PARIS -- If anything could add a sweet note to La Crise -- as France's woeful economic conditions are referred to here -- the fragrance business just might do it.
Parisian retailers are saying that sales of scents are up slightly over last year, in spite of the lingering recession that is affecting all aspects of the luxury goods industry.
"Overall, the [fragrance] market is relatively stable," said Philippe Debernard, the owner of two perfumeries in Limoges that bear his name.
He is also the president of Preference Group, a prominent association of retailers who buy products together in bulk to save money.
"Although there's been a drop in buying power, you can still feel things stirring. It's moving a bit," he added.
In Debernard's case, "a bit" is around 4 percent -- about level with the other smaller perfumeries surveyed.
Department stores are posting similar gains, but retailers in that class of trade stress that they're working hard for every centime.
"We've taken a particularly aggressive and promotional stance" this year, said Karine Sanouellet, perfume buyer at Printemps, the Paris-based department store chain.
New promotions, including special displays and reduced-price offerings, are launched every two weeks "without stopping," she noted. "That's what has enabled us to have results."
Figures for March show a 2 percent sales increase, compared with the same month last year, Sanouellet said. Any slowdown in promotional pressure shows up quickly on the bottom line, she added.
"The minute there's a break in activity, sales fall fairly low," she said.
Sanouellet listed Chanel's No. 5, No. 19 and Coco, Thierry Mugler's Angel, Nuits Indiennes by Jean-Louis Scherrer and Yves Saint Laurent's Champagne as being among her store's bestsellers.
At Galeries Lafayette, sales figures are brighter -- gains so far have been around 10 percent, compared with last year -- but the store has also resorted to an avalanche of promotional activities to keep sales moving, according to Giselle Galea, perfume buyer for the chain.
Each month, new fragrance promotions and special sales go into place.Galea said Jean Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake's L'Eau d'Issey, Calvin Klein's Eternity and Angel were among the hottest scents at Galeries Lafayette.
Debernard said the best-selling scents at his stores include L'Eau d'Issey, Angel, Nuits Indiennes and Guerlain's Shalimar.
Another small chain, Silver Moon, with nine stores in Paris, has picked up the pace, launching monthly promotions in response to recessionary times, according to its director general, Marie-France Kergrohenn.
She listed Angel, L'Eau d'Issey, Gaultier, Eternity and Nuits Indiennes as bestsellers at Silver Moon.
While stores are intensifying efforts to draw in reluctant shoppers, the bad news is that the current economy is not all that is threatening French fragrance retailers.
The small, independent perfumeries in particular are facing murderous competition from discounters. New cut-rate chains, including Bernard Mariono, Friedman and Fiallo, seem to be cropping up all over France, the retailers noted.
The discounters are offering perfumes at vast savings over prices at traditional, more prestigious outlets.
"They sell practically at cost and we consider it unfair," Debernard said. "It's the equivalent of dumping."
As a result, hundreds of smaller perfume shops around the country have been forced to close in the last two years, he said. Such pressures have caused some retailers to lower prices, often considerably.
In fact, Printemps is in the midst of slashing prices on selected expensive products by as much as a whopping 30 percent throughout the chain, although the changes might not be permanent.
"We weren't the first to do this," Sanouellet said. "People are selling perfume now almost at cost and we have to be more aggressive."
Galeries Lafayette, however, has taken a different approach, according to Galea.
"We haven't systematically lowered prices," she said.
At the nine-story Marick perfumery chain, centered in Angers and Le Mans, customers are looking at prices as never before, according to Marie-Annick Choloux, the chain's managing director.
"People are looking for value," she said. "We're selling a lot of 30-ml. bottles now. We never did that before. People want the best quality-to-price ratio when they buy."Novelty also counts, she said, noting, "People love newness. They're very impressed by it."
Choloux noted that among the best-selling fragrances at Marick are Kenzo, Eden by Cacharel and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Galea of Galeries Lafayette pointed to three strong new trends.
Nautical scents, like L'Eau d'Issey, "which has a touch of iodine to it," are hot. Sweet scents, such as Angel, "which remind you of your favorite childhood foods," are also doing well, as is anything fruity, such as the new fragrance by Saint Laurent.
Since last fall, when a French court barred the use of Champagne as the product's name, this scent has been officially known as Yves Saint Laurent; informally, everyone seems to call it ex-Champagne.
With summer approaching, fresh scents are also a trend, according to Debernard. It's the time of year, he said, when women "go for fresh fragrances, which is why this year lots of lines have added new fresh ones for summer."
Most notably, these include Escada's EtÄ en Provence, which is being sold this year for a three-month period only. Last summer, the company introduced Chiffon Sorbet -- also a temporary product -- and did well with it, according to Debernard.
Other fresh scents that are doing well at his stores include Lalique's new summer eau de toilette Eau de Lalique, O de Lancome and Eau de Rochas.
Other buyers, including Galea of Galeries Lafayette, said they see great promise in the whole concept of a temporary fragrance.
"The game is fun and it'll continue," Galea said.
Another new arrival is Miss Arpels, an eau fraiche by Van Cleef & Arpels. Although just launched, sales of the fragrance are "promising," according to Kergrohenn of Silver Moon.
Debernard pointed out French women favor oriental fragrances -- rather than the "greener scents" preferred by Americans.
Another strong seller is Elizabeth Arden's Sunflowers, which was just launched in France.
"It's selling extremely well. My customers just like the fragrance," Debernard said.
This success is particularly impressive since, according to Debernard, "Elizabeth Arden's image in perfume is zero [in France]. It's been pretty bad for the last 10 to 15 years."Sanouellet of Printemps attributed Sunflowers' success in part to its lower price points.
"I think it's great to add lower prices," she said. "The product is well conceived and not very expensive. People are looking for newness and it's a very attractive buy."
As head of Preference, Debernard said he had trouble convincing other retailers here to move along with him to stock the scent."I had a lot of difficulty making my fellows take Sunflowers," he said, "but it's done well. It's tough because Arden has a bad name in France."
Mother's Day is celebrated later here -- on May 29 -- than it is in the U.S., and retailers said sales usually double for about a week. As in America, the holiday is second only to Christmas in terms of the bottom line.
Les Terianes, a perfumery chain and catalog operation that is part of the Lemperfumery franchise -- which also includes Marick perfumeries -- held a month-long "mother's festival," offering scents at special prices.
It is this kind of activity French fragrance retailers said they are counting on to see them through the lingering recession.
Kergrohenn of Silver Moon was cautiously optimistic. The recession is getting better, she said, "but very slowly. Let's just say that it's no longer getting worse."
Debernard pointed out perfume usually weathers economic downturns. He asserted, "Let's face it: We're a cheap luxury."
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