In writing my review of M. Micallef Aoud a few days ago, I had intended to direct readers to their USA website where I’ve bought a fair number of 5 ml miniatures, but it appears to no longer exist. This is a sad and unfortunate development because it means that people like me, who are on a limited budget and would not buy large sizes of perfume anyway because we value variety over sheer quantity, are no longer able to readily experience this excellent line and have to go to the decanters.
The disappearance of a favorite website, of course, leads to the question of whether it is good business practice to withdraw easy, inexpensive accessibility to one’s products in favor of the appearance of expensive luxury and exclusivity. There are conflicting philosophies on this issue. One is, “make it available, affordable, and easy to sample, and they will come”. The flip side of this approach is the common assumption that, “if it’s inexpensive, it can’t be good”. The opposite philosophy is, “make it scarce, expensive, and available only in large bottles and they will go to great lengths to seek it out and buy way more than they need”, the premise being, “if it’s rare and expensive, it must be good”. As with most things in life, both views are partly right and partly wrong.
There have been numerous studies on wine, both formal and informal, showing that people in a blind tasting really can’t tell which is the more expensive wine, and often rate cheaper ones as being better. Here’s just one example.
There are a lot of parallels between wine and perfume. They’re both experienced directly through the chemical senses, and they’re both surrounded by a lot of subjective psychological and cultural mumbo-jumbo. Put a three-buck Chuck in a fancy bottle, charge $65 for it, have a sommelier ceremoniously serve it in a dimly-lit restaurant with immaculate starched white cloth on the tables and classical music playing softly, and most people will savor it as if it’s the nectar of the gods. Put a fairly ordinary perfume in a diamond-studded, blown-glass bottle, make it available only through a few select, luxuriously appointed shops, charge an astronomical price for it, and people will feel incredibly special and sexy when they wear it. For a lot of people, spending large sums of money seems to work not only as a flavor-enhancer, but also as an aphrodisiac.
Clearly, the fancy-packaging phenomenon operates over an enormous range, but falls apart at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Anyone would be dismayed to find MD 20/20 in their $65 bottle of wine, just as they would be surprised to find the finest wine they ever tasted in a dirt-cheap box at the local stop 'n rob. Packaging is a form of communication that creates buyer expectations.
Like salmon courageously jumping up waterfalls to spawn, every successful perfumer is, at some point, faced with pressure to “go upscale”. Those with a lot of financial backing start out that way and never look back, like the fat farm salmon who never have to go out to sea. Those of us who bootstrap ourselves up from nothing eventually hear customers say, “I never tried your fragrances because they’re so inexpensive that I thought they couldn’t be any good. Then a friend sent me some samples.” We are told that potential wholesale buyers are put off by simple handmade packaging.
These issues and others go through my mind as I look objectively into the future and contemplate “moving to the next level” of the perfume business. In response to these concerns, part of my business plan is to offer a subset of my fragrances in more upscale, retailer-worthy packaging, which naturally increases the price, but it also increases visibility and accessibility to a demographic that might not find or try them otherwise. I am working on this plan right now, but at the same time I want to keep all of my products accessible to everyone, even those who can’t afford more than a few samples or a small, 5-ml bottle. I’m a blue-collar starving-artist perfumer at heart, more of a hands-on craftsperson who focuses on personally creating what’s in my head and heart than an aspirational entrepreneur who focuses on breaking into the highest social circles, characterized in terms of money, celebrity, or both. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind generating enough high-end sales to help subsidize online sales of my whole line of perfumes in small sizes and simple packaging, and keep me amply supplied with all of the expensive fragrance materials I need to make exactly what I want to make. And there is something to be said for beautiful packaging. I like it, too, and am continually searching for the most attractive packaging I can find for every price point.
Obviously I will continue to offer everything on my website at the same prices I do now, in simple, basic bottles, with upgraded (though not much more expensive) boxes, and gradually put together a “luxury” line that will appeal to those who want the upscale feel. An acquaintance who should know about these things observed that it doesn’t matter what’s in the bottle, it’s the appearance of the bottle that matters to store buyers. That’s no reason to skimp on what’s in the bottle, because once it gets into the hands of a consumer, the juice has to matter. Crap in a silver box with a silk ribbon on it is still crap.
It’s possible that those customers who order small, basic bottles from my website today may buy fancier, more expensive ones tomorrow or 10 years from now when I have really beautiful, iconic bottles that are themselves works of art. They may also inspire others to do so. It’s all an evolutionary process, keeping the good features that work, but also adapting in ways that facilitate a move into new niches (no pun intended). As Masha observed in a comment on another blog, I make "perfume for the people". I love that image, socialist that I am, and may even use that as my motto!
[Thanks to Wikimedia for the photos of a sterling silver box of coffee beans, a Serge Lutens bell jar, salmon jumping up a waterfall, condoms in a fancy jewelry box, and the iconic Shalimar bottle]