How to Survive As a Small Town Perfumista

By Suzanna

I live in a city that is high on football and low on perfume shopping.  Gator fans would likely not want things the other way around.  You cannot live in Gainesville, Florida and not participate, one way or another, in the football ubiquity.  As I discovered, however, with a bit of creativity you can live in Gainesville or other small towns and participate in the enjoyment of hard-to-find perfume.

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I’m a small town perfumista.  This means that there are no boutiques or high-end stores at which to sample fragrance.  There’s no Barney’s or Luckyscent or even a top-shelf Sephora.  We didn’t have a Sephora until 2009, and when it arrived it proved to be one of the closely edited Sephora stores. We have small versions of big department stores.

If you wear Tresor or Happy or Pleasures, you’re in luck.  There isn’t a mall in America without a Lancome, Clinique, and Estee Lauder counter. These are the Big Three, and enough people waft their instantly recognizable sillage that I doubt Gainesville will be expanding into niche perfume lines anytime soon.  In fact, the whole of Florida seems not to have caught onto indie/niche.  Bond No. 9 and L’Artisan are about as exotic as we get, and for those one must travel hundreds of miles.

I will admit to racking up hundreds of miles on my car in pursuit of premium shopping in Florida.  Jacksonville, Tampa, and Orlando are destinations for me and I visit each several times per year.  Orlando has world-class shopping, if not availability of the esoteric.  However, Saks has carried Tom Ford and has the Bond No. 9 line; Bloomingdale’s offers an excellent and wide array of high-end “department store” scents; Neiman Marcus can be counted on for Creed, Atelier Cologne, and Acqua di Parma.  There’s a Chanel boutique in the Mall at Millennia where one can try Les Exclusifs.  Short of finding Andy Tauer or Vero Kern, Orlando has a good mainstream selection of luxury fragrances.

So what happens if you walk into your local mall and are confronted with a life-sized cutout of Justin Bieber plugging his debut fragrance? What if that’s all there is?  What if you want to try one of Andy’s or Vero’s fragrances? What if even Diorissimo is an impossible find? The blogs make fragrances sound amazing and you have to get your hands on a sample pronto. Here’s how I look beyond the small town to the wider world of perfumes and how I got started—or got creative—in sampling them.

Sampling Programs

Aedes de Venustas and Luckyscent both have superb sampling programs.  On the e-tailer side, there’s The Posh PeasantSurrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court.  The e-tailers will have fragrances the retail stores do not, including vintage and ultra-rare items.  You’re going to pay for those, especially with pure parfum.  Worth it? Absolutely. In many cases there is simply no other way to try.

Relationships with Stores

Some stores are simply excellent at customer relations.  For me that means Saks Fifth Avenue.  Being a regular shopper and taking the time to develop a friendship with a sales associate means that you can spritz at your leisure and come away with samples of your choosing, rather than merely what’s on the spiff. Spending time in your favorite store is also a way to glean industry information or to try something at a trunk show preview, like the Tom Ford line. Make sure your fave SA has your contact info for event invitations.

Also, don’t hesitate to request samples when making a remote purchase. Sometimes instead of ordering online, I pick up the phone. I return to the same sale associate and ask her to let me know about promotions or new releases. I just got a small envelope with a set of samples from an SA at Barney’s in Manhattan, because she recalled an earlier purchase I’d made and thought I might want to try something new.  Sales associates want to sell, and you want to smell. The two go together very nicely indeed.

Swapping

Most of us know about swapping on MUA, or of bottle splits on Scent Splits.  I’ve had great luck with both and have even had some very generous surprises.  Living in a small town, though, has made me get a bit creative in my swapping. I might not have the Amouage scent someone wants in exchange for the Roja Dove, but I have a MAC counter that doesn’t sell out.  If you trust your swapping pal, a custom purchase offer might be the way to go, and not one that is limited to perfume.

In addition, I look for swappers who live locally, making for an easy and quick swap and a greater discussion than might normally occur.

What about Lancome, Lauder and Clinique?

Like many young American women, I grew up with fragrances from these iconic brands, and then quickly dropped them when I found L’Artisan.  However, there are some great fragrances sitting on the small-town counter. There’s a perfume cult centered around Clinique Aromatics Elixir, and even among those with the widest sample libraries you will find devotees of Estee Lauder Private Collection.

