In February, perfumer David Moltz, founder of Brooklyn-based D.S. & Durga, was selling a lot of fine fragrance.
Candles and ancillary products like hand soaps and body lotions were a nice-to-have, not need-to-have, part of the business, making up less than a quarter of the brand’s total sales.
A lot has changed in one month. Coronavirus-induced lockdowns have left most consumers confined to their homes, and demand for candles and home fragrance has skyrocketed.
For D.S. & Durga, home fragrance sales on the brand’s e-commerce site have tripled in the last month, and doubled through its wholesale accounts with retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks.
The surge in sales dates back to mid-March, when “the s–t really hit the fan,” in New York, with businesses shuttering and people self-isolating, said Moltz.
“Everyone wants to be cozy,” he said. “We’re selling through our inventory and it’s going super-rapid right now.”
With nonessential retailers like Sephora, Ulta Beauty and department stores shut down and operating online only, total prestige beauty sales were down 58 percent in March, according to data from The NPD Group.
Despite the sharp decline, there are some bright spots, and home fragrance is one of them. Home ancillary gift sets — essentially, candle sets — were up 6 percent this week.
“It doesn’t seem like much, but in a double-digit decline, that’s pretty impressive,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry adviser at The NPD Group. “It’s all about self-care and the home spa environment.”
She noted that candles are up not just in the U.S., but globally.
We have seen some changes with our mix of business, specifically in China where our home category has doubled,” said Jean-Guillaume Trottier, global brand president, Jo Malone London. “In our home market, the U.K., a third of our purchases are currently made in the home category.”
In the U.S., the home fragrance category, which includes candles, room sprays, diffusers and ancillary items like hand soap and lotion is small, but has been on a growth streak for the past few years. As consumers spend more time at home, that growth is set to accelerate.
“It was [previously] only a small portion of the fragrance business, but the home fragrance category during the pandemic is undoubtedly seeing major increases,” said Linda G. Levy, president of The Fragrance Foundation. “People are working from home and are interested in both cleanliness and creating a home environment where they want peace and escapism.”
Several brands echoed this sentiment, telling Beauty Inc they were experiencing unprecedented online orders, not just from wholesale accounts, but their direct business as well.
Maria Dempsey, chief executive officer of Nest New York, said the brand has seen a surge in online sales from both its own e-commerce site and retail partners such as Sephora and Nordstrom, noting a “dramatic shift” back to candles from diffusers, which had been more popular at the start of the year.
Sales of Nest’s triple-wick candles, which retail for $68, have more than doubled, said Dempsey, especially in the brand’s core scents such as Bamboo and Moroccan Amber. “What we’re hearing is that in this time of crisis, people are loving the ritual of lighting a candle,” said Dempsey.
Hand soaps and lotions are also up, she said.
“From that first week that Americans were working from home, we saw a massive spike,” said Eduardo Valdez, director of marketing and communications for Diptyque. “This is unlike anything you could imagine happening in our lifetime, and people are trying to differentiate between their work and home environment — scent is a really nice way to do that.
Similar to Nest, Diptyque is seeing increased demand for candles in its core scents, such as Baies, Tuberose, Feu de Bois and Ambre. “It’s definitely something that’s safe,” said Valdez. “During this time, [consumers] aren’t willing to take a risk on something they’re not quite sure about.”
With Diptyque stores closed, sales are coming mainly from the brand’s e-commerce site and its retailer accounts. The first initial rush on Diptyque’s web site was likely customers stocking up on replenishments, Valez said.
Most brands Beauty Inc spoke to agreed that online sales don’t begin to make up for brick-and-mortar business lost, but the consumer’s quick adaptation to online candle shopping is making them rethink direct e-commerce as a more important channel post-pandemic.
Lafco founder Jon Bresler was certain he wouldn’t get any traffic or orders on the brand’s web site during the citywide lockdowns. He has followed government mandate and closed his Brooklyn manufacturing facility, where he ships orders from, and even put a banner on the site’s home page announcing that all online orders would be held until the warehouse is able to reopen.
Still, consumers are ordering.
“We are still receiving a tremendous amount of orders,” said Bresler. “We thought the Internet site wouldn’t get any orders and we are getting more orders than we used to.”
Lafco sells direct through Amazon, where he said the brand’s Office candle and hand soaps and lotions are in high demand. He’s thinking about going to the warehouse this weekend and fulfilling himself orders for hand soaps and a new shipment to Bluemercury, which has sold out online of much of its inventory. “We have had a run on [bar] soap and liquid soap in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Bresler. “We’re thinking people really need this.”
The demand from lafco.com will have to wait, he said, because the volume is too high for him to fulfill alone.
“A whole portion of our business has come to a screeching halt, but we’ve seen on our web site over the past week has been above and beyond what we forecasted and even what we reforecasted a couple weeks ago,” said Casey Riley, brand director for Capri Blue at Curio Brands.
Capri Blue sells its home fragrance line in about 5,000 specialty boutiques and in Anthropologie, where its Volcano scent has become a cult hit. The brand recently expanded into home care with cleaning products, including laundry detergent, dish soap and a multisurface disinfectant.
The multisurface cleaner, launched in January, has already oversold, said Riley.
Lifestyle items are also doing well at Diptyque. The brand’s Hourglass Diffuser and, interestingly, a hair mist, are also in high demand, said Valdez.
The pandemic has altered how some fine fragrance brands, for which home fragrance was an insignificant portion of sales, will approach product development going forward.
At Nest, Dempsey is thinking about a new launch cadence, especially as consumers gravitate toward the brand’s core scented candles. “Newness is a risk,” she said. “Maybe [we take] smaller risks if we want to try a new fragrance and start with a limited amount and doing it only on our web site.”
Moltz has been “thinking about ways” his business can give back. In the short term, that means making hand-sanitizer through his Bronx manufacturer, and donating half the supply to New York-area hospitals.
“It will change what products we make,” said Moltz of the pandemic. “[We may be] pivoting to more cleaning products, candles, maybe less perfume launches — looking at what people really need.”
THE NEW CANDLE COMPETITORS:
While Diptyque, Nest and Jo Malone have historically ruled the home fragrance landscape, a new class of players is emerging in the candle category, giving Millennials options that home in on affordable luxury and clean ingredients.
Founded by former Ralph Lauren staffer Abigail Cook Stone, the idea for Otherland was born out of a desire for a sophisticated candle that wouldn’t break the bank. Otherland’s candles have quickly become a Millennial favorite and are sold direct through its web site, or on retailer accounts like Nordstrom.
Overrose candles combine luxury scent with sustainability — founder Matthieu Belhandouz worked briefly for Stella McCartney. The brand is said to follow a strict sourcing policy when it comes to ingredients, using only organic and natural oils. At $58 to $68 each, its candle prices rival that of Diptyque, but vessels in an array of bright and holographic colors serve as a differentiator.
MAISON LOUIS MARIE
Another Parisian import, Maison Louis Marie is a six-year-old brand quickly gaining traction in the U.S. for its affordable scents —$34 for a candle — and use of clean, botanical ingredients. The brand is sold online at Sephora.
Apotheke uses the power of Instagram to promote its $38 single-wick candles through an ambassador program. The Brooklyn-based brand sources its scents from essential oils.
Yet another French home fragrance line is making its way to the U.S. market. Kerzon’s Paris-inspired candles, $42 each, are made with biodegradable wax and are sold at Nordstrom. The greater line, sold in France, includes cleaning products such as laundry detergent.
D.S. & DURGA
The Brooklyn-based perfume house began selling candles last year. Big Sur After Rain, a popular fragrance from the brand, has become a top seller.