By  on October 3, 2008

Fragrance, just like color cosmetics and skin care before it, has blazed a virtual trail online.

During a panel called Fragrance Goes Digital, held at Firmenich on Sept. 25, participants detailed how a category that hinges on smell has found relevance on the Web. The panelists asserted that until computers can physically spritz scent from their hardware, as moderator and beauty expert Annemarie Iverson said jokingly, the Internet will serve as a brimming informational and social networking tool for fragrance aficionados. To that end, a number of efforts have emerged including Sniffapalooza.com and Osmoz.com, a fragrance hub created by Firmenich that includes an encyclopedia of 2,500 scents.

“Fragrance in a digital world is still difficult to fathom,” said Jake Nagel, senior artistic director, Firmenich North America. But he envisions a world where fragrance makers can interact with consumers through their mobile digital devices.

The NPD Group’s global industry analyst and vice president of beauty Karen Grant said, “You have to have both a bricks-and-mortar and Internet presence. People want to touch and smell the fragrance.” Grant noted that only about 10 percent of women buy beauty products online and of those who do, they are least likely to buy fragrance.

But that seems to be changing, albeit slowly. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom five years ago, people are buying fragrance online.

Vanessa Flynn, buyer for cosmetics-fragrance and intimate apparel for Saks Direct, said fragrance purchases account for 40 percent of her division’s sales. In fact, she continued, saksfifthavenue.com generates the second-highest fragrance sales for the retailer, behind Saks Fifth Avenue’s Manhattan store. The Web also allows the luxury department store to offer a breadth of ancillary products that aren’t available in its physical stores, said Flynn. Last December, the site began tucking fragrance samples into the packages it sends to customers. Flynn acknowledged Saks is not able to track the exact sales lift of the sampling programs, but said, “If we do consistent sampling, we will see a [sales] bump.” She added that the site’s average online customer is 40 years old, about five years younger than the typical Saks store customer, and has a slightly higher income then her bricks-and-mortar peer.

During the panel, talk also turned to fragrance trends, including celebrity fragrances, a category Saks does not carry. Panelist India-Jewel Jackson, Glam Media and Glam.com beauty editor, said readers of the site’s blogs are so intrigued by what scent a celebrity is wearing that she includes it in nearly every blog post she writes about a celebrity encounter. She forecasted that celebrity scents will continue to hold consumers’ attention.

Grant of NPD countered, “People will talk about celebrity fragrances, but they don’t necessarily buy them.” She added that sales in the segment slid 17 percent two years ago. “They might want to know what scent a celebrity is wearing, but that doesn’t mean they want to wear a scent with the celebrity’s name on it. A new fragrance is gone after 12 months, and with celebrity scents, they’re gone even faster,” said Grant. She noted that designer fragrances, which tend to have more longevity, continue to own the lion’s share of the market.

Nagel of Firmenich said Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers is a good example of celebrity brands progressing beyond the personality to a more viable concept. Each panelist agreed that conversations like this one now have a public forum online.

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