I blame my addiction to coffee on the three winter breaks that I spent working at the perfume counter at Macy’s. Smelling coffee beans in between perfume samples is the equivalent to wiping your nose’s “scent memory” clean, a trade secret employed by perfume sales associates whose customers can no longer distinguish one perfume’s fragrance from another once too many scents have invaded their noses.
For the sales associates themselves, smelling coffee beans to neutralize the olfactory senses is the only way to get through a day of endless spraying without coming down with a pounding migraine or eventual insanity. We kept by the register a small handful of coffee beans wrapped in sheer fabric, and whenever too many scents wafted upward into our nasal passages, we held the coffee under our noses and breathed deeply.
Coffee beans were a fleeting retreat to a place where my senses wouldn’t overwhelm me: the hordes customers, the buzz of the mall, the Christmas jingles playing on the loudspeaker in a continuous loop, would all fade into the background. Thus I will forever associate coffee with a quiet stillness, despite the jitters I get from more than one cup of joe. Whenever life becomes hectic, I yearn for coffee, not even to drink, but just to be in the presence of its aroma.
My psychological dependency on coffee is a lasting reminder of the chaos of working at a department store perfume counter during the holidays. The experience provides perspective on the season – a viewpoint that is not as rose-colored as the luminous bottles lining the display cases.
When I say that I worked at the department store, I should clarify: I spent most of my time at the counter at the mall entrance of the store, which the majority of people do not realize is an extension of the store itself. The fragrance brands pay for space in these glass cabinets, as the exposure is tremendous and the lure even greater, due to the prominence of the display (many more people see it than they would even within the store) and the reluctance of many holiday shoppers to enter a hectic department store at all, let alone hunt down an available associate to assist them at the perfume counter.
And that is why the associates who work inside the store (who do so year-round, not just when they are home from college) hate those of us who work on the outside.
I don’t blame them. They work on commission. All year they scrape by with perhaps a sale or two a day at 3.5% commission plus a base wage of $5.15/hour, and then at Christmas they are selling $4,000 to $8,000 of product a day (which equates to $22.65 to $40.15 an hour). Most don’t take lunch or dinner breaks and stay extra hours even at the discouragement of our supervisor. They clock as much time as possible because the rest of the year they will hover above minimum wage. In their view, we take commission away from them – which is not entirely true, because they could not possibly handle the sheer volume of customers all by themselves, even if they only had to ring at the register (but perfume is much more interactive than clothing, and customers expect to be serviced, especially with most of the product locked away).
They let us know that we (the women at the outside counter) are a threat to them by creating an environment of hostility towards us. Normally enemies with one another (as the competition for sales is fierce), they bond together in their joint mission to steal from our stock, poach potential customers and give us the evil eye if we escort a customer into the store. In response, those of us who work at the outside counter are also bonded together in a three-week-long alliance in which we share sales and take turns at the register, just to spite the competitive spirit of the women inside.
And working among us all are those who want nothing but to add to all of our sales totals: each brand provides representatives who come to push their particular line of fragrances. These vendors are the people who greet customers from the center aisle of the cosmetics section in department stores, thrusting pre-sprayed cards at idlers while asking every one of them, “Would you like to smell the newest fragrance from…?”
These brand representatives do not distinguish themselves from the regular staff with nametags or other distinctive features, but you spot them easily, because they will only show you product from the line of fragrances they represent, and they will try to sell the hell out of it. They are in the store to generate sales for their brand and are not allowed to touch the registers, thus the associates befriend them in order to ring up the customers to whom they make a sale.
Besides the straightforward benefit of extra commission, the brand reps also push product by making gift sets out of wire baskets, cellophane, ribbon and a hairdryer (it melts the cellophane to tightly wrap the product inside). They also give associates free gifts for selling their product – sell five large bottles of their new fragrance and get a free tester. While their intentions are obviously to line their own pockets with sales incentives and commissions, their cooperation is welcome and their motives unquestioned.
