Perfume Shopping Tips


My reader, Red, put it quite succinctly when we were discussing our fragrance shopping experience, “I am often confused and frustrated with the way retail fragrance counters are arranged and have all but given up the past pleasure of trying new scents on my lunch break.” Department stores with their crowded and poorly organized fragrance bars, commission driven sales personnel and lack of useful information definitely make fragrance shopping frustrating. Of course, in New York and other big cities there are various fragrance boutiques,where one can find a broad range of fragrances as well as passionate and well-informed staff; however, the reality for most fragrance shoppers is the department store. As much as I complain about the department store fragrance bar, I still love having lots of different fragrances to sample in one location while also checking in on the latest shoe sale. What if all one has nearby is Macy’s? It is in fact possible optimize the fragrance shopping experience. Below I will share several tips that have worked for me during my department store expeditions. Do you have tips of your own? Please feel free to share! I am always up for anything to make the fragrance shopping as efficient and pleasant as possible.

Come Prepared

Standing in front of a perfume counter filled with bottles can be an overwhelming experience—what to choose, what to smell? With only so much skin on my arms and only one nose, it is best to be prepared. Bring a pen, a notebook, some small envelopes for retaining blotters, a bottle of water. I will explain later how these things come in handy.

If you already have an idea of what you might like to try, then make a list. If I am just trying to smell the new launches, that is what I do. Robin at Now Smell This blog posts lots of excellent information on new launches, which also includes details on where they are sold. Even if my goal is just to browse the Saks5thAvenue counter, I jot down a list of new releases before I set out to brave the Fifth Avenue crowds. This way, I just ask for the fragrances that interest me and often it keeps both me and the SA focused on what I actually want try.

Do Not Wear Perfume or Lotion, Even Unscented

It is best to avoid any perfume or lotion on days when you go fragrance shopping, especially if you are planning to test on your skin. Even unscented lotions will skew your perception of scent because they contain a special odor suppressing compound to mask the chemical scent of the lotion base. Therefore, spraying perfume on top of a lotion layer will not give you the proper impression of its character and staying power.

Go Straight for the Fragrance Counter

If you are planning to do general shopping at the store, start first with fragrances. Your nose is usually more sensitive when you come from the fresh air into the store. Moreover, the air in the department stores is usually quite scented, which tends to tire out the nose.

Pace Yourself: Start with 3-4 Fragrances

It is tempting just to start smelling everything in sight, but before you know it olfactory fatigue sets in and you can no longer distinguish Opium from Chanel No 5. Smell a few fragrances on a blotter, walk around the store, check out that shoe sale and come back for more smelling. Of course, with time you can develop the ability to smell lots of different scents, it is all in training your nose. However, if you are just starting to explore fragrances, do not try to smell more than 3-4 scents at a time.

Let Alcohol Evaporate Before Smelling

Whether on a blotter or on your skin, it is best to allow the alcohol to evaporate before you smell. Nothing causes olfactory fatigue more than the inhaling alcoholic fumes. Therefore, spray perfume (1-2 sprays per blotter are enough) and let it dry for a few seconds before starting to smell.

Smell in Short Inhales

Although we take smelling for granted, there is definitely a science to smelling, and it is nothing complicated! Instead of taking a deep, long inhale, smell your blotter or skin in 2-3 short, quick inhales. Take a long, calm breath before you resume smelling. This way, you will prevent the mucous membrane of your nose from getting oversaturated with scents.

Skip Coffee Beans

Coffee beans are commonly used at the fragrance counter to “reset” one’s nose as olfactory fatigue sets in. While in principle it should work, in practice you end up further overloading your smell receptors. The best tip for “resetting” a tired nose came to me when during my perfumery training during which I had to smell raw materials for literally 8 hours a day. Cover your nose with a scarf or bury your nose in the sleeve of a sweater and inhale deeply. Essentially you are filtering the air entering your nose which helps to reset your smell receptors. You can also take a sip of water; this always works for me.

Label Blotters to Smell Later

Bring a pen and label the sprayed blotters. You can bring little envelopes or a clean note book, and put labeled blotters between pages. Later, or even the next day, you can smell the blotters again to remind yourself of what you have smelled.

