By and  on September 9, 1994

LOS ANGELES

What's the deal with salespeople at men's fragrance counters?

I went to three different department stores in the west part of Los Angeles in search of the ultimate in men's scents, and found only one worthy salesperson.

The others I encountered, sad to say, were distinctly lacking in customer-service skills.

I started off at Robinson's-May at Westside Pavilion. When I approached the counter, no one was there, so I lurked around and sampled the different fragrances.

Finally a sales associate noticed my presence and offered her assistance. I explained to her that I was looking for a gift for my cousin, who's 22, and I didn't know where to begin. I asked if she could offer advice as to what the "in" fragrances were.

"Halston's Catalyst is very popular," she explained. "I've sold two bottles in the last 20 minutes, and this gentleman," she said, pointing to another customer, "is about to purchase one."

Then she sprayed a sample card and gave it to me. She also suggested XS by Paco Rabanne and Ralph Lauren's Polo Sport, and gave me samples of those.

Other customers were coming to the counter, and as she realized I wasn't a sure sale, she ditched me to help them, calling over her shoulder that Calvin Klein's Escape was always a safe bet.

Not satisfied with the feedback at Robinson's, I hauled my cookies to Nordstrom, figuring its reputation for service would mean it would be helpful in my quest. Not the case.

When I walked up to the counter, three salespeople were engaged in conversation, deeply involved in some gossip as far as I could tell, and they didn't even notice my presence.

I'm not a pushy person, so I just walked back and forth along the counter, hoping they'd notice me before I had to request assistance. On my third pass, one of them asked if I needed help.

Again I explained I was shopping for my cousin's birthday and needed suggestions for a good fragrance. Seemingly restless, the saleswoman hurried over to the Nautica display."Nautica is a very nice fragrance for young men," she said. "They're buying this a lot. And right now there is a gift-with-purchase."

Suspicious that she was only promoting Nautica because of the gift, I asked about other possibilities. Sighing, she recommended Davidoff's Cool Water, but then continued to push Nautica on me, saying that the added promotional offer would make it an especially nice gift.

I thanked her for her help and said I'd have to think about it. I walked away feeling I was a burdensome customer and surprised that it was Nordstrom, of all places, that made me feel that way.

I was determined, though. I was on a mission and wasn't about to give up after two bad experiences. And after all, third time's the charm, right?

Luckily, it was. A salesperson at Beverly Center's Broadway was much better. She was enthusiastic and eager to help. I told her I was looking for gifts for my cousin and my dad, to get an idea for both age groups.

"What does your dad do?" she asked. I told her he was in sales. "So he's conservative...?" she continued, and when I confirmed it, she said, "Safari is great if he's conservative and so is Escape. Escape is softer; it's not as strong. A lot of customers like it."

When I asked her opinion for my cousin, she suggested Polo Sport. Big surprise. There was a huge Polo Sport promotion going on with music, dancers and sample beverages from a juicer.

All the men's fragrance associates were wearing Polo Sport T-shirts and there were displays all over the store. Despite all this, she insisted the important fact was that it was a good fragrance.

"It's new, it's Ralph Lauren and it's really good for people in their twenties," she said. "I just bought some for my boyfriend and he's 24."

She also offered Cool Water for my cousin, saying many younger guys like it. But in any case, it seems Polo Sport is the new hot fragrance. I liked it, too -- it's not too intense.I felt the same way about Cool Water. It smelled good and wasn't overbearing. Of course, it's a matter of opinion, and mine has not been given the proper opportunity to form.

CHICAGO

My fiancé has worn Perry Ellis cologne since before we started dating five years ago, and even though I love the scent, I wanted to give him a new fragrance for his birthday.

At Marshall Field's on State Street, I walked around the men's fragrance bar checking out what brands were available. A male consultant wearing a Halston's Catalyst apron approached me and asked, "Do you want to try something new?"

"Yes," I said.

He sprayed Catalyst on a card, handed it to me and watched me as I smelled it, waiting for my reaction.

I found the scent a bit overpowering; it left me wanting fresh air.

"How new is it?" I asked.

"Oh, just two days," he said.

