Pitti Fragranze Questions Niche Fragrances’ Retail Evolution

FLORENCE — Not just products.
For the first time, established and emerging niche fragrance houses exhibiting at Pitti Fragranze were not the main attraction of the trade show. Instead, the three-day event, which ended Sept. 15 at the Stazione Leopolda venue, spotlighted the work of renowned perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, the difficult conditions at retail and the rise of clean skin care.
In particular, Ellena was celebrated with a retrospective featuring 15 of the most significant fragrances he created throughout his 43-year career. These included “Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert” that he made in 1993 for Bulgari, the 1998 fragrance “In Love Again” for Yves Saint Laurent and “L’Eau d’Hiver” for Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, as well as some of the scents created for Hermès during his 14-year tenure as the brand’s exclusive in-house perfumer.
“I can’t choose one in particular, I like all of them, they are like children to me,” he said. Being the first special guest in 17 editions of Pitti Fragranze made him “happy and proud, but not only for me, for the whole category because this is a kind of recognition of all perfumers' work.”
Yet he was undoubtedly the man of the event, as he greeted nearly every one of the 170 exhibitors, hosted talks retracing personal anecdotes and memories behind his creations, signed copies of his latest book and introduced his newest scent “Rose & Cuir,” developed for Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. One such anecdote centered on the creation of Bulgari's Thé Vert fragrance when he was the first to introduce minimalism in perfumery by cutting the number of ingredients from 60 to 19.
Asked about the future of the industry and a possible saturation of the ever-growing niche market, Ellena admitted there’s “a lot of niche today, but it’s normal. This will always be the future of perfumery. Always. You can't fight against like LVMH or L'Oréal, they are too powerful economically. But the thing is that we remain the future of this industry.”
Yet the state of retail threw some clouds on Ellena’s forecast. This year, the general sentiment at the trade show was that distributors and buyers needed more solutions to their growing concerns retail-wise rather than new products.
“This fair has always been the reference point for the Italian market, but the Italian market is suffering,” said Roberto Drago, co-owner and cofounder of Italian distributing company Kaon, whose portfolio of 20 brands includes Laboratorio Olfattivo, Pierre Guillaume Parfumeur, Andy Tauer, Miller et Bertaux and Lucien Ferrero, among others.
“I have many clients that are not coming back to the show, mainly for two reasons. The big ones already know these brands or saw the list of exhibitors ahead and decided they are not interested, the others have no budget to buy anymore,” said Drago.
His words were confirmed by the buyers’ attendance, which decreased 7 percent compared to the previous edition. In particular, this year the event attracted around 2,000 visitors bowing from 50 countries, with French buyers leading the foreign representatives, followed by the Russian, German and Spanish ones.
“I’m worried as I see the same dynamics of the commercial perfumery in the Nineties happening all over again, but with some boost from the web and social media,” said Drago.
“This market has been assaulted by multinational companies’ acquisitions, but that was the first step. Now, we’re in the second phase, which is their invasion in the retail space.” For the executive, stores were neutral containers, offering the same shelf space to each brand, whereas now niche names backed by big companies dominate in-store through branded displays and corners “leaving less and less space for all the other ones, so the war is uneven.”
The next step will be played out in communication, as the acquired brands boast bigger budgets for marketing activities. These will fuel the demand of customers naturally, making the role of trained sales assistants unnecessary, according to Drago.
“Then big perfumeries chains will eventually take over. For instance, Douglas has already asked for some brands, and I wonder how many niche labels will resist the temptation to be distributed in 2,000 doors,” he said.
Italian indie perfumeries have their share of faults, too. Drago accused many of them of not being able to keep up the pace with the evolution of the market. “They are stuck in 2003, but they need to understand things have changed, they are not the only stores in a neighborhood and that now we also have online stores,” he said, adding that some of his clients don’t even have a computer in their units. “How can I even think of offering services like a newsletter or a digital platform to place orders directly if they don’t even have a computer, nor a web site or social media accounts? In a competitive world, where everybody is selling the same products, you can’t afford luxury not to be online.”
Therefore, the executive is reconsidering his strategy and trying to identify retailers with a long-term vision to partner with, but didn’t exclude that in the future he might also open his own store, as some of his Italian competitors already did, including Olfattorio and Calé.
To keep Pitti Fragranze relevant for the industry, Drago told organizers to “add a range of talks but not about succeeding in China, rather about concrete issues close to Italian retailers’ survival.…I even suggested to set up an ideal perfumery here, to show how the store of the future is supposed to look like.”
“We are aware the scenario of artisanal perfumery is widely evolving,” echoed Agostino Poletto, the general director of the show’s organizer, Pitti Immagine. “Both the Italian market and some key foreign ones are showing criticality in terms of distribution,” he said, adding that organizers are already working on heightening the focus on this theme next year.
The call for action was heard this year, as some of the talks scheduled centered on the topic, with key international retailers discussing the best strategies to enhance the customer experience both off- and online and increase clients’ engagement through interior design, in-store activities and social media.
Valentino di Liello, business development director of Italian retailer Campomarzio70, underscored the importance of hosting in-store events to “engage clients and convey emotions” to consumers. “That’s the secret in every industry: when someone offers cultural moments to enhance its business and make clients fall in love with what he does, that’s when he becomes successful,” he said.
Sarah Rotheram, chief executive officer of the Miller Harris brand, additionally mentioned art exhibitions and lessons in foraging ingredients as part of the brand’s in-store implementations. “Today is not about selling a perfume, you can't engage with customers over and over again by selling to them. Marketing as we knew it is gone, today it's all about authenticity and integrity and sharing a community with our customers,” she said.
The role played by sounds and the influence music tempo has on sensory communication were also taken into account, as they “can enhance the perfume and provoke an emotional response in the customer,” added Rotheram.