Comparing Scents

Just be aware that when you compare two scents, the first one you smell will tend to appear stronger than the second, because of the olfactory saturation. Take a deep, long breath, switch the order in which you smelled blotters and try again.

Do Not Let Sales Associates Spray You with Perfume

Instead, ask to spray it yourself. I still have a vivid memory of being drenched in Caron Tabac Blond parfum after a helpful SA offered to spray it on me. The fragrance, great though it was, has indelibly marked that winter in Paris, as it did my new silk blouse. If you are skin testing fragrances, you can judge yourself much better where and how much perfume you would like. Spray perfume on the back of the hand and on forearms and not by the wrist if you wear a watch.

Smell Fragrance Outside the Store

The air near the fragrance counter is often so filled with scent that it is almost impossible to get a good idea of how perfumes smell. Walk around the mall, step outside—it is best to smell in fresh air in order to see how fragrance develops on your skin.

To Ascertain Sillage, Do Not Smell Too Close Up

Another trick I picked up for ascertaining sillage, the trail that perfume leaves behind, is to smell by holding your arm or a blotter a few inches away from your nose. Can you still perceive the smell? Or is it obvious only if you bury your nose in your skin? A radiant perfume with a strong sillage should definitely have enough projection when smelled at a distance.

Look at Different Concentrations

These days many fragrances are available in different concentrations—parfum, Eau de parfum, Eau de toilette (from strongest to lightest.) If you can smell different concentrations of the same perfume, it might be very helpful, as some fragrances are balanced differently depending on the concentration. For instance, I do not like the heft of the floral notes in Chanel No 19 EDP, but the EDT with its luminous, effervescent aura is amazing.

Do Not Buy Right Away

It may seem obvious, but it is best to wear the fragrance for at least a couple of hours before you decide whether it is the one for you. Most people buy perfume based on the top notes, which is why fragrance houses put the most effort into crafting an appealing initial experience. In fact, top notes last at most for 15-30min while the body of the fragrance is what you will live with for the whole day. Let fragrance meld into your skin, let it become a part of you. Do you still enjoy it two hours later? Do you feel tempted to sniff your skin throughout the day? Do you like that lingering scent in the evening ?


Even if you do not buy anything, it never hurts to ask for a sample. Nordstrom and Sephora will usually give pretty much any sample you want, other stores are less generous. For a real perfume geek’s tip, bring small sample vials and ask if you can make a small sample. Take that SA’s card so that you can make a purchase later. Nobody has refused me yet, whether at Bergdorf Goodman or Macy’s, but be prepared for an occasional puzzled stare.

Reward Helpful Sales Associates

I do not envy the job of  SA at a fragrance counter, as it is not the easiest retail position at the department store and often not the most financially rewarding. If they are uninformed and uninterested, it is usually because their managers do not provide them with training and incentives. However, whenever I meet a genuinely helpful and pleasant SA I try to make sure to let their managers know how much I appreciated their assistance. Most fragrance SAs work on commission, so if you decide to come back for your fragrance purchase later, do let the counter personnel know which SA assisted you. I believe that feedback from the customer will encourage the sort of experiences we appreciate—it might change fragrance shopping for the better, even if the change will not come overnight.

Learning Fragrance Families and Main Notes of Fragrances You Like

I love the parallel between the wine and fragrance industries because it really crystallizes the gaps in perfume retail. Information at the store and organization of the counter is one aspect that fragrance retailers can emulate. It was the California wine industry that decided to retail wine by varietal rather than by vineyard as was common in France. The truth of the matter is that fragrance families are even easier to understand than grape varietals. They can be enormously helpful in understanding how to pick a fragrance, why you like a fragrance, and what new olfactory experiences you might enjoy. Ideally, it would something that an SA can help you figure out—by learning about fragrances that you like, he/she would be able to suggest an alternative in the same family or a related family.

