Three Independent Perfume Retailers Reveal Their Winning Formula.

2024 . 03 . 14 | written by Laurence Arrigo Klove

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An investigation to find who ‘pulled it off’ and prove the success of a retail occupation. I conducted my search in three European capitals, Brussels, Bucharest, and Budapest, not the usual celebrities, albeit rich in activities. I identified independent business owners, in different countries, with distinct realities, and many similarities. My interview with the founders - Kurt Stragier of Smell Stories, Cristina Balan of Elysee, Ákos Pozsgai of 7scents- reveals how they are united in their model of independence. During the 2024 Esxence edition, the discussion on ‘the new rules for a winning perfume retail model’ was both enlightening and entertaining. The article outlines the invigorating vision on the future of retail of a spirited, talented, and united triumvirate.

The Founders Rich Life Biographies Create Unique Perfume Stories.

I could not help noticing that the three founders have entered the perfume world from different angles. I found out that their personal story gives the key to the door entry:

Kurt grew up in a typical Flemish little town, home to one of the best perfumeries in Belgium. He specialized in product development, marketing, and customer experience first in fashion then in the services industry. In his spare time, he studied painting, photography and started collecting perfumes and perfume advertisements. In 2019, Kurt fell in love with a retail space that was for rent. It was the perfect place to start a niche perfumery with his partner Stéphane. Smell Stories was born.

Kurt and Stéphane, the founders of Smell Stories

Cristina has a bachelor’s in international trade and a master’s in business administration from the university in Bucharest. France became her second home as she decided to first study at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris and later at the prestigious Institute of Perfumery in Grasse. Cristina runs her business founded in 2007 with a perfumer’s perspective and unique expertise. Elysée now consists of two perfume shops and a distribution channel in Romania.

Cristina Balan, founder of Elysee

Ákos studied commerce, foreign trade, and online marketing. He focused his online work on mathematical modelling for marketing budget allocation. His career was in street fashion marketing but he was equally talented as a DJ. Ákos’s passion for live music is a key foundation of 7scents which he opened in 2020. A new perfumery concept, with a goal to offer perfume experiences, like the ones he performed during his nightlife time.

7scents is about mixing – bringing people together – daring and having fun with fragrances. Perfume is by essence a social element. We can enjoy it together so much better than alone.’

Ákos Pozsgai, founder of 7scents

Ákos Pozsgai, founder of 7scents mixing people

I also wondered about the choice for the name of their perfumery. Their responses are self-explanatory.

Cristina explained she chose the name ELYSEE from the Elysee fields which in the Greek Mythology symbolize the paradise land. A place made of harmony and perfection. It is Elysee’s intention to offer a heavenly experience with the perfect scent to delight the senses.

Kurt told me that Smell Stories encapsulates the shop new concept in two sequences. The first one is to step inside and freely discover the story behind each brand and perfume. The second is to feel a scent connection, linked to one’s personal story and becoming a part of it at that very moment.

Ákos chose 7scents decisively. ‘7’ is his lucky and romantic number to travel through life’s time circle. From the mundane to the extraordinary moments, 7scents aims to offer a 360-degree vision of an olfactive life.

It was time to ask them about the most important performance pillars for their retail business.

For Ákos, managing 7scents like an event house comes first. Customers value the chance to meet the perfumers at live events during which 7scents has the opportunity to build customer relationships, even friendships. The second pillar is about providing a learning experience, with discovery boxes around an ingredient, or an olfactive style. It allows customers to understand which perfumes they are fond of and make a purchase at their leisure without any pressure. The third pillar is ‘owning’ the advertising space. A high level of energy is dedicated to producing high-quality content in videos and tutorials. Finally, having an excellent relationship with the perfume brands allows 7scents to be treated as special.

One of 7scents events

In Cristina’s view, Elysee’s strongest asset is the abundance of a solid audience. Its database is rich in quantity and quality: 10’000 clients’ purchase history is analyzed prior to targeting each campaign and newsletter. Another important factor of Elysee’s success is to collect feedback, to listen to the clients’ needs and to answer them. To remain flexible is also essential to make adaptations to new market conditions, pandemic, economic or any other changing factor.

According to Kurt, Smell Stories’ success is about offering perfumes experiences that are personal and unique. People are looking for exceptional experiences, including when buying perfume in a physical shop. Smell Stories is not just shelves with products but a place where people are part of a community sharing a perfume experience. Organizing events allows customers to learn about perfumes, to get to know the people behind a brand and belong to a community. Personal service is essential, it creates trust and customer loyalty. Every touch point has a personal and consistent touch; in-store, newsletters, articles, social media, online orders. ‘This is the new luxury built on a personal story’. As the new generations want to express their individuality, offering small-scale brands that cannot be found everywhere is the answer to being ‘unique’:

‘Just like a tattoo, an artistic perfume is a way of expressing your unique personality.’

