Fragrance Samples – Which are worth it?

In the past few months alone I have seen a huge rise in the number of perfume companies offering samples or sample sets through online marketing.  No doubt once I clicked on one the powers of targeted advertising sent hundreds more my way.  This does seem to be quite a savvy move by business, a way of adapting to the growth of online shopping, and to the understandable unwillingness of cash-short young consumers to pay out large amounts for things they haven’t tried, and can’t return.

Of all products, fragrances are perhaps the least suited to online shopping; no matter how precisely the base, middle, and top notes are described, it never quite gets across what it will really smell like, and if you’re not familiar with the ingredients (how many people can really instantly recall the scent of frankincense?), you haven’t a hope.  So by offering small samples, of usually only a few milliliters, at a price which is highly affordable to the purchase but still an enormous mark-up for the seller, companies can side-step these issues.  By including some sort of discount on receipt of the sample, they can further incentivise the ultimate purchase of full-size bottles.  If you decide not to buy, they’ve still made a good profit on the sample.  So for them, it is a win-win situation.  But what about for you?  It would be nice of them to just offer smaller, more reasonably priced bottles.  But they’ve got a good thing going, so why change?  In the fact of this plethora of perfume, I’m going to undertake a series of tests to find which of these sample services are worth their value, and which you can give a miss.


Today I’ll be looking at Penhaligon’s.  This is where it all started for me, as I first came across this service a couple of years ago.  Penhaligon’s is one of those classic British brands which has been around forever and just keeps going, even though you hardly ever meet anyone who uses them.  Founded in the late 1860s by William Penhaligon, Court Barber and Perfumer to Queen Victoria, they have gone in for something of a re-brand in the last few years, cashing-in on the popularity of ‘English eccentricity’ and a sort of Jeeves and Wooster sense of fun and humour.  Cartoon gentlemen and fragrances named after female aristocrats hark back to the company’s origins, whilst giving an impression of luxury.  As you often find with companies of this sort, they are achingly un-self-aware.  A venture founded at the height of the British Empire, it (like a horrifyingly large number of British people) doesn’t seem to have realised that the Empire wasn’t something to be proud of.  The story which could charitably be described as ‘evocative’ accompanying the ‘Vaara’ scent reads kike some sort of orientalising day-dream, while that of ‘Halfeti’ proclaims that ‘all respectability forgotten, we have travelled…as far as Turkey’.  I think this sort of marketing is so prevalent in British luxury (or pseudo-luxury) brands that I’m going to have to write a whole piece on it.  Perhaps it’s something about implying the greatness of your brand by association with the power and prestige of Empire, in willful ignorance of the deliberate and devastating effects thereof?  A post for another day, but worth bearing in mind when you’re interacting with British brands.

A set of questions from the Penhaligon’s Fragrance Quiz

With prices averaging between £140 and £180 per bottle, it is easy to see why Penhaligon’s would benefit from a sample selection.  Their online shop offers reasonably priced gifts selections, as £20 and £38.  But the sampling option that they market widely is a Fragrance Quiz.  This involves answering some colourfully presented questions, on completion of which you will be given the choice to pick two fragrances to receive ‘free’ samples of.  The catch is that you pay for postage and packing, at £5.50.  On receiving your small package you will note that postage only cost £1.69, but I suppose it is quite reasonable to expect to pay for someone to parcel it up.  It must however make this option one of the worst value fragrance samples.
The questions are quite fun, akin to those you used to find in women’s magazines, or which are still the plague of Buzzfeed.  You’ll be asked when and where you want to wear the scent, how you want to feel when wearing it, where you like to holiday, what you like to drink, etc.  Out pop at the end some suggestions, with short descriptions.  I’ve done this several times now, and it is a fairly good way to finds scents that will suit different occasions or moods.  For instance, sometimes I choose a feminine fragrance, others I prefer something more masculine (not that I believe scents should be gendered!).  If you have quite specific tastes, it can help you drill down through the large selection to something you’ll enjoy.

As for the fragrances themselves, they are very powerful.  Some of them do smell a little old-fashioned (one proclaims to have been created in 1996…), they are heavier and soapier than I would like, and can be a little over-bearing.  You certainly don’t need to use very much at a go, so the tiny bottles can go a fairly long way.  But when they are good, they’re really good. A particular favourite of mine is ‘Lothair’, a wonderfully confident and woody fragrance.  The ‘Ladies” scents are not quite so appealing, but I have enjoyed some of the lighter perfumes, like Orange Blossom (sadly no longer available as a perfume), and Peoneve.  The fragrances really pack a punch, and I am always complimented on them.  My current favourite is Quercus, a really beautiful, subtle scent with basil, jasmine, and cardamom (among many others).  

It can’t be said that this is the best value sample service.  Nor is the company willing to make any specific claims to being ethical or environmentally responsible, and in fact it peddles some rather questionable content about our colonial past.  But the fragances are of a very high quality, and this is a good way to choose a scent without having to visit a shop, or take the gamble of spending over £100 on a untried bottle.  The scents are more complex than your average mass-market perfume, so if you’re looking for something slightly off the beaten track, or that you wouldn’t otherwise think of, then give this a go.

What sample service would you like me to try next?  Have you tried any yourself, and if so, what did you think?  Leave your comments and suggestions below, I’d love to hear!

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