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How 3 Startups Are Tackling Fragrance Shopping Online

E-commerce is great for so many product categories...except perfume. Here's how three startups are trying to fix that.

In the world of e-commerce, some products are a cinch to buy online. The tried-and-true blush you've used since college. The coffee beans you brew every morning. Toilet paper.

Fragrance, however, remains elusive — especially when it comes to taking the plunge with something new. Product descriptions can't tell you whether you'll like a certain perfume, or even, for that matter, how it's really going to smell. What does "a sparkling floral bouquet" or a "sophisticated scent focused on intense femininity" even mean?

That's why a small number of startups have sprung up with the intention of finding a better way to shop for perfumes online. And it's not just online discovery that they're trying to remedy — it's the offline experience, too.

One of the many "Warby Parker for x" startups out there, New York-based Scentbird applies the eyeglass company's model of giving shoppers a few days to test out a product before they buy. The website ships customers a sample of a particular fragrance along with the full-sized bottle; if they like the scent after five days, they keep the bottle and will be charged accordingly. If not, they can send it back free of charge.

Out in Brooklyn, Bergamot is building a sample subscription service to help people discover new niche fragrances, the kind of scents that one might not even know where to find in the offline world. For $20 a month, subscribers get three new scents, all stripped of their original branding and packaged in Bergamot's glass spray vials. If the customer likes a particular fragrance, he or she can buy it through the site.

The San Francisco-based startup Pinrose is betting on online to build its own brand of fragrances. Shoppers have the option to test out three fragrances for free before they throw down $50 for a full-sized bottle. The samples come as individually packaged towelettes soaked in the perfume; a custom 25-pack of samples also goes for $20 on the site.

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Smelling a fragrance is a necessary step before buying, and these startups are finding ways to recreate that experience online. But they're not only trying to put e-commerce on par with offline shopping — they're trying to do it better, by emphasizing the need to test out a scent over a long period of time. 

The main problem with trying to buy a fragrance in Sephora or a department store is that a perfume changes over the course of a day. Sniffing a perfume-doused piece of paper at Sephora only gives you a sense for the fragrance's initial scent, before it dries down. 

"It’s why people think they don’t like certain types of perfumes. They’ve only experienced the top notes," says Jason Fried, one of the co-founders of Bergamot. "Our whole thing is that we want to encourage people to sit at home and experience it on their own time." 

Sephora does sell perfume samplers that come complete with a gift certificate for a full-sized bottle — a pretty good deal for $58 — but it restricts customers to whichever fragrances the beauty giant happens to be pushing this season. That's the other issue with traditional channels of perfume buying: It's heavily biased toward those scents that are currently getting promoted.

Having only launched in November, Scentbird currently focuses on top-selling perfumes, with plans to start incorporating more indie brands over time. Bergamot, on the other hand, is all about giving those small-scale perfumers air time. Its target audience isn't "hardcore perfume people," but rather those "Williamsburg" types who are into lifestyle and culture. They might know about Byredo or Le Labo, but not much beyond that. 

As fragrance sales shift more toward online, you can bet that there will be other startups and major beauty companies joining the sampling fray. Will you be testing these new services out?