Kurt Stragier, Smell Stories founder

Smell Stories discovery box personal touch

I decided to address the specific topic of staff training and ask how they invest on selling techniques, or technical perfume training, or both…

Smell Stories does not have staff yet so Kurt explained that he must invest time mastering each fragrance and each brand given his customers high level of expectation on his perfume expertise. Kurt and Stéphane also challenge their performance every day with the following questions: what can be done better, or differently, how to best present the products in the shop, on the website, how to ensure a memorable customer experience... The advantage of a small business is to be able to adapt quickly, to learn from trial and error.

Cristina acknowledged that her staff is a key pillar of Elysee’s business. In retail, staff act like ambassadors, creating the connection with clients, generating sales, and building customer loyalty. Investing in them is essential, with the right balance between selling techniques and technical knowledge to achieve results both in terms of service and sales.

Ákos also agreed that staff is a key factor of success. When a new employee joins, 7scents goes through all the brands and perfumes, one a time. The exercise takes weeks to complete but is worth the effort. Connections between fragrances, ingredients and style are the last training element. Each time a new fragrance comes in, there is a team discussion on the best potential customer. Perfumes ‘blind tasting’ sessions are also a playful occasion to test the team knowledge of the collection.

Now that we understood their bases of success, I wanted to explore their business challenges too. Here are their points of view.

Cristina started by explaining that the main challenge is the change in the behaviour of clients post pandemic. Their hesitation to physically come in the stores is for some still high. The rising inflation is also having a negative impact on retail in Romania. Clients are being more careful with their spendings; nevertheless, no matter the level of purchase, Elysee continues to nurture the human relationship established. She also points out that choosing the right brand is critical as budget must be allocated carefully to a limited selection of brands that must share the same philosophy as the retailer. Time must be spent understanding and ‘clicking’ with the perfume house.

A niche fragrance retailer is now like a curator, who creates and maintains a healthy and strong portfolio of brands’ Cristina Balan, founder of Elysee.

Elysee shop in Bucharest

Kurt concurred about the tough choice of brands. There must be a match, and a new brand should bring something extra to what is already on offer. The brand selection must be limited, in a market with an abundance of brands, a good curation is what makes and keeps independent retailers relevant today.

Ákos agreed on the difficulty brought by the level of inflation and an unstable currency. He also made the same point on the extremely high amount of new perfume brands which put retailers under a high risk of ‘senselessness’: the danger is to become a museum, daunting and lacking the feeling of smelling. A place lacking life where one can smell fragrances without feeling emotions.

A Brand Careful Selection and Insightful Curation.

Given their opinion on brand curation, I was curious to know how they manage brands with large assortments: making a selection out of the perfume collection or imposing a limitation in the number of brands…

Kurt makes a conscious choice to feature a limited number of brands and only add new ones sparsely. Smell Stories attracts customers who trust its selection of brands worth exploring. As an independent perfumery, it is a way to distinguish and position itself as different and relevant. Smell Stories specialises in smaller independent brands who usually have a limited assortment, and it offers all their products, not only their bestsellers, as it is important to represent the full brand universe. For the very few ‘larger’ brands Smell Stories carries, a product selection is indeed made; customers can still order a product that is not in the usual stock given the precious direct contact established with the brands.

Smell Stories shop

Ákos curates brands very carefully. He follows his judgement when introducing new ones while trying to have a mix of established brands and newcomers. There is a limitation based on space and budget to get new brands in, so 7scents tests them for a while before committing to a new one. The idea for 7scents is to maintain & grow partnerships and avoid a high brand rotation.

Cristina explained that from the beginning of the brand collaboration, Elysee makes the appropriate product selection out of a large collection. The first selection is based on Cristina’s olfactive evaluation and deep knowledge of Elysee’s customers, but it can naturally evolve over time. The number of new brands is limited per year given the cash flow consideration and the loyalty towards brands partnerships.

Cristina Balan’s olfactive evaluation

Another important element of brand curation is the price point component. I wanted to understand if they have set a maximum price point for perfumes above which they won’t buy.

Ákos explains he does not have a maximum price set. Instead, his aim is to be able to offer the best niche perfumes at a fair price to the 7scents customers. There may be some high price tags such as €700 when quality justifies it. Yet, 90% of the collection is under the €250 threshold per bottle.

Kurt tells me about the original Smell Stories principle of being accessible to all perfume lovers. Hence, the store sample service gives access to people on a limited budget to explore niche perfumes. The application of a maximum perfume price of €250 also conforms with the principle. Given the brands’ significant price increases, the limit has to be adapted accordingly. Smell Stories takes the time to explain to its clients the higher price tags.

Cristina has noticed a downward purchase ticket post pandemic. Before, limited editions over a €1’000 found an audience which has disappeared today. Elysee does not have a specific maximum price point though, as the decision to work with a brand or not depends on many other factors.

