Know-how: The Wizard of Oz

Samples play an important role in our shared hobby: first, it’s the only way to experience perfumes that aren’t carried in stores close to where we live. But even for perfumes that we can find in B&M stores, paper test is not completely adequate even to get to the Yes/No/Maybe point – let alone form the final opinion; and skin “real estate” is too limited to get a proper wearing to more than maybe 4 perfumes during one visit even in summer time. It means that we need those precious fractions of ounces to do the testing without having to immediately share our delight, or lack thereof, with a helpful and eager SA.

I started writing this post in the second-person of view format “you should [not]” or “do <this>,” but quickly realized that I didn’t feel comfortable giving advice while I know that most of my readers could write all that themselves. Besides, I do not undertake step-by-step instructions but rather want to share my experience and thoughts on the subject. So I’ll stick to a first-person narration.

* * *

I try to buy as few samples as possible. On the onset of this hobby I went through the “initiation” phase when I wanted to test all the best perfumes created by that time and then try everything new. But as I reached some saturation point, on one hand, and the industry exploded on us, on the other, I realized that it didn’t make sense to keep paying to test more and more new perfumes while neglecting those for which I previously paid, sometimes even twice – first to try and then to add them to my perfume wardrobe. Besides, with my “success rate” (I like about 10-15% of new perfumes I try) I would be just wasting 85-90% of the costs that add up really quickly.

So, whenever possible, I sniff perfumes for free in stores. If I see any free manufacturer samples offered, I grab them and do not waste time on trying those perfumes in the store, unless there is nothing else to try at that time. I also try to resist temptation to “re-visiting” perfumes that I already know and/or have samples of, unless I want to try something sprayed (vs. a dab sample at home), or if I’m trying to decide on whether to buy it, or there is nothing else to try at that time.

 

Samples

 

Since I’m not trying to be the first to write about some new perfume (heh, I’m not writing much about any perfume), I never buy samples because perfume is not available yet in the store near me. I know that it will be there before I notice, and, most likely, I won’t like it anyway.

It helps to know stores’ policies and “habits” regarding perfume samples. Do they allow making your own samples (Nordstrom)? Will they make you several free samples whenever you ask (Sephora)? Do they have at least sometimes and give away samples or can make them if you ask (Neiman Marcus, Barneys)? Will they sic on you mental health social workers if you ask for a sample even with a purchase (Macy’s)? If there is anything of interest, and I know that the place, in principle, gives away samples, I always ask for them with confidence – and often get them.

 

Samples

 

The next best thing to getting samples for free is to obtain them almost for free: swapping. Costs: shipping and maybe some supplies if I want to make samples from my bottles (and the cost of perfume though it’s immaterial since I won’t use up all of those 1.7/3.4 oz bottles anyway). But it’s a tiny cost compared to other avenues for procuring samples. I prefer to exchange samples with people to whom I wouldn’t mind sending those samples “just because” even without the actual exchange (it takes away the pressure of negotiations), but I did some more formal swapping as well.

Not too often but from time to time I realize that if I want to try particular perfume, I have to buy a sample. First I check if a brand itself offers samples from their website, especially if it’s a small company: even if the price of a sample is the same as elsewhere, I want to cut off the middleman.

 

Samples

 

If the brand doesn’t sell samples, I look for a split on NST or one of the FB groups because for slightly more money than it would cost to buy a small sample from a decanter site, in a friendly split I can get a small decant. And since splits are usually done for new or very popular scents, even if I end up not liking that perfume, it’ll be easier to swap it for something else.

When all that fails, I’m trying to buy samples from real perfume stores that sell samples online – Luckyscent, Twisted Lily, Tiger Lily, Aedes, Osswald, etc. I prefer places that specialize in selling perfumes, not samples.

As a last resort, I go to The Perfumed Court or Surrender to Chance. I’m grateful that there are such businesses: without them I wouldn’t have been able to try at least several perfumes when I needed to (“needed” as in tried to decide, on a couple of occasions, if I wanted to buy perfume that I liked in the store but didn’t get a sample: as the result, I bought one of such and voted down the other one). But since it is their business, and they need to make money doing it, it is the least economically sound way of getting new perfumes to try.

