NEW YORK — Early mass fragrance results are looking cheery.

While ongoing softness in the mass fragrance market had moved retailers to cut back on their orders this season, movement during the post-Thanksgiving weekend period indicates holiday sales are expected to meet, if not exceed, last year.

According to Information Resources Inc., as of early November, retail fragrance sales were limping about 1 percent behind last year, an improvement from the spring when the women’s segment was down 3 percent. That accounting, however, does not include Wal-Mart volume, which reportedly is now representing as much as 35 to 40 percent of the market.

Wal-Mart did not speak directly to its fragrance business, but its Black Friday numbers, at $1.43 billion, were the highest ever for the queen of discount retailing, up from $1.25 billion last year. This season, Wal-Mart stocked its aisles with palettes of fragrance sets, including a large selection of designer offerings like Liz Claiborne’s Mambo and Calvin Klein’s Eternity.

"Wal-Mart has gotten everything matched together in the center aisle this year in the personal care section," explained Tony Wesley, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Dana Classic Perfumes, who was enthusiastic about the merchandising approach that also groups sets by price. "It looks much nicer than last year."

And Walgreens, noted as one of the best fragrance merchandisers among drugstores, is upbeat about the season, according to a company spokeswoman. At one New Jersey Walgreens, its display of stocking stuffers — mini sizes priced at $4.95 each or three for $10 — was nearly empty. The successful program has been offered for about five years, noted the spokeswoman. The chain had also segmented gifts sets onto two tables, one for gifts under $15, and another for gifts under $20, bringing back an aggressive pricing program initiated last year.

Target did little to promote its exclusive Sonia Kashuk scents, but expanded space by about nine feet to add fragrance sets, again a mix of designer and traditional brands. For its basic stock, it has been offering a price reduction on a handful of core brands like NaVy, The Healing Garden Waters and Club Med. Tagged with a "special value" sign, those items moved well in at least one New Jersey store.Because it has seen its fragrance sales rise due to the addition of a mini designer-fragrance program, CVS began offering limited-edition fragrances of its own last spring. For holiday, it has come back with two scents — Perennials True Desire and Passion Blossom. Each is priced at $14.99. The mix at CVS is also an array of designer and traditional gift sets, which are being merchandised not only on island displays, but along the tops of its HBA gondolas.

Still, it’s early in the game for the mass retailers. Echoing others in the mass market, which has become dependent on last-minute shoppers, "Our holiday season is really much closer to the holiday [Christmas]," said the Walgreens spokeswoman. "It’s too early to say."

At Coty Beauty, still the industry fragrance leader, president John Galantic said based on post-Thanksgiving weekend receipts, "It looks likes our sales are roughly in line with previous years."

Coty’s program this year was created to "have a balanced emphasis between our newer brands and the older classics," said Galantic. Thus there are efforts behind newer scents likes Adidas Moves, Healing Garden Waters Sheer Passion and classics like Jovan and Stetson. "We are expecting a very good Christmas and we have concentrated our media buy around Christmas to insure sell-through." He noted that Stetson is being backed by its biggest TV campaign in years.

Otherwise, Coty took pains to sharpen its gift set packaging to better compete with the influx of designer sets. "We are really going head to head with brand value and with diverted prestige brands. We have a class of mass [presentation] that has a very competitive look."

Wesley of Dana Classic said he was pleased with the initial post-Thanksgiving sales results and expects to end the year up over last season.

This season, Dana, which markets scents like Chantilly, Love’s Baby Soft, NaVy and Heaven Scent kept prices steady but "added value" to its gift sets. It is offering ancillaries like lip gloss or a solid stick perfume, rather than just lotions or gels. For Walgreens, Dana created boxes containing an electronic chip that plays music when crushed. And Dana and Coty added scratch-and-sniff stickers to help shoppers select scents.Mark Laracy, president of Parfums de Coeur, agreed that particularly in the mass market, the holiday fragrance business has gotten later and later.

"It is getting to the point that sales results on Black Friday are irrelevant." Particularly, he said, for its brands — like Bod Man and Body Fantansies — which appeal to more moderate income consumers. "They really shop close to need and in the real world, that boils down to 10 days to a week to a day or two before Christmas."

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