After I stepped over to look at the Catalyst counter display, a consultant peeked his head out from behind the counter and said, "This is a great deal," pointing to the three test-tubes sitting in a metal holder. "It's a clean scent. It's brand new. We've had it five days."

Oh really, I thought.

He explained what each 1.7-oz., test-tube-shaped bottle was: an eau de toilette, an aftershave lotion that "needs to be shaken up before use so the moisturizer mixes in" and a protective moisture complex. It was a great price for $42.50, regularly $67.50.

Only impressed by the packaging and the price, I thanked him. While leaving, a female Catalyst consultant grabbed a male customer, took him over to the display and said with no other explanation, "It's a great deal for $42.50."

I decided to try my luck at Carson Pirie Scott down the street. I wandered the men's fragrance area for a few minutes, searching for anything new, when finally a sales associate came around the corner and asked me what I needed.

After I told her, she suggested Byblos, noting that it was a citrus scent, and walked to help a man who had just approached the counter.While waiting for her to finish, I went over to the display of Paloma Picasso's Minotaure and smelled the card. Not even the free canvas travel gift kit could entice me.

I put the card back and walked back to the Byblos bottles in the glass case, wondering what the prices were.

The saleswoman returned with the Minotaure card, asking, "What about this?"

"No thanks," I said, "I tried it."

She could tell I wasn't impressed and came up with Davidoff's Cool Water, which wasn't to my taste, and Bob Mackie, which she sprayed on a receipt, saying, "He's a designer."

I asked her the price of a 1.7-oz. Byblos eau de toilette. After misquoting to me a price of $34, she checked the box and said it was actually $36.

By this time, I had realized Perry Ellis would remain the one and only, and since my fiancé has plenty in stock, I headed for the men's department to buy him a new shirt instead.

DALLAS

The men's fragrance department at Foley's in Preston Center here has a cozy, snug home, wedged between men's shirts and women's shoes.

It reminded me of Grandmother's house -- slightly stuffed and cluttered, but inviting nonetheless.

The older, jovial saleswoman working the horseshoe-shaped department added to the charm. And she proved a fount of knowledge when I asked for suggestions on a late-summer fragrance.

"I like to smell clean and I can't stand citrus scents," I explained. "Nothing too emotional, either. Less is always more."

She suggested Colours by Alexander Julian, which I found light and unassuming.

"With any $25 Colours purchase, you'll get a free watch," she said. "We have a 1.7-oz. splash for $25 and a 3.4-oz. cologne spray for $38.50."

The watch was very sporty, much like the fragrance. But a sporty watch I don't need, and I asked to hear about other fragrances.

"If you're that much into the classics, there's always Polo by Ralph Lauren," she said. "How do you like it?"Actually, Polo is my favorite men's fragrance, even though it smells vaguely medicinal -- kind of like Mentholatum.

"I received two bottles of Polo this past Christmas, and I've still got one left -- I only wear cologne occasionally," I explained. "I'm in the mood for something different."

"Then I won't suggest Aramis if you want to experiment," she said with a slight laugh. "It's about as classic as you can get."

With the counter between us, we both stood silently for about 30 seconds as we scanned the other brands.

"You said nothing too emotional, but how about a touch of passion?" she asked. "Have you tried Chanel's Egoiste? It's very sophisticated, but is very distinctive."

The dramatic television ads touting the fragrance immediately came to mind -- urgent voices chanting, "Egoiste! Egoiste!"

Would I want that much attention? Should I even risk smelling it? I decided to be daring.

I found Egoiste slightly intoxicating and sweet and the price too steep -- $55 for 3.4-oz. spray.

"It's just too strong," I said. "I don't want to leave a fragrance trail. I just hate that."

"Like most fragrance companies, the move is away from the heavy and overpowering. And Chanel is certainly no exception," she replied. "Now that you've tried the original Egoiste, try the new Platinum Egoiste. It's much lighter. It's kind of like Eternity."

She was right. Platinum Egoiste was decidedly more crisp and clean. But I still felt my eyes starting to water as I sniffed the fragrance, which, alas, is priced comparatively to the original version.

"You must have allergies if you're tearing," she said sympathetically. "I have a friend with the same problem."