 

Rusty and Samples

 

How do you sample? What was the last sample that you’ve bought?

Me? Naomi Goodsir Or du Serail. After smelling it in Tiger Lily perfumery first, I decided to buy a sample to try it on skin. So, it looks like I do not blind buy even samples any longer.

 

Images: my own

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36 thoughts on “Know-how: The Wizard of Oz

  1. Honestly, I haven’t been sampling too much lately. Really just enjoying the full bottles that are in my collection. Occasionally I will pop into Sephora and see what is new. I test on the paper strips and if interested ask for a sample. I can’t even remember the last samples I actually purchases :)

    • Before local Sephora started carrying Atelier Cologne and Tom Ford, I rarely even went into that store: for me it’s too much, I get overwhelmed by everything they offer (not perfume related). But now I especially like them for small bottles.

  2. I also decided to stop buying samples for the most part, because the success rate was so low. Plus I have so much perfume I hardly buy anything any more. I think the last sample I bought was Micallef Note Vanillée from Luckyscent to check the current formulation before buying a new bottle as my last bottle was purchased years ago.

    Like you, I prefer to buy samples (and bottles) from the manufacturer, as distributors take up to 80% of the perfumer’s profit margins and if I am supporting an indie perfumer, buying direct is the best way to do that.

    • Nah, buying samples to check something before the purchase doesn’t count. BTW, how was it? Did you still like it?
      I test perfumes to test, I do it in addition to wearing perfumes I have, not instead. But I would rather spend money on buying an extra bottle or decant of perfume that I tried already and liked – even though I do not need any – then on testing 20 more new perfumes from which I might not like a single one enough to even want to wear it from the sample.

      • The Note Vanillée did not smell different, just a bit less potent, but I think that perfume tends to macerate in the bottle, so I bought it and put it aside for a few months.

  3. Great topic to start the week with.

    I’ll say it straight – I hate buying samples because in Poland they are much more expensive than the perfume (niche perfume shops often sell a 1ml vial at a price that is 3 times higher than a price of 1 ml calculated based on 100ml bottle price)
    I prefer swapping samples, decanting a sample from my bottle in order to get something else in return. It costs less and is more friendly. I usually use Parfumo for that, because of the distance (most people there come from Germany or Austria, relatively close to Poland)
    Also here we don’t have so many possibilities of getting samples. Even Sephora here has a policy not to give you more than 1 sample if you’re not buying anything. So in the US you have it easier (also with multiple places that sell perfume).
    Last thing I bought was a decant of Prada L’Homme L’Eau

    • I’m not surprised by the per ml price: even in brand bottles 30 ml bottles are much more expensive than 100 ml ones are, and when it comes to decanters, it gets even worse. For example, Surrender to Chance offers 1 ml of Prada Marienbad for $12 – not counting shipping (while the retail bottle costs $300). I do not mind this type of business, I don’t even think it should be cheaper – I just don’t want to pay for it, unless I absolutely have to.

  4. I sniff whatever does make it to Chile, and send a sample order to my parents when I’m due for a vist home. The post is a disaster here, so nothing will arrive and there are no swaps as far as I am aware off. But Im less keen to try anything anyway and I do live vicariously thorough the wonderful blogs :)

    • If you do not mind my asking, Mariann, where is “home”? Is it in the U.S. or Europe?
      Are there any niche or high-end mainstream/boutique perfumes where you live in Chile?

  5. As a newbie I also did a lot of sample ordering as I discovered that the mounds of Sephora online samples that I had accumulated weren’t terribly interesting. My favorite sample orders have been from the indies- trying out SSS gave me several favorites. I love reading reviews and blogs but have come to realize I need to stop lemming the latest releases and focus on enjoying what I have – there just isn’t room for more in my closet!!

    • These days I’m often content with just reading about new perfume without actually getting to try it – at least not right away. 2K+ new releases per year put that “testing of everything new” in prospective. How many new perfumes can one try and still wear those from one’s collection? And to what end?

