By  on June 10, 1994

NEW YORK -- The mass market fragrance business is developing a French accent.

Rather than commit the major investments needed to create new brands, several fragrance manufacturers are entering into agreements to oversee the U.S. distribution of scents from France.

Although many of the brands might get lost in the highly promotional and crowded department store arena, the firms are hoping the mass market, less cluttered of late, is ripe for a European invasion.

Several of the scents have matured overseas and their French owners are seeking a new life in America.

In addition, the mass market has been dry. Last year, with the exception of several items from Coty, few new scents were launched. Buyers for mass outlets are seeking something to fill the void.

Here are some of the details of the French immigration:

The Fragrance Market Group of Miami has acquired the U.S. distribution rights to the Jacques Bogart scents. The line includes Ted Lapidus, which has a worldwide volume of $40 million, and Bogart, with $22 million in worldwide sales.

Retailers such as Drug Emporium and F&M are already selling the items. FMG also distributes the European brands Ombre Rose and Maja.

French Fragrances Inc., also of Miami, has secured the North American rights to more than a dozen French scents, including Watt, Cafe and Quartz. Priced in the $7.99-to-$11.99 range, the items fit the niche between diverted prestige scents and knockoff brands.

Atlantis International Ltd. of West Hempstead, N.Y., is marketing Je Reviens, the lead brand from the House of Worth, in the mass market.

Art' Fleurs, men's and women's scents with prices in the $20-to-$30 range, will be on counters in August. The U.S. distributor for Art' Fleurs is European Creations, based in Oak Park, Mich.

Jean Philippe Fragrances signed an agreement with Parfums Molyneux and Parfums Weill three months ago to distribute their brands.

"There is a place in the market for well-known brands that can be sold at full margins and acquired on a direct basis," commented Bruce Elbilia, executive vice president for Jean Philippe.The marketers of these fragrances are banking on the fact that many prestige scents don't have the cachet they once enjoyed in the mass market.

Retailers said they have been loaded down with too many that don't sell, while not being able to get enough stock of the hot names, such as Estee Lauder's Beautiful.

"Customers are getting very upset when they can't buy a fragrance because it isn't in stock," said David Alfin, chief operating officer of FMG, referring to the inability of mass marketers to always procure the same prestige brands from buying period to buying period.

Retailers are also suffering from the weak margins generated by the prestige brands. Since the products are purchased through a third party, costs are paid to a middleman.

Directly supplied scents such as the items from France can bring in margins of 35 percent and up, compared with 20 percent or lower for diverted goods.

Despite the positive aspects, many chains aren't yet willing to shift their fragrance budgets to the French brands.

"The margins are better," admitted Penny Wade, category manager for cosmetics and fragrances at Harco Drug.

She said, however, that she isn't ready to make a commitment just yet.

"We're waiting to see what direction the designer fragrance [market] goes in before deciding," she added.

One buyer with a large supermarket chain said she doesn't think the fragrances will have drawing power.

"Fragrance is a tough category. I'm not taking anything on right now unless they are spending 'bazillions' in advertising," she said.

Since the new U.S. distributors for the French scents tend to be smaller firms, there is little or no advertising support, she noted.

Sheri Ralston, buyer for PayLess Drug Stores in Wilsonville, Ore., agreed that the French brands have several obstacles to overcome.

"The category is down and I don't know if these brands warrant a test. We don't want to tie up dollars and space if we don't think it will move," she explained. "Overall, it is just a tough market."

Buyers also expressed concern over whether Americans recognized the French names."I don't know if our customers know the House of Worth or Ted Lapidus," one buyer said.

Still, Alfin at FMG said he thinks the elevated sophistication level of today's mass market shoppers will fuel sales. He also said he is working on specialized promotions and displays to build name awareness.

"There is still a customer who shops Saks in the morning, but Eckerd at night," he said. "She knows these brands."

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