Small town doesn’t mean small time.  It’s fun to talk fragrance and to add to the discussion on your favorite blogs.  With a little bit of effort, you’ll be talking aldehydes and ionones with the rest of them. Go forth fragrantly into the adventure!

If you are a small town perfumista as well, please share your tips and suggestions.

Image: stained glass windows by Marc Chagall at the Art Institute of Chicago, photography by Bois de Jasmin

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40 Comments

  • rosarita: Thanks for a terrific article near to my heart! I live in a small, rural community in the midwest. Here are some things I’ve done in addition to your excellent suggestions: join forums. I’m a regular on MUA, Basenotes and have just joined Fragrantica. I have swapped a lot, and I’m with you on creative swapping; I have a large collection of vintage scarves & jewelry that I’ve put to fruitful use. Sometimes I’ve contacted a commenter on a forum that I feel comfortable with to suggest a swap if I have a bottle or decant that I know they’re interested in. Since my access is so limited, I’ve found gems in discontinued mainstream scents that are still widely availabe by purchasing samples from scentmonkey.com & beautyencounter.com. I’ve also had sporadic success with TJMaxx (a couple Guerlain AAs.) Ebay is not to be overlooked, either, esp for samples/minis. May 8, 2012 at 8:24am Reply

    • Suzanna: Rosarita, thanks for adding excellent suggestions to the article!

      I remember the glory days of perfume sampling on eBay, back before the decant smackdown. There were excellent sellers with very competitive goods and prices. I haven’t looked back since that time (and the advent of the e-tail sampling sites), so thanks for bringing that resource to people’s attention. May 8, 2012 at 10:13am Reply

  • Krisa: I’m not only a small town but a small country perfumista! I’m from Slovenia, Europe, and the nearest perfume shopping mecca is Vienna, Austria (or so I hear).
    I really do not like blind buys no matter how many praises certain niche perfumes recieve. So I order testers, whenever I can, from sites like LuckyScent that you already mentioned, or I just sniff through every possible mainstream fragrance avalaible that might be to my liking. There are not so few of them luckily, I sometimes am able to find some undiscovered jewles now and then, but the sad part is, the shops here oftenly discontinue buying not-so-well selling ones.
    One day, I’m gonna make a trip to France (and try to disregard y disliking towards the French people and their huge lack of knowing any other languages except French) so I can see and sniff through all the little fancy perfume beautiques! May 8, 2012 at 9:23am Reply

    • Suzanna: Krisa, I’m with you on that trip to Paris! May 8, 2012 at 11:29am Reply

  • Alyssa: What a terrific idea for a post! May 8, 2012 at 10:06am Reply

    • Suzanna: Alyssa, glad you enjoyed the post. May 8, 2012 at 11:30am Reply

  • Marika: I thought you were describing my town! It’s exactly the same scenario, including the football. Blogs have helped me tremendously, and I take advantage of my wonderful postal carrier. Wonderful photo, by the way. May 8, 2012 at 11:06am Reply

    • Suzanna: Thanks, Marika! I took the photo on Saturday night at one of our “big” events (other than football, that is).

      There are more towns like ours than there are big urban areas. Gainesville is in fact promoted as being a cosmopolitan hub for the rural North Florida area, so that is a differing perspective entirely! May 8, 2012 at 11:42am Reply

  • Dionne: I live in Western Canada (but still a long ways from Vancouver) so I can really relate. The one tip I’d recommend in addition to what you’ve already mentioned is finding someone who lives or visits the area you want to get stuff from, and is willing to bring something back for you. Whether it’s bell jars from Paris or US only shipping, having a “scent mule” makes a big difference. May 8, 2012 at 11:28am Reply

    • Suzanna: Great suggestion, Dionne! I’m smiling because a few people have said to me, relative to my photography site, “You’ve been all the way to Georgia?” May 8, 2012 at 11:45am Reply

  • Irina: I’m in an even worse situation: small town very small country in the Middle East, no local perfume pals and luckyscent not willing to post to here, while others ask for huge postal fares
    I’m left to my lemmings… May 8, 2012 at 11:37am Reply

    • Suzanna: Irina, I’m glad you spoke up. I wrote the piece from the point of view of an American living away from shopping I find desirable and my piece reflects that experience.