"Not only that, but I tend to get headaches from many fragrances," I added.

"What do you normally wear then?" she inquired.

"As I said earlier, I usually don't wear fragrances," I explained. "Instead, I prefer to use a slightly scented soap that's very subtle. I have an avocado soap made in Germany that I'm crazy about.""Well, we do have scented soaps from many of the vendors I've told you about. Would you be interested in seeing them?" she asked.

"I think I'll stick with what I've got," I said, as I thanked her for her time and departed the store.

ATLANTA

What do you buy for the man who has everything? Fragrance, of course.

With that thought in mind, I headed to the local shopper's paradise, Lenox Square, to find a new scent for my boyfriend's upcoming birthday.

My first stop was Macy's, where I wandered around the cosmetics and fragrance department until a saleswoman was kind enough to show me where the men's department was located.

"That's where you'll find the best selection of men's fragrances," she said.

Yes, I thought, that does make perfect sense. I headed to the men's section. Once there I was greeted by a smiling salesman who immediately asked if he could be of assistance. I told him that my friend's birthday was coming up, and I wanted to get him some new cologne.

"What does he wear now?" he asked. I confessed that I wasn't really sure, but that I had seen a bottle of Polo on his dresser once.

"But I want to, well, branch him out," I said. "Make him try something different."

"Great," he said. "Have you ever smelled this?" He picked up a bottle of Safari and sprayed a tissue. "We find that most Polo customers like to stay with Ralph Lauren fragrances, just moving within the line for diversity."

I agreed the Safari did smell nice, and followed him over to another counter where he grabbed a bottle of Ralph Lauren's Polo Sport.

"This is his newest scent and it's already a bestseller. The Sport is lighter than Safari, more of a citrus smell, and it contains a touch of seaweed," he continued.

The Polo Sport was definitely more citrusy, though overall not quite to my taste. "Lemony," was my polite but unenthusiastic response.

The salesman, sensing my uncertainty, moved back to the display counter where he proceeded to show me the combination gift packs that were available with Polo Sport.There were several variations to choose from: The scent was packaged with a frisbee and either a soap, a deodorant or a bottle of self-tanning cream.

The combination packs seemed to average around $55. Individually, the Polo Sport was $35 for 2.5 ounces and $45 for 4.2 ounces.

I still wasn't sold on Polo Sport, and pressed the salesman to show me something else.

"Well, Safari sells for $28.50 for 1.7 ounces, but you will get a free gift if you spend over $35, like if you were to buy the 2.5-oz. bottle for $40," he suggested.

I told him I'd think it over, but asked if there were any hot new fragrances that were not made by Ralph Lauren.

"Oh, of course," he told me, leading me to a large Hugo Boss display. "This Hugo Boss fragrance, Elements, is so new, I bet he hasn't even heard of it yet," he said, handing me a scented card to smell.

"Mmmm!" was my reaction. Elements was clean and fresh, and I told the salesman that I thought I might like it better than the others, but I wanted some time to consider.

"Good idea," he agreed. He took my fragrance cards and carefully printed the prices of each on the back. "Please come back and see me when you make up your mind."

Overall, I was very impressed with the salesman. He was knowledgeable and helpful, but never pushy. As I left Macy's, I decided to wander through Rich's to see if there was any interesting promotional activity there.

In the Rich's men's department, I was quickly approached by an unsmiling saleswoman. "Can I assist you in finding a particular fragrance?" she asked.

I told her I was looking for something new and exciting for my boyfriend. She walked behind the counter and pointed to a bottle of Chanel's Egoiste. "This is Chanel's newest for men. It has been quite a popular scent for us," she said.

I had heard of Egoiste, and I was certain it wasn't very new, but decided to give it a chance. I tried to smell the bottle, and finally had to ask the saleswoman to spray a card for me. She slowly obliged, handed me a wet Rich's card and waited for my reaction."It's nice." She nodded.

"How much is your smallest bottle?" I asked.

She reached under the counter. "Forty dollars," she said.

It was apparent that she didn't plan to show me anything else, so I asked her if she had any other suggestions.