However, most SAs at department stores may not know much about fragrances outside of the brands with which they work. For the time being, the burden of seeking information and education falls on the consumer. However, if you love fragrance, exploring perfumes within specific fragrance families can be a lot of fun. I do not suggest memorizing lists of notes, but if you have an idea of what you like it can be interesting to map out one’s preferences. By way of example, I love Guerlain Shalimar, a classical oriental fragrance. Another composition in the same genre is Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur. So, when I am considering whether to add a sample of Ormonde Jayne Tolu to my purchase order, I know that I will probably like it as well because it is another classical oriental fragrance, rich in balsams, tonka bean and incense, just like the other two. What is more, the fragrance families that build upon the oriental category—floral oriental (Guerlain Chamade, Cacharel Amor Amor, Bond No 9 Chinatown) and woody oriental (Chanel Bois des Iles, Serge Lutens Bois Oriental, Dior Bois d’Argent) can offer some discoveries that I might like. If you would like to play: The Fragrance Wheel maps out the families in a very easy-to-understand manner, while the Fragrance Foundation Fragrance Directory lists almost all USA distributed fragrances organized by families.

Of course, fragrance families are not foolproof, just like grape varietals are not a foolproof way of selecting a bottle of wine, but they can provide some valuable guidance, or at least they can help narrow down the range of choice to a reasonable selection. Thus, when I was recently helping a friend to find a fragrance to replace her beloved (and now discontinued) L’Occitane Eau D’Iparie, we settled on several fragrances from the same classical woods family. She ended up buying Estée Lauder Sensuous and Serge Lutens Rousse.

Please share your own tips, as I am sure there are many more ways to have a pleasant fragrance shopping experience.

Photograph © VeraKL, all rights reserved.



  • rosarita: Thanks for an excellent article! Most of my perfume shopping is done online as I live in a rural area without much shopping available. The closest dept store is Macy’s, and I avoid it like the plague. Now I’m tempted to go on a sniffing expedition. 🙂 December 6, 2010 at 5:14am Reply

  • Bellatrix: Thank you 🙂 December 6, 2010 at 2:29am Reply

  • carmencanada: Hi dear V.,

    I’ve ceased asking to make up my own samples in Paris. Even in shops where I am well known, it seems to put SAs in a panicked trance. So when I’m in Sephora, for instance, I stealth-spritz into 2 ml vials while pretending to study another shelf with near-sighted eyes. The thing is not to look as though you were going to gobble up the tester with your sleeve!
    Other than that, as you know better than I do, when you smell two blotters with similar types of perfumes (like when we compare mods), you’ll end up detecting what distinguishes them rather than their full impact since the brain blocks out the similarities. So I’d suggest “re-setting” the nose before going from one to the other with the sweater/scarf trick.
    For the sniffing, I’ve seen a perfumer exhale little puffs from his nose onto the blotter: he says the damp air brings out the smell! December 6, 2010 at 3:56am Reply

  • Sveta: Great list of tips, V! I guess, the unscented lotion is not good for layering with perfumes? December 6, 2010 at 10:34am Reply

  • Mark C: You know, V, this actually inspires me to go perfume shopping. I like your tips to prevent olfactory overload, which is what usually happens to me esp in the poorly ventilated areas near the fragrance counters. Coffee beans never helped me before! December 6, 2010 at 10:58am Reply

  • Austenfan: Nice article again!
    This is probably totally off-topic but sniffing with short little sniffs is exactly what dogs do when they are on a trail. Those nostrils work overtime when they have sniffed something of interest. Mind you their olfactory system is obviously very different to ours. Apparently they don’t suffer olfactory fatigue for one. Also bloodhounds and other scent hounds were originally bred with all those wrinkles and long and floppy ears so the air around their nose would remain more moist, thus enabling them to scent out even very old trails. I am not surprised at what Carmencanada mentioned some Noses do. December 6, 2010 at 11:42am Reply

  • Carla: This is a wonderful, long list of tips. I especially appreciate the idea of sipping water – water is the cure for so much. About not spraying on your wrist when you are wearing a watch…is this because the metal interacts with the scent? Just today I took my watch out of the kitchen cupboard (dishes must be washed) and noticed it smelled distinctly like a lovely perfume – in fact the whole cupboard did – but I couldn’t identify the perfume! It still smells faintly…I think it’s Tolu, which I wore yesterday, but it smells floral! December 6, 2010 at 12:30pm Reply

