Scents and Sensibility

With service their key advantage over mass, prestige retailers push fragrance certification

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With 350 new perfumes flooding the market every year and prestige fragrance sales wafting increasingly into mass channels, department stores are pinning their hopes for growth on sales associates, offering advanced training to educate and retain those crucial voices at the counter.

Though the Fragrance Foundation, charged with buoying the $5.7 billion U.S. fragrance industry, launched its certified fragrance-sales specialist program over a decade ago, the training manual and test (now available online) were administered last year to a record number of associates. In addition, the foundation recently completed a pilot advanced certification program with luxury retailer Nordstrom that offers an even higher level of status to associates who are already certified.

"Service is really the differentiator between prestige and mass, the one thing department stores can do that has proven a huge challenge and not cost effective for mass retailers," said Carrie Mellage, industry manager-consumer products for Kline and Co., a market research firm. Kline and Co.'s 2005 data shows fragrance sales up slightly for department stores and up significantly in mass channels.

Virginia Bonofiglo, adjunct professor of cosmetics and fragrance marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a member of the certification advisory board, said that for "department stores to compete with other venues, they need to provide something more for the consumer and if a certified sales person can tell you 'If you like X, you'll like Y,' from a marketing standpoint, that's the best way to sell fragrance."

Especially as the category becomes increasingly cluttered. More than 350 new fragrances are now introduced annually in the U.S. alone, said Fragrance Foundation president Rochelle Bloom. Certification, costing $80 for the regular program and $300 for advanced, is a relatively cheap tool department stores can use to help consumers sort out the differences between Happy and Lovely.

empowering the staff

Nordstrom, which is known for its superior service, was the biggest participant in last year's certification program. Among the 947 people vying for certification, 180 were Nordstrom employees. (Marshall Field's-now owned by Federated-followed with 135 participants, Sephora with 101, Estee Lauder with 94, Clarins Fragrance Group with 81, Hecht's with 70, L'Oreal's Kiehl's with 60 and a slew of others including Filene's and Myer Stores also had employees enrolled.) This year, Nordstrom enrolled 65 of its already-certified employees in the advanced program, which aims to provide fragrance sellers a more tangible knowledge of scents and their ingredients.

While she declined to quantify specific volume increases as a result of fragrance training, Debbi Hartley-Triesch, Nordstrom's national beauty and fragrance director, said certification "empowers the sales staff to service our customers better, gives them a new understanding for the business, a true passion for the fragrance industry and more of a connection to the products they're selling."

Sherri Moekel, retail sales coordinator for Clarins Fragrance Group in Little Rock, Ark., can back that claim up. After receiving the highest score in last year's certification class-an impressive 95%-Ms. Moekel went on to post the highest sales increase of any Clarins employee in the U.S. last year. She said her new status as a certified fragrance sales associate has helped immensely in dealing with customers who "trust in you the more knowledgeable you sound and keep coming back."

The certification is also intended to help drive longevity in a retail sales job known for its high turnover. Pierre Salamon, director-training for Clarins' Thierry Mugler Parfums, which has participated in the program for seven years, said certification drives loyalty and team-building in addition to enriching sales techniques.

Mr. Atwood, who sells Thierry Mugler fragrances, including its top-selling Angel, offered a quick glimpse into the importance of service training. A fragrance salesman for 10 years, Mr. Atwood noted that "people don't appreciate a fine perfume the way they used to." The industry, he said, is "so bombarded with everyday body splashes that designer perfumes have been deeply affected." But that $5 body splash at Eckerd's? "It lasts a mere five seconds on your skin," Mr. Atwood said. Clearly, consumers need to be educated.
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