoping to end up with double-digit increases in fragrance overall.

“We just introduced Prada, and we’re expecting huge numbers from that,” she said. Additionally, “Jo Malone has some fantastic novelty items; we’re doing very well with [Jessica Simpson’s] Dessert and Eau de Soir from Sisley. People are looking for luxury or novelty.” She added that of the fall launches, top performers include Be Delicious, Shanghai and Blush by Marc Jacobs.

Rozenwald also noted that value is key: “We’re doing huge numbers with sets,” she said.

“Business has been very good, particularly in fragrance — brands like Frederic Malle, Carthusia and Serge Lutens are doing very well,” said Bettina O’Neill, vice president and dmm of cosmetics for Barneys New York. Other notables, according to O’Neill, include Chanel’s No.5 Elixir and candles from Burn, a company started by the founder and creative director of The Studio at Fred Segal, Robin Coe-Hutshing. O’Neill noted that Barneys has had “very high double-digit increases” for the holiday season. “Fragrance in the past has been more challenging, but I think our strategy has been to focus on things that are more limited,” she said.“Although it’s still early, we’re experiencing our biggest gains out of treatment lines,” said Muriel Gonzalez, senior vice president and gmm at Bergdorf Goodman. In particular, said Gonzalez, La Mer, Tracie Martyn, Nature Bisse and Amore Pacific are strong.

On the fragrance front, the one new scent that Gonzalez was banking on, Prada, “is off to a tremendous start. I think that’s going to be the home run for us this Christmas.” Overall, Gonzalez said she expects beauty to be up in the single digits this year.

Coe-Hutshing calls Christmas “the final quarter in the most erratic year ever.”

“Any forecasting I’ve done is tantamount to betting on blackjack,” joked Coe-Hutshing, who turned serious when she predicted “a healthy holiday business — about even or slightly above last year” for her store.

The home fragrance category is doing well for Coe-Hutshing, especially Allora, Burn, Anthusia and Agraria. Other strong sellers include Rare holiday candles from Burn, Coe-Hutshing’s candle line; Stephane Marais cosmetics; The Different Company perfumes; Hotel Costes fragrances; Le Bain de Marais and Forest.

“Knock on wood — no disappointments,” said Coe-Hutshing. “But it will be very interesting to see how the season plays out.”

— With contributions from Bryn Kenny and Dana Wood

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