  • Olfactoria: A very helpful article, thank you. I tend to be intimidated by overzealous and underinformed sales assistants. So your tips are a great arsenal of logical weapons against the barrage of misinformation and marketing mumbo jumbo one has to overcome in search of a great perfume. 🙂 December 6, 2010 at 7:33am Reply

  • Victoria: Bellatrix
    You are welcome! December 6, 2010 at 9:16am Reply

  • Victoria: @Carmencanada
    Hey, D! How are the lectures coming along?
    In the US, they tend to be more relaxed about such iconoclastic practices as asking to make your own sample.
    >>The thing is not to look as though you were going to gobble up the tester with your sleeve!
    LOL! It is best to avoid looking like a shoplifter, if you are going to stealthily fill your sample vials. Sephoras here do it for you, although at times the girls take such a long time to make up a 5ml sample that I am tempted to do it myself.
    On the question of smelling, perfumers having to smell professionally develop their own ways to optimize the experience and to overcome the olfactory fatigue. Some perfumers do not like thin blotters, others do not like big square ones. It is also highly individual and very specific. December 6, 2010 at 9:26am Reply

  • Victoria: Rosarita
    As much as I grumble about the department store, fragrance shopping or even just fragrance smelling at the perfume counter is very enjoyable. Once I started thinking about it more creatively (and strategically,) I found myself enjoying it more and more. I also do lots of shopping online, but I still get this “kid in the candy store” feeling whenever I step into the department store. 🙂 December 6, 2010 at 9:30am Reply

  • Victoria: Olfactoria
    “a great arsenal of logical weapons against the barrage of misinformation and marketing mumbo jumbo one has to overcome in search of a great perfume.” Oh, that is the best compliment! The problem is that the SAs are sometimes quite heavy-handed in their selling tactics, so one has to fend this off a bit to enjoy the process. If this list helps anyone, I would be happy. December 6, 2010 at 9:33am Reply

  • Victoria: @Sveta
    If you specifically want a lotion to retain the fragrance of your perfume longer, then, no, I would not recommend it. Of course, it depends on the brand, but I often find that some lotions can really skew the perception. On the other hand, if you are applying your lotion on your arms and legs and then just spraying perfume all over, it probably does not matter. December 6, 2010 at 11:50am Reply

  • Victoria: @Mark C
    I love to smell coffee beans for their intrinsic scent. As for clearing my nose, that really does not work as well as inhaling through some fabric deeply and calmly. December 6, 2010 at 11:52am Reply

  • Victoria: @Austenfan
    Not at all, it is actually very interesting and definitely related to the topic! There are ways to smell in such a way as to smell with more precision. Another one is to smell with both nostrils. Until I started perfumery training, I had no idea about it (I did not even realize until the teacher pointed out that I smelled with the right nostril only,) but of course, it makes more sense. I could see a difference immediately, even though, I admit that it took me weeks not to fall into the old habit.
    Anyway, dog’s sense of smell is fascinating and complex. To think that the evidence verified by a bloodhound can use in the court of law, now that is amazing. December 6, 2010 at 11:58am Reply

  • Victoria: @Carla
    I am glad that you liked it! I find that the watch bands, especially the leather ones, retain scents really well. If you are wearing your perfume for pleasure, I guess it is ok (other than the fact that the perfume oils can stain.) It would matter more when testing and comparing fragrances.
    I especially love the lingering scents on my scarves. December 6, 2010 at 1:40pm Reply

  • linda: Love this post! I usually start out by saying that I just want to browse. I say it with conviction, and they usually leave me alone. Otherwise, they distract me too much. December 6, 2010 at 7:33pm Reply

  • minette: i sniff the nozzle first. if i like it enough, i spray it on paper. if i like it enough on paper, i spray it on skin. i never spritz directly onto skin (i see women do this all the time, and it makes me cringe!).

    also, if i’m really intrigued by something, i do what i call huffing – i blow onto it through my nose – which warms and humidifies the area, and makes the scent pop a bit more.

    i also like to juxtapose a scent with something totally unlike it – i find that this brings out nuances and whole notes i wouldn’t otherwise have caught. and coffee beans don’t work – it has to be perfume vs. perfume.