"Well, this is our newest fragrance," she said, pointing to the bottle of Egoiste. "But we do well with Ralph Lauren's Safari and his latest scent, Polo Sport, too."

She sprayed two cards for me to smell, but then moved back behind the Egoiste display.

I liked Egoiste, but I was not particularly impressed with the saleswoman. Although I admit that being shown too many fragrances is confusing, this saleswoman frustrated me by not showing me enough.

I thanked her for her time, and decided that when I made up my mind, I would return to Macy's.

SEATTLE

At 9:30 on a Monday morning, the Bellevue Square shopping mall was just waking up; so were some of the fragrance salespeople.

My first stop was J.C. Penney, where a couple of saleswomen looked up from what might have been an inventory sheet to notice that a man had invaded the fragrance area.

"Where are the men's fragrances," I asked. One attractive, nicely dressed woman pointed to a nearby counter and then went over to meet me there.

"Do you know what you want to buy?" she asked.

"No," I replied. "I just wanted to see what's new."

"New?" she answered, as surprised as she would have been if I had asked her to name the capital of North Dakota. After looking around the counter for a couple of beats, she pointed to Baryshnikov and Samba Nova Pour Homme.

"These two are pretty new. Baryshnikov is good," she said, as she handed me the eau de toilette spray bottle. As I held it for a moment, I quickly realized that if any spraying was going to happen, I was the one who was going to do it.I asked her for a scent strip and sprayed Baryshnikov onto it. I sniffed it and considered it. Silence. No sales pitch was forthcoming. I offered her a whiff.

"It smells like tea to me," she offered.

Things didn't get much better. I tried Samba Nova, and then she mentioned Chanel Pour Homme and Lagerfeld Photo as other possibilities.

As a customer, I felt she was friendly and sincere, but she didn't have the depth of product knowledge that would have been required to sell me something.

My next stop was The Bon Marché. As I entered the fragrance department, a saleswoman immediately noticed me and greeted me.

"I want to see what's new and exciting," I said.

"What's new and exciting," she repeated, as she considered the request.

"There's not that much that's exciting. The newest one is called Horizon. It will be launched in a week. We don't even have it in yet. XS by Paco Rabanne is fairly new," she said, as she picked up a spray bottle. "Do you know Egoiste by Chanel?"

"I've heard of it."

"It's very nice," she assured me. Over the next few minutes, I tried XS, Jil Sander, Safari and Gendarme. She was knowledgeable in a general sort of way. For example, she described XS as "really fresh and clean, like you just got out of the shower."

I asked if any scents came with a gift.

"I have a soccer ball, which is a gift with purchase with Polo Sport," she said. "It's one of our newest fragrances and it's really clean smelling."

Later that day, I visited the Nordstrom flagship store in downtown Seattle, where a smiling woman came up to me immediately.

"I just wanted to see what's new and exciting for men," I said. "I've got a birthday coming up, and I thought I'd do some advance scouting for my wife, so I could tell her what to buy me."

She thought for a second and said, "We have Platinum Egoiste for men, which is quite nice." She sprayed some onto a scent strip. "A couple of years ago, Chanel came out with Egoiste. This one is new and much lighter."I told her that I often go for long periods of time without wearing any scent.

"Because it's your birthday, you know what's really nice? Boucheron. This is a worthy birthday present," she said with good humor as she handed me a scent strip. "This is very nice. It's citrusy. We also have some lighter, mellower fragrances, like Escape for Men."

She searched for samples of the eau de toilette but was unable to find any. So, improvising, she found two cotton balls and sprayed one with Egoiste Platinum and the other with Boucheron.

She put each one in a separate coin-sized sample compact, labeled each and handed them to me, along with a sample of the Boucheron eau de parfum.

"Here is my card," she said, sending me on my way. "Call me if you need any help."

NEW ORLEANS

It was a half-hour from closing time on a sticky and sultry late summer evening here, and like everyone, the sales associates at Saks Fifth Avenue's fragrance bar were ready to call it a day.

Ambling into the store with a casual reference to "what's new?" may not be an especially inspiring query -- and it received an equally uninspired response. But more about that later.