  6. Great post, Undina!

    When I first plunged down the rabbit hole, I swore I would never pay for samples. Why should I, with easy access to sampling for free in New York City. Well, NYC isn’t all that with ubiquitous access so I ended up buying samples.

    One of the most opulent sample sets I bought was the OJ Discovery Set, currently on loan to an NSTer…I found that I can get my money’s worth (in terms of saving someone else’s $s) by circulating my atomizer samples, similar to a perfume samples lending library. I’ve done the same with April Aromatics and Jo Loves.

    In addition to asking SAs for samples, whether I’ve bought something or not, I also carry empty atomizers and vials to foil any SAs who pout and say they love to except the store ran out of atomizers. My most memorable moment of filling my own atomizer was at a Christian Dior boutique — I had previously stopped by to sniff Mitzah and wanted a sample. The SA said they don’t give out samples, then I asked what if I brought my own, would I be able to make one for myself and she said yes. I went back the next day with a 5mL travel atomizer, asked for the Mitzah bottle and proceeded to decant ~ 3mLs before a horrified SA headed my way thinking I was messing up a pristine glass top. By some miracle, I was very accurate and did not spill a drop!

    As to the most recent samples I bought…🤔. I’ll post a link below this comment as I don’t want to run the risk of losing this comment.

      • I was tempted by those as well but I tried 3 perfumes from each of the sets – so it is slightly less appealing. But I might still cave: it looks very nice.

        I started sending off to others samples I tried and do not plan on using: I don’t want to wait for them to die in my “library” while someone else pays again to test those.

    • I also carry empty vials with me, though I didn’t have to use them in a long while: SAs were being cooperative. I blame it on my age and clothes: they see a potential buyer in me.

  7. I don’t believe in buying samples. The whole idea of samples is they were meant to be given free to tempt the consumer. My policy is I only buy perfumes available locally and those can be tested in the store and free samples received in the store for home testing. This may limit the field but I am satisfied with a smaller choice.

    • It’s true about samples when it comes to big brands with big marketing budget. I never buy those samples. But with small niche brands and Internet it won’t work: they just can’t afford to give away samples. Some of them offer samples, price of which can be taken off the future full bottle purchase. I have many niche brands available for testing at stores relatively close to where I live but if to count time to get to the city and the cost of parking in the downtown, sometimes it is cheaper to buy several samples I’m interested in. But not too often.

  8. I am missing life in Singapore, where I could walk to town, get my exercise and spray a few niche perfumes. Three seems to be my limit to absorb in one go. Now where I am in Texas I just don’t have that kind of access, and in Australia it was even worse. I still order samples, but I put a lot of research into it and read a lot of reviews. I really do need to start going through all the samples I’ve collected over the years, wear, and discard. The storage is getting out of control. And spraying on paper is pretty useless to me. I just smell paper, strongly. I have better luck sniffing the sprayer. By the way, your samples should be here June 2nd. I’ll pm you when I have them in hand.

    • Sometimes there is just no way around buying samples if for whatever reason you want to try particular brand or perfume.
      I can do 4 perfumes simultaneously if I wear short sleeves: two on each wrist and two closer to elbow. But having several perfumes on my skin is useful only for the initial take on what I think about each. To get nuances or decide if I want to wear it, I need to pay perfume my undivided attention.
      (Thank you! I’m looking forward to getting those samples)

  9. Currently, I try to only buy samples directly from the perfumer. My last two sample sets are from Bruno Fazzolari and Phlur. I’ve spent a small fortune at the decanters and so am trying to avoid them because I get overwhelmed by choice and I always order a weird combination of samples and forget the ones I really wanted. At least with the perfumer’s set, you know there is a coherent theme.

    I am lucky to have access to most brands that I’m interested in within 90 minutes, so if I am really motivated to try something, it’s just a drive away.

    • As much as I appreciate decanter sites, I try not to spend my samples budget there and, whenever I can, I’m trying to save others from doing that by sharing what I’ve got.
      San Francisco is a good place for testing perfumes but I can’t do it too often: I need to have a large list of what I want to try to justify parking prices there.

  10. I was nodding along as I was reading this post, as I very much agree with your reasoning / MO, and at this stage in my perfume hobby my approach to acquiring samples is awfully similar.