    for me, the very best way to enjoy a scent is to spray it on my hairline at the back of neck and turn my blow dryer on it – this quickly brings out the scent in its full beauty. it’s one of the favorite parts of my day – i spray just before drying my hair. of course, i can’t take a blow dryer with me to the store, but if i could, i would. somebody should make a little blow dryer to achieve the same effect at the counter.

    i also find that i get a truer sense of a scent when i spray. dabbing doesn’t let it diffuse as much, and i wind up missing aspects of it. this is more true with edts than with extraits.

    i tell everyone to wait for about an hour before deciding on a scent (i go through the top/middle/bottom notes speech – and how the top notes are frontloaded, blah, blah, blah), but i can be terrible and break all of my own rules (i usually walk around the mall to achieve the waiting period), and snap up something on the spot, first sniff (i did this recently with au lac by eau d’italie, and i still can’t figure out why – something in it spoke to something inside of me). December 6, 2010 at 7:51pm Reply

  • minette: victoria, it’s true about lotions – when i got to meet francis kurkdijian a few months ago, we discovered together how my body lotion du jour affected his scents (baaaadly in one case, not so horribly in another). the thing is, though, i wear body lotion every single day – and i’m not coordinated enough to remember to leave patches of skin clean of it for perfume spraying – so i sorta have to know whether or not a perfume will work with my lotions. i just wear what i wear, and take my chances.

    i have noticed, though, that as i apply my lotion, which changes depending on what i bought last, i start sorting through my perfumes in my mind, thinking of which ones will work with the lotion. the smell of the lotion triggers a desire for certain scents and rules out others. December 6, 2010 at 8:46pm Reply

  • Victoria: @Linda
    Yes, that helps. I also like to concentrate when I am smelling, so being left alone is a good thing sometimes. December 7, 2010 at 9:43am Reply

  • Victoria: @Minette
    I tried your trick this morning as I started blowing drying my hair, and it really works nicely to give you a sense of diffusion. And above all, it is just such a pleasant way to start the day. Even my trusty delicate Annick Goutal Neroli seemed bold and dramatic.

    With so many tricks up your sleeve, you would make a good perfume shopping guide! 🙂 December 7, 2010 at 9:47am Reply

  • minette: victoria, i hope you get to meet him – he was very genial, and obviously enjoyed talking about his work. one thing i really like about his scents is that they work with the body, melding with your skin – instead of just sitting on top of you like a plastic corsage. they are animalic in that way. i mentioned that to him, and he told me he purposely used notes that would create that effect. i have two of his – lumiere noire and cologne pour le soir, and hope to add the new pour le soir absolu to my collection soon. December 7, 2010 at 2:47pm Reply

  • Victoria: @Minette
    I admit that I do not coordinate that much either. As I mentioned to Carla, I think that day-to-day it does not matter that much anyway. It is just relevant when you are comparing.
    It is great that FK came to the store event to present his line. It must have been interesting to hear how he envisioned his fragrances. December 7, 2010 at 9:50am Reply

  • Victoria: @minette
    Well, you, my dear, have just inspired me to place an order with Luckyscent for some samples. I smelled his fragrances, and there were a couple I liked, but I have not worn them long enough. So, I look forward to revisiting them. Cologne pour le soir is one of my favorites so far. December 7, 2010 at 4:17pm Reply

  • minette: i’ll be curious to hear your reaction to lumiere noire, victoria. i felt as if he’d made it just for me, it fit me so well. and it feels very special to me when i wear it (and gets tons of “you smell really good” compliments – always a bonus). cologne pour le soir feels tender to me, and yet sexy. nice juxtaposition. December 7, 2010 at 9:20pm Reply

  • Victoria: @minette
    I will definitely share my impressions. It is wonderful to discover a fragrance that fits like a second skin. Above all, it is rare! December 7, 2010 at 9:27pm Reply

  • LostArgonaut: It such a pleasure to shop in a fragrance shop, that sometimes I envy the people who work there! 🙂 And I equally enjoy reading your articles! March 12, 2011 at 1:42pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you. 🙂 As much as I enjoy perfume shopping, I think that working as an SA is tough! March 12, 2011 at 2:43pm Reply