The men's fragrance bar at Saks is roughly a 20-foot-long, L-shaped counter extending from the women's fragrance bar toward the "down" escalator. Kitty-corner to the cosmetics department and adjacent to women's apparel, it's a men's oasis in an area catering to women.

Atop the glass counter, stacks of cards are arranged in neat piles. There's one for Parfums Cartier, another for Tuscany Per Uomo.

Pasha de Cartier has a towering presence in a Plexiglas display filled with several options. More space is devoted to Ralph Lauren's Safari and Calvin Klein's Eternity.

Crowded into a tray of fragrance samples, the tops of bottles of Escape and Escada can be seen above the rest.

I have ample time to observe all this because the two sales associates in view are, in turn, viewing me with some trepidation.Eventually, the taller of the two makes her way toward me. "Can I help you?" she asks.

When I say I'm looking for something new and different for men, she gives me two choices.

"We have the Creed, which is real nice. It's only in 100 stores in the United States," she says, pointing to an impressive gilded display for Creed anchoring the far end of the counter. "And we have the Cartier fragrances. They are wonderful, and they are our top fragrances."

"Creed," I repeat slowly, never having heard of it and trying to focus on the name of my first option. "Do you have any samples of Creed?"

The sales associate turns without a word and disappears around the counter, leaving me in front of Creed's six-bottle sample array framed in a mirrored display. A few minutes later she returns with a vial of Creed's Zeste Mandarine Pamplemousse.

By now I'm looking at the Tiffany for Men's display of a paisley bag and dopp kit, but I hesitate to look inside. Before she leaves, I ask idly if it is a gift-with-purchase.

She blinks, and takes a step back in my direction. "It's a straight purchase and sells for $70," she offers, as I stand there struggling to figure out what's inside.

Realizing I probably have little psychic ability, she attempts to bail me out. "It has the cologne and an aftershave," she says. Without too much prompting, she adds that the paisley bag contains a 3.5-oz. soap and a 1.7-oz. cologne spray.

The hour is getting late, and she has every right to be losing patience, but I press on. "Do you have any gifts-with-purchase?" I ask. "In what?" she wants to know. "In men's fragrance," I spell out.

"I'm not sure," she responds with a blank glance at another sales associate standing nearby. Her colleague shakes her head in the negative.

My next question about what may be coming out in the fall for men provokes little response. "No launches?" I ask.At this point the tall sales associate has retreated behind the counter, leaving her colleague stranded with me.

"Not yet. We have a launch coming up for women, and they're talking about Donna Karen for Men, but that's not definite," she says summarily.

In the background, I can hear people wishing one another a good night, but I'm still in a shopping mode and, by my watch, it's 10 minutes until closing.

"Is there anything new from the spring or summer?" I ask, adding by way of explanation that I'm shopping for gifts.

"Catalyst" is her one word response. "Catalyst?" I repeat.

She points to a large bottle sitting on a small stand in the middle of the counter. As if to underscore her advice, a poster-size promotional sign at the bottom of the "up" escalator alerts shoppers who may have missed the Halston fragrance: "Exclusively ours," the sign boasts, and continues to describe the fragrance as one which "empowers men with intense irresistible chemistry."

All this for a price range of $30 to $47.50, I think to myself, is not a bad bargain.

Into the nearly deserted area strolls a thirtysomething man, meticulously dressed in a gray suit. Lifting his brown briefcase to rest it on the counter, he stops at the Boucheron display. The one sales associate left in the area approaches him. Eavesdropping, I can hear he is trying to get a fix on a new fragrance. His girlfriend has hinted that his aftershave is too strong.

The sales associate expresses some sympathy and suggests he try Pasha. "It's the top of the line and our most popular," she urges.

But if I had been a tough customer, this one is no soft sell, either. "You know, I wonder about getting a scent that is characterized as 'the most popular.' To me, that means that everyone is wearing it and it isn't very distinctive," he observes.

As I circle the department, he continues asking questions and she seems indefatigable in her answers. Finally, in response to a question he asks, the two move across the aisle to the Estée Lauder counter. A few moments later, she is ringing up a sale for him.Not exactly on the men's fragrance side of the ledger, but a sale nonetheless, with endless prospects down the road, because this man is now one informed consumer.

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