I was adamant to have them comment upon the rise of online shopping and if they see it as a threat or an opportunity.

Ákos told me that for 7scents brick and mortar and online go hand in hand; one impacts the other positively and vice versa. Most customers first get to know him online, and then curiosity drives them into the shop as they want to experience in person what they did digitally. He believes that learning the newest online trends keeps 7scents young and relevant; Ákos will love to be part of whatever is moving and shaking next.

7scents experience may feature a horse

Cristina also believes that online can be both. It is a threat to those who do not want to change anything in their business model, to those who still believe in 100% traditional retail. Elysee implemented the free delivery of online orders in Romania and even committed to one hour delivery in Bucharest. Cristina seized the online opportunity to grow sales significantly.

Kurt pointed out that thanks to online, Smell Stories has acquired customers from all over Europe. The online shop available in three languages represents a major time investment for Smell Stories and alignment of the retail assortment. Online allows to reach a larger client audience but also opens the game to a bigger competition field, made of other retailers as well as the brands themselves.

A Yearning for Human Interaction and Imperfection.

Moving on to Artificial Intelligence, I wanted to go to the bottom of it and examine the impact on retail.

Kurt observed that people increasingly seek information via AI applications such as ChatGPT instead of the classic search engines. The issue is that its sources are unknown, and that the information provided often ignores small brands or companies. ChatGPT does not know Smell Stories, when asked ‘what are the best perfumeries in Brussels’, it lists four: one of which does not exist, and two that are not located in Brussels. AI tools as useful to work more efficiently but take away a piece of creativity. He believes the need for ‘real human contact’ will increase and become more valuable. Kurt makes all Smell Stories posts, pictures, and videos; they are not perfect, but they are ‘personal.’

Cristina also sees people becoming more captivated by what AI offers. However, Elysee’s customers so far do not choose a total virtual experience over a real one. AI is not a threat, because it is simply an engine that can provide information or answers to some questions when what clients are looking for is a human relationship. There is a burning need to socialize that AI cannot fulfil. AI can be useful, but only if it is controlled, supervised, and passed through a human filter.

Ákos thinks it is hard to make a statement on AI; it’s certainly very interesting and exciting, but how to utilize it? He also believes that the power of the human interaction will never be neglected - at least he very much hopes so. In that sense AI is not a threat, it is more a chance to gain further intelligence and make some processes smarter and faster.

Going back to brick and mortar, I was keen on understanding if their main competition is made of specialty department stores, mono brand stores or duty-free shops.

In Romania, department stores are not common, instead shopping malls are the primary shopping destination. There are only a few mono brand shops operated by Dior, Chanel, Guerlain. When it comes to duty free, the nature of Romanian airports, small and crowded, will most probably damage the brand image that niche brands have carefully built. Cristina believes that the multi-brand stores’ domination will remain strong and is Elysee’s main competition.

Budapest also does not have department stores and mono brand perfume shops are very rare. The main competition comes from multi brand stores, similar to the situation in Bucharest. Ákos is confident playing the competition game; 7scents has an exclusive perfume collection, and a unique brand presentation.

Belgium only has one department store chain, and it doesn’t offer artistic perfume brands. Kurt believes competition can potentially come from new concept stores. The market is small and difficult, with no distinct perfume culture and hardly any mono brand stores. In terms of duty free, some niche brands that have been acquired by large corporations, can now be found in airports shops, Smell Stories purposefully chooses not to offer those brands. Instead, the focus is on offering a duty-free service for tourists coming from outside the EU or diplomats residing in Belgium.

The final question queries their confidence in the future of retail.

Ákos is very confident. Customers come to 7scents for expertise and experience that the virtual world cannot match. Human bonds and friendships are getting stronger over time. Fragrances are in essence a fundamental social component; if retail spaces keep on being exciting, retail will have a great future.

Cristina also has faith in retail, in the human touch of any shopping experience and in niche retail in particular. In this age of technology, of high speed, of digitization, people will need authentic experiences and personal pampering. A niche perfume store is the ideal destination for a cosy and unique experience.

Kurt is greatly confident too. He is convinced that even in this digital world dominated by multinationals, there is room, and demand, for smaller, independent retailers. They have unique strengths that large, or online-only shops do not have, like a real personal service and a smart curation of brands. Staying true to one’s values while adapting to an ever-changing world is the way forward.

The BCs. Brussels Bucharest Budapest Capitals in Artistic Perfumery.

Like the BGs, the trio formed by Kurt, Cristina and Ákos are prominent and independent performers in the art of operating artistic perfumes. They enthusiastically share a strong passion for independent perfume brands and a dedication for being independent themselves. The three band members sing out loud their strong belief in the future of retail based on human interaction, brand curation and perfume education.

Listen to the BCs Perfume Music. Energetic. Authentic. Artistic.