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When Elizabeth Arden Co. decided Elizabeth Taylor's next fragrance, Black Pearls, would kick off in J.C. Penney Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. stores along with posher emporiums, it was not La Liz who pitched a hissy fit.

True, Ms. Taylor-who for hours posed immersed in water on a Hollywood soundstage for the in-house-crafted print and TV ads, with final copy courtesy of close friend Michael Jackson-had to be told this did not mean her new scent would be discounted.

Instead, it was retail giants Federated Department Stores, May Co., Dayton Hudson Corp. and Dillard's, accustomed to getting first crack at major fragrance launches, that threw tantrums. They vow Black Pearls will never darken their doors.

The mass flap has left Arden facing a distribution shortfall for the $12 million launch in such major markets as New York, Washington and Boston. To make it up, the company is now considering 800-numbers and other mass marketers.

Ron Rolleston, Arden's worldwide exec VP-marketing, isn't Monday morning quarterbacking the Penney-Sears decision. Since Black Pearls TV commercials "between October and Dec. 23 will reach 95% of all U.S. women 19 times" he said, the strategy fits.

But the retail uproar, following an ambitious restructuring earlier this year, has again raised questions about Arden's future.

In March, President Kim Delsing offered early retirement to more than 100 employees, fueling rumors parent Unilever, impatient with Arden's performance, will ultimately opt to sell it.

Both Unilever and Arden executives have roundly denied such talk though Arden admits to entertaining offers for its separate Erno Laszlo brand. Also in question: Arden's affordably priced Spa bath and body products that never caught on in department stores or the mass market.

"There has been no decision at this point to discontinue the bath and body line," said an Arden spokeswoman, adding, "Every part of our business is being evaluated. Nothing is finally decided."

Among Arden's challenges: its shrinking department store presence and a cosmetics business that's a lot smaller than those of its top three department store rivals, Estee Lauder U.S., Clinique and Lancome.

According to a survey by industry consultancy Mottus & Associates, Arden's U.S. department stores sales dropped 3% to $204 million in 1994 from the year before. Arden's total U.S. sales (wholesale) are estimated at $270 million.

At the same time, Arden's percentage of sales generated by skincare and makeup declined. In 1993, fragrances generated just 28% of Arden's total U.S. sales but increased to 45% in 1994.

The result: a loss of focus and a dangerously faddish and seasonal business, since "fragrances basically sell three months a year-May, November and December," observed consultant Allan Mottus.

In 1994, Arden spent in excess of $41 million in measured media, more than half that in fragrances. This year, the split is likely to shift some as Arden works on a corporate advertising campaign and spruces up advertising for its recently introduced Flawless Finish makeup, now in the midst of an international launch.

Lending a hand is creative consultant Neil Kraft, known for his breakthrough work at Calvin Klein. Already as part of a new brand-building effort, Mr. Kraft has retooled creative for Arden's True Love fragrance and the Sun Moon & Stars scent from designer Karl Lagerfeld-with uber-model Nadja replacing spokesactress Darryl Hannah.

Ms. Delsing is also expected to take a hard look at distribution, weighing whether to take Arden further into the mass market-or burnish its department store image, muddied still more by the Black Pearls launch and Arden's decision to spend more on national media at the expense of co-op ads.

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