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The fragrance industry is booming. Here’s why it makes scents.

5 days ago 67

Warm and spicy. Sweet and floral. Woody and earthy.

It used to be that a spritz of fragrance was singular to the wearer, a medley of notes both distinct and familiar. Though that dynamic has long influenced sales, powerhouses such as Coty and L’Oréal are seeing a surge as consumers retreat from the notion of having a “signature scent” and treat aroma as a barometer of their moods.

Fragrance is the fastest-growing category in the prestige beauty sector, with sales climbing 13 percent in the first quarter, according to market research firm Circana. First-time buyers and men are driving much of those gains, gravitating to high-end brands such as Chanel, YSL, Dior, Le Labo, Jo Malone and Tom Ford. Meanwhile, younger shoppers, particularly tweens, are stocking up on gift sets and body sprays available at lower price points, such as Sol de Janeiro.

The upswing speaks to evolving consumer habits after the pandemic, from which Americans emerged flush with savings and eager to indulge. Beauty influencers and the “quiet luxury” aesthetic also propelled interest in prestige scents, which, even at $100 a pop or more, are relatively affordable in a retail space where clothes and accessories routinely come with four- and five-digit price tags. More than 100 million units were sold in the United States last year, Circana said. Annual sales are projected to hit $9 billion by 2026.

“This is unprecedented in industry,” said Larissa Jensen, a beauty industry analyst at Circana. “Everything that goes up, comes down. … We haven’t seen that yet with fragrance. It’s incredible.”

The beauty sector, which includes makeup, skin care and hair care, tends to be resilient regardless of broader economic conditions. We spend when we’re feeling good and when we’re feeling down, Jensen said. If the economy is in a slump, we buy a low-ticket luxury to boost our mood.

It’s an emotional industry, she said. “But fragrance — it’s like the power of scent is unquestionable. It’s nostalgia.”

Prestige fragrance sales have exceeding expectations since the start of the pandemic in 2020, Jensen said. After long stretches at home, their social and professional lives disrupted, Americans wanted to treat themselves. In some cases, that meant dropping more than $300 on a 2.4-ounce bottle of Maison Francis Kurkdjian Baccarat Rouge 540 or 3.4 ounces of Byredo Mojave Ghost perfume.

“What drove fragrance in the immediate post-pandemic period was super luxury,” she said. “It was the $300 and the $400 fragrances that were doing phenomenal.” That, in turn, powered revenue and unit growth, ''which is incredible.”

But consumers also were reaching for scents in the $100 to $200 range, allowing them to dip into luxury with “a reasonable spend,” said Olivia Tong, an analyst at Raymond James Equity Research. “It may not be feasible to buy a purse, shoes or clothes but perhaps you can get the Tom Ford or Chanel fragrance.”

Plus, people wanted to “smell like a rich person,” said Dominica Baird, chair of the business of beauty and fragrance program at Savannah College of Art and Design. You feel like “you’re in a club” when someone compliments your fragrance, she said.

Beauty conglomerate Coty said its seven top brands — Hugo Boss, Burberry, Calvin Klein, Chloé, Davidoff, Gucci and Marc Jacobs — accounted for nearly 90 percent of its fragrance sales. Net revenue in the category swelled nearly 60 percent year over year.

And consumers aren’t settling for just one; they’re going for an array of perfumes or body sprays. For Gen Z, it’s an added layer of self-expression, Tong said.

“It completes the look,” she said. “You may be feeling fresh one day, feeling spicy the next, and making sure you have the scent to go with that.”

Estée Lauder chief executive Fabrizio Freda noted that younger shoppers have as many as eight fragrances in their rotations, “one for every occasion,” he said at a conference in May. “That is a big change [for] the category.”

What’s more, prestige lines are attracting more first-time buyers: Coty reported 5 million new customers last year, a 6 percent increase year over year, CEO Sue Nabi said at a retail conference last month. Men added a nice boost to growth, too, she said.

And they’re spending at a faster rate; prestige sales climbed 17 percent compared with women’s 11 percent year over year, Jensen said.

“Men are becoming more sophisticated beauty consumers,” Baird said. They’re leveling up and reaching for brands such as Gucci, Jensen said, though drugstore staple Axe Body Spray is “still doing great.

Among shoppers ages 25 to 44, sales have soared 19 percent, according to Circana, though unit sales are notably stronger in households that have children. Gen Alpha — those born from 2010 to 2024 — is big on body spray, which tends to be a lower cost, less potent option, Jensen said.

Tweens are particularly enamored with Sol de Janeiro, a body spray and lotion brand with at least seven scents that has gone viral on TikTok. Some industry experts see it as a gateway for younger shoppers looking at influencers, older siblings and parents for what to buy next. And they’re starting to gain expensive taste, with some of the hottest beauty products creeping closer to the prestige category.

At Ulta, which started carrying Sol de Janeiro at the beginning of the year, the brand is “right in that sweet spot for us,” chief operating officer Kecia Steelman said at a conference in June. Fragrance was 10 percent of Ulta’s net sales in the quarter ended May 30, up from 9 percent from the year-ago period. Sol de Janeiro also has gift sets, an attractive option for consumers looking for value and to layer scents, which Steelman noted is one of the top trends this year.

Fragrances from music artists are also popular with younger shoppers. Baird’s students have told her that perfumes from Billie Eilish, Sabrina Carpenter and Beyoncé make them feel connected to the artists.

“There’s something that feels a bit personal about a fragrance,” Baird said, “especially if the celebrity seems genuine about it and it’s not just a money grab.”

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