  • Maureen: I have a bottle of L’air du Temps spray that is quite a few years old…is it still good? March 25, 2011 at 11:01am Reply

  • Victoria: It might still be good. If it smells spicy and green, it is right. March 25, 2011 at 12:12pm Reply

  • BBB: I have always loved fragrances but new to perfume blogs and niche perfumes. Recently dicover all these beautiful scents and helpful posts and I am enjoying them very much! Thank you for sharing. I have a question. I recently bought a decant of Montale’s Fluer d’Oranger and it smells really really bad, almost like peroxide used in hair colouring. My husband said the same thing. Is it because it has gone bad or is this how it is supposed to smell? May 4, 2011 at 8:00pm Reply

  • Philip Jackson: At first, it is as if sampling perfume is a science in itself. You really know perfumes a lot Victoria – I’m so impressed! Perfume aficionados, casual buyers, and first-time buyers can all find these tips very handy! Maybe you can also share some tips about perfume shopping with budget in mind. Again, great shopping tips for perfume. Cheers! May 18, 2011 at 6:40pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Philip! I will definitely try to outline a few tips on that. It is a great topic, thank you for suggesting it.
    Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile May 18, 2011 at 6:46pm Reply

  • Natalie: I was a bit puzzled about the Eau d’Iparie; I just bought a bottle a week ago…(and it is really lovely!)
    Or is it just discontinued in the states? July 31, 2011 at 8:32am Reply

  • TCZ1: You have done a wonderful job in writing this article. You are right on target when you said to let the alcohol evaporate before testing the scent on your skin. April 7, 2012 at 8:58am Reply

  • Daisy: Great article and wonderful tips. Almost everything you suggest reminds me of some of the training that I had when I learned how to taste wine. I remember being taught to use both nostrils. Until my teacher pointed it out, I hadn’t even noticed that I tended to shift the glass to one side of my face to concentrate the nose to just one! I get pretty bad seasonal allergies, so sometimes I still do this when one side is plugged and the other isn’t.

    Also great tip to eschew the coffee beans. I always find it weird that they are there. I mean, if the goal is to not overload your nose, why sniff something equally as potent?! That doesn’t make sense . . . But sipping water does. Cleansing. I will remember that and bring a small bottle with me from now on. August 3, 2012 at 2:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! I can see how wine tasting would follow some of the same principles–tasting with awareness, keeping your palate clean, etc. I would love to do a formal course. August 4, 2012 at 4:43am Reply

      • Daisy: Learning to taste wine is a lot like learning to appreciate anything to a great degree. I find that it is really about learning more about yourself: what you like, what you don’t like, where your boundaries are, and whether or not you are the kind of person who likes to push those boundaries.

        Or at least that’s how I feel about wine, food, and perfume.

        My first day of training, my boss set 12 glasses of chardonnay in front of me. Blind, no notes. I had to knock them all back and figure it out on my own.

        That first day I learned that a) spitting is important, and b) I do not like overly oaked chardonnay! August 4, 2012 at 6:22am Reply

        • Daisy: Oh, I forgot to add that I do like your idea of organizing fragrances by families! I get confused by chypres a lot. Sometimes I’ll be looking at a list of notes and think, “That’s a chypre?!” August 4, 2012 at 6:41am Reply

          • Victoria: It’s hard to judge looking at the list of notes, since you never know what’s more dominant and how much moss might be there. But to have a rough idea of what’s what can help. August 4, 2012 at 4:48pm Reply

        • Victoria: That’s a great way of explaining it. I suppose that yes, I like trying new things, even if that means that I find myself outside of my comfort zone. The rewards are worth it though. August 4, 2012 at 4:50pm Reply

  • Jessica McCarthy: “Let fragrance meld into your skin, let it become a part of you.” I have the worst problem with buying fragrance because I spell one and if I like it enough I’d buy it with out trying any out.

    Other than that, I do agree with trying to not wear any perfumes it does alter the smell, I know this from experience when I used to sell fragrance at Shoppers Drug Mart. January 30, 2017 at 4:33pm Reply

  • Fragosmic Ltd.: Nice Blog, Thanks for sharing such the useful tips. November 26, 2018 at 1:22am Reply

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