Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Guerlain’s Other Problem

Having waxed indignant about Guerlain’s ham-handed treatment of fragrance blogger Octavian Coifan, I was surprised to see the brand name in a different context a few days later. Reporter Nedra Rhone wrote a Sunday feature for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on how to find the right summer fragrance. Here’s her local hook for the story:

Six years ago, Atlanta fragrance lover Diane Weissman began decanting perfumes into small vials or bottles that she would sell on eBay to customers who wanted to sample fragrances.
So far so good—people sell all kinds of stuff of eBay. Then comes this:
Two years ago, Weissman and three other decanters joined forces to launch . . . offering samples of high-end fragrances . . . This summer, Weissman designed a sampler that includes fragrances from Hermes, Guerlain, Estee Lauder and Chantecaille. For $45, customers get a little whiff of 16 summer scents in four categories . . .

Whoa! Ms. Weissman and her partners have been re-selling Guerlain perfume in stock bottles for two years. If there was ever a righteous legal target for the Goons of Guerlain wouldn’t be it?

The decanters are directly profiting on Guerlain’s trademarks without Guerlain’s permission. The rationale for trademarks is to assure the public they are buying genuine goods whose quality is backed by the manufacturer. Someone less ethical than Ms. Weissman might fraudulently sell inferior perfume as “Guerlain.” Someone less careful than Ms. Weissman might accidentally contaminate the decanted samples. Someone less sane than Ms. Weissman might deliberately adulterate the “Guerlain.” Any of these scenarios are potentially damaging to Guerlain’s commercial reputation and it would be reasonable for the company to put the kibosh on decanters.

In fact, the murky legal status of selling decanted samples prompted eBay to ban such transactions in April, 2007. The Basenotes site quickly followed by barring sales or swapping of decants. In response, independent decanter sites like ThePerfumedCourt have sprung up all over.

That people are willing to pay for grey-market trial samples of perfume ought to be a big clue to manufacturers that their marketing model needs to change. They’d do well to get ahead of the curve on this phenomenon and do it quickly. Otherwise they’ll end up like the music industry—suing their own consumer base.

In the meantime, I’ll be listening for the legal beagle that hasn’t barked.


Olfacta said...

Once upon a time, retailers gave away samples of their perfumes. Had testers you could spray on your skin. Shelves were stocked with a line's entire offerings, or at least some were below the counter, and the "sales associates" knew what they were. Now, it's a teeny spritz on a little card if you're lucky, surly clerks who know nothing, and only the line's most heavily advertised scents being stocked at all.

These decanters fill a necessary void for those of us who like to try new and different perfumes, especially from independent perfumers, but are not necessarily gazillionaires. I am an enthusiastic supporter of several of them and I trust them. I hope this and the Atlanta paper's "outing" won't focus unwanted attention on the Perfumed Court, which is the best of them IMHO.

For a huge conglomerate like LVMH, isn't it so much easier to try to shut someone down than to change, well, anything? They've already proved that they're willing to be the schoolyard bully by threatening a Octavian Coifan.

I worked in the music industry for years. There were many second-hand record stores the distributors and chains dearly wanted out of business. But then the smartest labels came up with alternative marketing strategies that used these places to expose, and ultimately break, new bands and artists. Many of these stores still exist, while the chain stores, who played by the big boy's rules, are gone.

I don't think Guerlain is nearly as nimble as these labels once were. I think they're much more likely to swing their mighty club again.

I'm not sure that I would have talked to a major newspaper if I were part of a decanting business, but that wasn't my decision to make. The exposure of decanters and swap sites and so on may not be the wisest action at this time. Let's hope the giants are sleeping soundly in their caves today.

Avery Gilbert said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I agree there's a huge sampling gap between perfume manufacturers and their public. Consumer expectations have changed and the industry needs to adjust. People now buy music by the song, not the album, and they want to buy perfume by the dram not the full bottle. Can't the industry accommodate them? For Pete's sake, even the delicatessen offers you a taste of the cold cuts before you buy.

Instead they spend large on celebrity spokesfaces (who does this impress?) and on full page ads in magazine (with ever-declining readership and buzz).

The decanters are making hay in the sampling gap. I admire their entrepreneurial spirit. However I think that's territory the manufacturers should own if they want to defend their business. Time there would be much better spent than swatting down enthusiasts such as Octavian Coifan.

Olfacta said...

Well, I'm no free-market drum-beater, but I'd say this is a classic free-market scenario.

In other words, if the manufacturer is too dumb/blind/slow/top-heavy/bureaucratic/arrogant to fill an obvious need, someone else will and has. So should they be slapped for it? I still say no.