      I think it’s wonderful that you have found and enjoy Bois de Jasmin (and presumably some other perfume sites in addition) and like to participate in the discussion. Hope you’ll come around often! May 8, 2012 at 11:44am Reply

      • Irina: thank you for your welcoming words
        I am an avid reader and ( very) shy commenter, but slowly warming up May 8, 2012 at 12:44pm Reply

        • Suzanna: Irina, I hope you will feel part of the BdJ community and will comment more often! Everyone’s voice is important and interesting–it’s about a love of perfume no matter how much one has to sample or owns. May 8, 2012 at 7:01pm Reply

  • ErinM: What a great article! I myself have been a small town perfumista for a long time now. Ulta and Sephora came to Lexington only a few years ago, which was a nice start. However, I opened The Crushed Violet because I wanted to offer other small town perfumistas (Lexington and surrounding areas) what we miss from the larger chains. Personal service and sales relationships, and more importantly…unique fragrances! I’m slowly but surely adding to our tiny store as time and budget allow.
    I’ve had a number of customers very familiar with mua, basenotes, sample sites. Because my knowledge comes from my experience as a consumer, it’s really easy to bond with the ladies and gents who come in for niche fragrances. I’ve also introduced a number of customers to these sites. Again, what a great article–I’ll certainly refer to it when speaking to those customers new to niche!! May 8, 2012 at 1:05pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Erin, what a fun thing to do–open a perfume shop! I was earlier telling Victoria about a shop in Charleston that I used to love, and which unfortunately closed.

      It’s a small fragrant world out there! It must be fun to open your doors to people who know the on line communities!

      Best of luck with your shop! May 8, 2012 at 7:02pm Reply

  • Eva S: I live in a small town in northern Sweden where the opportunities for perfume shopping is limited to say the least! I order samples online and if you live in Europe I can recommend First in Fragrance, they have very generous spray samples.
    Ordering “disovery sets” straight from the perfume companies online is something else I can recommend, Ormonde Jayne, Perfume d’Empire, Neela Vermaire and others have very resonable prices and excellent service. May 8, 2012 at 2:29pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Eva, thank you for reminding me about First in Fragrance, another wonderful outlet for sampling.

      To your list of perfumers and houses with sample programs, I will add Parfums de Rosine. May 8, 2012 at 7:04pm Reply

  • Alityke: Yay…someone understands! When large houses reply to polite emails suggesting you “Travel to city X to sample their products at the counter” when that journey means the cost and inconvenience of travelling many miles & the cost of parking and loss of a day or more time when you have a family to care for and a full-time job is frustrating. I want to spend my hard earned pennies on scent not on polluting the atmosphere and hotel rooms.
    My love is really vintage fragrance so eBay, the net and foraging car boot sales are my hunting grounds.
    In a small, backwards town in the north of the UK my obsession is not understood. Football (soccer), cricket, fashion and drinking are all acceptable. Perfume apparently it’s just thought to be a bit “weird” May 8, 2012 at 2:53pm Reply

    • Masha: Perfume is definitely considered weird, if not downright sinful, outside of South Florida! May 8, 2012 at 4:50pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Alityke, your comment made me smile. When YSL Parisienne was released, I had a sample of shower gel and I enjoyed it and wanted more. Problem was, it wasn’t sold in America and was a European product, so I wrote to the company to ask if and when it might be.

      Coming back to me was a letter suggesting that I visit my local “better” department store to see if they carried it. Such outstanding service! May 8, 2012 at 7:07pm Reply

  • Masha: What a wonderful article! I recently became a small-town Floridian (much smaller than Gainesville!)- I nodded and laughed my way through your article. Luckyscent and Aedes (and MinNewYork) sampling programs, as well as generous friends who swap samples, have kept me relatively up to date. May 8, 2012 at 4:49pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Masha, are you north or south?

      Welcome to small-town Florida.

      Glad you liked the article, and thanks for adding MinNewYork (I have bought full bottle from them and they were great). May 8, 2012 at 7:08pm Reply

  • Joan: The Perfumed Court is useful. I love in a small town right now that doesn’t even have a Sephora.

    The good news, though, is that it’s arty, and you can go into stores downtown and find obscure nature lines and homemade oils that you’d never get at Saks. May 8, 2012 at 5:08pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Joan, that is true of Savannah also, where there is something of a tradition of fragrance oils in the City market stalls.

