NEW ORLEANS — The quiet, cool and fragrant interior of a tiny perfume shop in the historic French Quarter here sits in stark contrast to the world outside its doors, where raucous street performers contribute to the circus-like atmosphere of Jackson Square.
The shop, Bourbon French Parfums, is an oasis, but its business is bottling the essence of New Orleans — a unique formula of romance, exuberance and mystery.
Glass shelves lining the shop feature an array of 45 ready-made fragrances; custom blending is also available, as well as a mail-order program.
When Mary Behlar acquired the shop three years ago, she bought into a business tracing back 150 years, to when August Dousson founded the Dousson French Perfumery.
Although Behlar’s roots were not in perfume, her expertise in music prepared her to learn the art of segmenting the notes that make up a fragrance.
The olfactory skill involved is very similar to the audio skill required to process music, she explained.
Behlar did not set out to get caught up in the fragrance business. A mother of six children ranging in age from two to 19, she says she was just looking for a part-time enterprise she could tend to five or so hours a day, five days a week.
“But when I saw this, I knew I had to do it — even though the shop is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week,” says Behlar.
While fine-tuning her nose for fragrance, she has honed her business skills. With annual sales in the $280,000 range, her store’s business has escalated 30 percent during her first two years. Volume climbed 20 percent last year alone.
Focusing on marketing has helped, Behlar says. She has discontinued advertising in some local print media and stepped up promotions targeted to the tourist trade, which she says accounts for about 95 percent of her customers.
The ready-made fragrances — which generate about 40 percent of sales — range from 0.33-oz. colognes to 1-oz. perfumes, with prices of $6.50 to $65.
Each fragrance comes in lotion, powder, bath gel and body shampoo, at prices ranging from $8.75 to $15.50.
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Custom blending, accounting for 30 percent of sales, is a significant draw for customers who want their own signature scents, Behlar noted.
“We blend and create unique fragrances for individuals based on their own body chemistry and personality,” she said. “It takes a skilled perfumer about 30 minutes to an hour to conduct a body chemistry evaluation, a personality profile, an assessment of a client’s likes and dislikes of the basic scents — sweet, spicy or powdery.
“The process continues until the customer has settled on just the right combination,” she added. “The personal formula is recorded, and then the client can special-order the unique blend at any time.”
Several times a year, the shop conducts seminars in the ancient art of perfumery, mostly for “spouse” programs booked by local convention planners. The seminars invariably draw participants to the shop for more in-depth sessions, Behlar said.
A personal consultation and evaluation costs $75, including a 1-oz. bottle of a custom-blended perfume.
Behlar adds a new fragrance annually. This fall, she will launch Vanille Jardin, which she believes follows the current industry trend toward single-note scents — in particular, vanilla.
She has spiked her version with some light green notes and lily of the valley.
For the future, Behlar wants to expand her local clientele, which currently makes up only 5 percent of sales.
“One of my top priorities is to dip into the local market,” she says. “They don’t know that in New Orleans they can get their own custom-created perfume.”
She also wants to expand her mail order business, which she said includes 5,000 steady customers and accounts for 30 percent of sales. Along with a toll-free phone number, three mailings a year keep the business growing.
As a special incentive to boost mail orders, Behlar instituted a two-day air express delivery for orders of more than $35 and free one-day delivery for orders of more than $100.
“I see it as not only a benefit for the customer, it also requires less handling on the package, which means less breakage,” she said. “It’s a special touch which helps us flow faster.”
Other changes are in the wings. Behlar is updating the packaging to create a cohesive look and logo. She plans to alter the pink tones of the shop’s interior to richer and softer creams, beiges and golds.
“There are still so many possibilities as yet untapped right where we are,” she said. “When I feel that the shop has reached its potential, then I’ll look elsewhere, but I don’t see it right now.”
She hopes to capitalize on the gaming industry, which is finding its way into New Orleans via riverboats and a new casino.
Gambling is expected to add substantially to the already significant economic impact of tourism and conventions.
“With gambling on the horizon, business may be a whole new ball game in a year. At the worst, it will be status quo, but I don’t think it will hurt us. We want to explore how it can help us,” Behlar said.
So far, the shop is the beneficiary of the burgeoning gaming industry along the Gulf Coast. One of the largest dockside casinos, The Grand Casino in Biloxi, Miss., boasts a glitzy, $500,000 ladies room — with Bourbon French Parfums’ lotions.
“That means thousands of women are exposed to our products every day, and we are beginning to see them in the shop or hear from them on the phone,” Behlar said.
Given the city’s literary heritage — New Orleans figures prominently in the works of playwright Tennessee Williams and others — much attention is given to writers who have found an inspirational home here. Contemporary writer Patricia Maxwell, who writes historical romance novels under the name Jennifer Blake, has created tie-ins with Behlar and Bourbon French Parfums.
The shop’s resident perfumer, Loretta Theriot, worked with Maxwell to create the fragrance called Perfume of Paradise, which plays a significant role in her book “Love and Smoke” and another book named after the fragrance.
In Maxwell’s “Wildest Dreams,” two other fragrances, Romanov and Jardin de Coeur, are mentioned — and have been brought to bottled life by Theriot and Bourbon French Parfums.
For first-time novelist Rob Dalby’s suspenseful “God of the Door,” Theriot created Janus, a fragrance inspired by a passage in his book: “She smelled exotic and spicy, something akin to mulled cider or persimmon or some strange tropical fruit most people only read about in ‘National Geographic.”‘
The book’s third printing features a full-page ad for the scents: Janus for men, which retails at $20.50 for a 4-oz. spray cologne, and Janus for women, which retails at $25 for a 0.25-oz. perfume. The store’s toll-free number is printed in the ad.
Behlar hosts autograph sessions for the authors at the shop, and features the perfumes created for them.