“We try to play something that people don’t expect,” echoed Nicolas Cloutier, one of the seven founders of Parisian fragrance destination Nose. “ brings people out of their comfort zone, which is something interesting. So it’s not just about the smell, but going through different senses at the same time,” he said.
Interior design was seen as crucial to boost sales and mark the success of a store. “After 30 restyling projects, we analyzed data comparing sales before and after an interior renovation and noticed an increase of at least 10 percent in sales after the revamp,” said retail space designer Adriana Genro.
She particularly stressed the importance of having hybrid spaces and stores offering a cross-pollination of categories to include bars, tea rooms, meditation or yoga rooms.
Most of all, she underscored the importance of Instagram in designing a space. “Set up Instagrammable designs even if people won’t eventually share them on social media, because customers are nowadays used to this kind of aesthetics, they expect it from a store,” she said.
According to a HermesLab study that interviewed 250 European companies plus exhibitors and operators attending the show, the lack of a digital culture is a critical element for the industry as many retailers still perceive online stores as competition, rather than tools fueling sales.
“We should not neglect the online channel, especially for Millennials, who will be the next generation approaching niche products…but our core business remains the offline,” said di Liello, confirming the Italian market still relies on physical stores.
Rotheram and Cloutier underscored that there’s an integration between the two platforms. “We recruit customers online but they buy off-line,” said the former, while the latter stated that 80 percent of the traffic at Nose goes online before. “At the beginning, everybody thought e-commerce would have killed the retail and this has never happened. Retail will continue to be really key, but everything today must be hybrid as much as possible,” said Cloutier.
“If you look at the market today, the digital has changed everything,” said Maxime Garcia-Janin, founder of Sillages Paris, which disrupted the industry by offering affordable and customized niche fragrances online.
“Ten years ago who would have thought to buy shoes online? It seemed impossible because people thought they had to touch and try them, but now they do. And it’s the same for food, makeup, skin care and jewelry,” he continued, explaining that establishing his online brand in 2017 was a natural choice considering the gap in the market.
“For me online is not a risk, I truly believe you can sell anything online as long as you truly adapt your model to the e-commerce, which implies to give the right to be wrong," he said, adding that clients have 14 days to test samples of scents and can eventually send them back. “So far, only 5 percent of customers did.”
If retailers seemed skeptical toward the opportunities provided by online, most emerging brands exhibiting at the event showed the opposite approach.
Rhizome was one of them, founded by Italian entrepreneurs Dario Pozzi, Stefano and Andrea Aschieri. The goal of the new label is to offer an entry product to niche perfumery through approachable fragrances. The collection counts five scents based on woody and leathery notes, retailing at 96 euros for the single 100-ml. format, in addition to a couple of candles priced at 35 euros.
To encourage online sales, the brand offers sample kits at 15 euros to discover all the scents, providing an additional discount in case a customer decides to buy a fragrance after the test.
Berlin-based edgy label Aer also implemented the service, offering 2-ml. samples for each of its six fragrances at 10 euros. Available in prominent retailers across Germany and at international doors such as 10 Corso Como in Milan, Takamichi Beauty Room in New York and, starting next month, at Dover Street Parfums Market in Paris, the brand additionally builds on engaging with customers by hosting workshops in its Berlin atelier to teach beauty aficionados to create their own 10-ml. perfume using natural ingredients.
Aqua dos Açores was another indie name already ahead in the e-commerce game, although the brand was launched this year by Cinzia Caiazzo. Inspired by the Azores volcanic islands and developed in Florence by nose Alba Chiara De Vitis, the label’s two main eau de parfums — Flores and 50-ml. and 100-ml. formats at 75 euros and 115 euros, respectively. Physical retailers include a number of doors in Portugal, such as the El Corte Inglés department store in Lisbon, and niche perfumeries in Florence, such as Atelier Parfumeide. “But my goal is to sell my product in stores not strictly related to fragrances, as the shelves in the niche perfumeries are too crowded,” said Caiazzo, mentioning that her scents can already be found in Florence’s nautical shop La Maona, a hairdresser saloon and in a fabric store.
This edition of Pitti Fragranze also gave greater attention to niche skin care, welcoming many clean beauty labels.
The Muse & Heroine agency’s booth was among the busiest stands. Founded by Janine Knizia, the agency promotes a selection of international natural beauty brands, including Le Prunier, Henua, Marine and Vine, Radiće and Activist.
“This is my first time attending the event,” said Knizia, adding that her trade show debut was way beyond her expectations. Visitors to her booth were mainly international — led by German, Austrian and Spanish buyers — rather than Italian, as clean beauty is still unexplored territory in the country. “It’s my mission to explain what all this is, especially in Italy where there’s still a lot to do in this area.”
Noticing a gap in the European market is what encouraged Knizia to establish the business. After her frequent travels to Los Angeles, where she used to buy products at Credo and The Detox Market, she realized she couldn’t find the same labels in Europe, so she decided to create a bridge between the continents. “I said ‘OK, someone has to do it’ because the labels' founders don't know how and the retailers don't have the time to take care of shipments, duties, taxes and certifications.”
So she established a warehouse in Italy and took care of all these aspects in importing and promoting the 12 labels in her portfolio with her network of 120 retailers, including LuisaViaRoma in Florence, Antonia in Milan and Montaigne Market in Paris. In addition, she operates in the Middle East, which she considers “even behind Italy in terms of clean beauty as local customers still want to have the big names and logos, but I think that market will grow in the next two to three years.”
Asked about what’s next for this category, Knizia said “more clean beauty-focused stores will open…and overall this will change a little bit traditional perfumeries, which will have more and more problems.”
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