      It’s a great idea to look at locally made products. Thanks for adding to the discussion! May 8, 2012 at 7:09pm Reply

  • maggiecat: Lived most of my life in Florida (now in Texas) and loved this post! May 8, 2012 at 5:56pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Thanks, maggiecat! I’m glad to know people “get” what I was talking about! May 8, 2012 at 7:08pm Reply

  • Craig: Wow I love your new blog layout! May 8, 2012 at 10:03pm Reply

    • Suzanna: Craig, I’m sure Victoria will appreciate your enthusiasm! May 9, 2012 at 8:49am Reply

    • Victoria: Craig, thank you very much! May 9, 2012 at 9:50am Reply

  • Kurt: Sorry, no suggestions here. I’m kind of spoiled. Living in a smal town (pop. 190.000) in northern Europe I have acces to a huge range of niche-houses. From Lutens and Creed to Tauer and Kern 😉 May 9, 2012 at 6:25am Reply

    • Suzanna: Kurt, how wonderful to be able to try Andy Tauer and Vero Kern scents without mind-boggling logistics! Sniff on! May 9, 2012 at 8:49am Reply

  • Beauty Box: Loving the new blog layout…well done!! I was so tickled reading this article. I can relate to some of it, not because I live in a small town, but in Tokyo where all these brands you mentioned are so expensive that it’s a crying shame to invest in when you know how much they cost in the US. There are quite a few Western brands that are not available here either so sometimes I’ll be gagging to try something or other I read on a blog or watch on Youtube… May 9, 2012 at 11:06am Reply

    • Suzanna: Beauty Box, that makes for quite the different perspective. I understand your plight and in fact I recall reading about the outrageous costs in Japan and young women who went shopping not in Tokyo but in Guam, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Francisco because it was much cheaper to do so there.

      There are things available in Japan I’d like to try, one of these times! “Cult” makeup, for one! May 9, 2012 at 3:29pm Reply

  • elvanui: Exactly. I’m also a small-town-small-country perfumista, plus one on a zero-budget right now, so it is always a challenge to feed my need. But we in Hungary are lucky to have a Real Nose who works in the capital and is eager to meet the perfumistas and help us find our scented ways:), plus an awesome perfume forum community going back for many years that are always happy to talk about scents, and to swap, even organize sniff-trips and what-have-you meetups inthe capital, some even have been to Vienna a few years ago. I’m a stay-at home Mum, so no trips for me right now, but life is long:). Ebay and the blogs are great helpers as well, not to mention the ummm… the decanting girls we all know:). July 17, 2012 at 9:24am Reply

    • Suzanna: Elvanui, you seem to have scented out the best ways to enjoy having a perfume hobby! Thanks for sharing your story. July 17, 2012 at 11:47am Reply

    • Gentiana: Great, elvanui!
      I would like to come in contact with your community. I met Zsolyomi Zsoltduring the last summer in Budapest and he is really a fascinating person.
      I live in Brasov (Transilvania 🙂 ) and have cousins in Budapest.
      Beszelek magyarul!
      Nalunk meg nem fejlodott ki a perfumista-mozgalom.
      Minden jot
      All the best! January 16, 2014 at 5:41am Reply

      • elvanui: Oh Hey, Szia Gentiana!
        so sorry I just found Your reply looking for a netshop in this article. So pleased to hear from You! Örülök Neked!:)
        I know there is a shop named Madison, a very cool niche perfumery in Bucarest, is that very far from You? I’ve been to the Budapest shop of those nice guys, and it is aaaawesome! Lots of help, from a really trained staff! I’m sure the Bucarest shop is also nice.
        Could You drop me an email? It is my nick, at gmail. I’m sure we’d have plenty of stuff to talk about:)!
        Hugs!
        Kata-elvanui. May 31, 2014 at 6:12am Reply

  • Mimi: Recently I became a north floridian. Coming from Europe where we have all the niche fragrances within 100km I feel like getting cold turkey on fragrances… 😉 So, I sample from TPC because Dillard’s and Sephora here only have the mainstream fragrances. Thank you for your info on Orlando, I might make a visit soon as is it not so far away from Jax. September 13, 2013 at 10:40am Reply

  • Gentiana: Great article!
    Some things already work for me, except overseas mailing of some items and no swapping/ splitting partners in my area. Till now I didn’t manage to swap/ split.
    Maybe in the future…. January 16, 2014 at 5:38am Reply

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