Christmas is a windfall for the fragrance industry. It is an annual gift for many people – an opportunity to restock their vanity shelf. Perfume satisfies both indulgence and practically: the most desired attributes for holiday gift-giving. But no one wants to get just a bottle for a gift. This is the other lesson gleaned from my days at the perfume counter: the holidays are all about the packaging, and the illusion of glamour and expense.
A solitary bottle, when gift wrapped, doesn’t take up adequate space under the tree to represent its expense. Consumers don’t want to buy an $80 stocking stuffer. So they gravitate to the gift sets – they don’t want to even smell anything that doesn’t come in a gift set. And these sets are usually are a great deal – with a price point of just $6-$10 more than the bottle itself, they are a real value if the recipient will use the shower gel, deodorant and/or body lotion included in the stylish boxed set.
When you account for the psychological value of the packaging – several complimentary items arranged inside decorative casing – the gift sets are nearly invaluable. Everyone wants to give a present that will elicit oohs and ahhs from the recipient, and a single bottle is not enough to do so on its own.
Beyond the gift sets, packaging plays a role in enticing the senses before the nose is even engaged in sampling the assorted fragrances. People gravitate to bottles of certain shapes, to the texture of different ribbons. Our Liz Claiborne rep even hired an on-site engraver for Christmas week to promote her full-sized bottles.
The gift is not about the actual item itself, but its presentation. As with anything, name brand becomes essential – which is not baseless, price and name reflect the quality of a scent. People know that expensive means subtle, but also something that will wear all day long.
Eau de Parfum, the most concentrated and pure of the perfume selection, is longest lasting and bottled by the higher-end fragrance lines. Eau De Toilette (requested as “toilet water” by less refined customers) is less concentrated and thus less expensive, and is often what lower and sometimes middle-end lines sell in bottles. Anything labeled as
a splash, mist or spritzer is not perfume at all, but comparable to the Bath and Body works stuff you used to spray all over yourself in the 1990s.
You learn something about the relationships between the shopper and the intended recipient of their purchase. There are the endearing men who walk up with the name of the perfume written on their memory (or a crumpled slip of paper) and when they utter its name, it’s apparent that they are as intoxicated by it as their female partner.
There are the determined women who come up to purchase perfume for themselves: loyalists and purists who don’t trust their loved ones to realize that there is a distinct difference between Givenchy’s Ysatis and Organza, whose bottles are similar in style.
There are the thoughtful shoppers who spend time smelling every scent their nostrils can bare (I lend them the coffee beans between samples), asking for recommendations, either to find the perfect scent for their loved one, or to engage in a mild form of flirtation with the saleswoman.
There are the puppy-love-struck 14-year-old boys who ask for J. Lo’s Glow, and nearly choke when they hear the pricing (mumbling “I’ll take the small bottle” under their breath) and refuse to look at less expensive brands because they know their girlfriend of the week will not be appeased with anything else.
There are the slick customers who saunter up the counter and then butcher the name Issey Miyake (saying Is-a-my-ache, for example) only to be corrected on the pronunciation (Iss-e-Me-ah-ke) and told that they will have to go to Nordstrom.
There are the bargain shoppers who ask for the prices of the perfume only to brag to the sales associate that they bought the same bottle at TJ Maxx or JC Penny for almost half the price (and don’t want to hear the associate’s rebuttal that the bottles there are older and thus the scent has decayed).
There are frustrating customers who wait until the day or two before Christmas, then get angry when the gift sets are sold out, or ask for the cheapest thing available, not caring that the gift set of miniature body splashes for $25 isn’t actually a valuable deal.
And there are the deceitful people who swipe a boxed set while the salesperson bends down to reach for a bottle on the lower shelf of the cabinet (there aren’t security cameras that point to the outside of the store) and then try to return it for store credit later that day.
I suppose this array of coworkers and customers represent the best and worst of the holidays, and, to some extent, what the holidays bring out in each individual. Just like the overwhelming number of fragrances displayed in the glass cabinets, a brief whiff all the different varieties will only leave a person overwhelmed and befuddled, unable to tease out the complexities of each one. That is, unless you have coffee beans.