    In the early stages of perfume mania I spent a fortune with The Perfumed Court as it was then, but the equivalent volume of vials would cost a lot more now. Their prices have rocketed, or so it seems to me.

    The last sample (this year) I bought was a Creed one…the full story will be the subject of a blog post sometime, as it was needed for a kind of experiment.

    • I look forward to reading “the full story.”
      I do not remember TPC’s prices when I just found them about 8 years ago. But, the way I see it, initially it was closer to splits culture where bottles owners were offsetting costs of their hobby by selling off portions of their bottles, with a small profit margin. These days it became a real business that needs to be profitable. I’m completely for it, I’m just trying not to contribute to their success :)

  11. Hi Undina! I did buy samples about 10 years ago, not too often. Memorably Malle and Histoire de Parfum. Great service and great samples. I bought full bottles from both. I don‘t buy samples any more, ever. I live in the middle of it all and know enough people to get what I want easily, and I take cookies to Vienna and they fill my atomizers with a smile. Hugs. ❤️

    • Hi Val!
      I bought samples from both of the brands you’ve mentioned (directly), and I bought perfumes from those brands as well. So, there were some positive results, so since there are some brands that I either don’t test at all or pay to try (e.g., not a single store I know around carries vero rofumo brand but I can’t not to test it at all, right? ;) ). But whenever I can avoid buying, I do it. If I only could avoid paying for cookies… :)

  12. Hey there Undina,
    I still get loads of samples from the decanter sites. Surrender To Chance is by far my favourite and I love the girls there too. Australia has only the tip of the niche iceberg available so unless I’m overseas getting hold of new stuff is virtually impossible.
    I like split groups but sometimes it takes months to get the split and the brand has already released another new bottle. So I’m doing those less and less.
    It’s interesting now that APJ is on hiatus, I’m wearing only my favourites and newest perfumes. It will be great to get back into sampling and writing again soon. Your help has been invaluable already on that score, thank you.
    Portia xx

    • I miss APJ very much, we need to get it back finally. Let’s renew the “talks” :) Your scent diaries were one of my favorite features: I can’t follow all the new perfumes being released but I enjoy seeing your favorites being used and talked about.

  13. Hello Undina, I never buy samples. But I am all for trying fragrances for free in stores and am always on the lookout for freebies. Shameless I know. Tee hee!

  14. Living in a small town, I have very little access to free samples that I’d actually be interested in. Mainstream and celeb scents, sure, I can find those testers at Belk’s, or Macy’s if I want to go to the mall 50 miles away. (I thought I might get one of Gabrielle at the mall 20 miles away, but the SA told me they were out. I asked if I could make my own. Answer: No! Just spray from the tester!) If I want something fancier than Cashmere Mist and J’Adore, I have to drive five hours to Richmond.

    It sucks. Also, it probably uses as much in gas as I’m using buying samples. :(

    I buy fewer samples these days, but if I think some new release might suit me, I’ll go ahead and toss it on my wishlists at the decanters, then wait for them to announce a 15-20% off sale and order the 5-6 that I want.

    • I agree that it sucks: even though I get to San Francisco where we have Barneys, Saks and “fancier” Neiman Marcus 2-3 times a year, there is a not that bad mall 25-30 minutes drive away where I can test many of the high end brands – Tom Ford, Guerlain, Armani Prive, Creed, etc. But without that I would have been stuck with a choice of either paying for samples or not testing them.
      I wonder: what is your “success rate” with samples that you buy now?

  15. This post inspired me to figure out my own sample success rate. 3%. Wow.

    Funny, but my sample – buying habits are almost the same as yours. Free in stores or from Sephora; swaps; buying samples from fellow fragrance lovers, usually at a heavily discounted price; buying samples from the company.

    The last sample I bought was Annick Goutal Rose Splendide as part of a larger swap.

    • 3%? It is rather discouraging :) It means that you should really pace yourself when it comes to deciding what samples to buy (but you can still be indiscriminate in your free testing ;) ).

  16. Pingback: Second Sunday Samples: Tigerlily Perfumery – Undina's Looking Glass

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