Forget Perfume Counters: Phlur’s A.I. Is E-Commerce’s Scent Sherpa

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Burch and former president & COO of Ralph Lauren, according to the company.

Korman says the traditional fragrance industry has gotten stale, with a sexist “Mad Men”-style of advertising that is out-of-touch with consumer preferences today.

I haven’t bought perfume for myself in more than a decade. I find the sheer number of options overwhelming, and I can only sniff three or four before becoming nose-blind. Factor in that I have mild allergies, and I’ve basically stopped using perfumes altogether.

Still, in the service of readers, of course, I plunged back into the world of scents, selecting a set with Hanami (notes of hazelnut, sandalwood, vanilla), Moab (clove, jasmine, long pepper), and Olmstead & Vaux (orange flower, cedar, white ginger.) On its website, Phlur provides a detailed list of ingredients for each scent, as well as a “conscious choices” section stating why the startup uses man-made sandalwood (the natural product is listed as a vulnerable species) or that each purchase of Olmstead & Vaux means a $5 donation to the Central Park Conservancy.

The startup aims to forge a personal connection with shoppers and the fragrances they’re interested in with artsy photos of, say, New England or the Southwest, talking notes from the perfumers themselves, and a partial Spotify playlist that Phlur believes is evocative of the scent.

The samples came tucked in a box with my name handwritten on the top with leaflets about my three scents. When I placed my order, I received a request from “Scentsei,” Phlur’s artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot to speak via Facebook messenger.

The bot would send me a message asking if it was a good time to try on a scent. If yes, it would ask me to do a spray on elbows, wrists or neck, and take an initial whiff. (If no, it would ask me when I wanted to resume by clicking on “later today,” “tomorrow,” or “I’ll let you know.”)

Scentsei offered some commentary on the notes in the scent and how it would fade or mellow as time went on. A few hours later, the bot would check in asking for a verdict, giving me choices like “I love it,” “not sure,” or “I don’t love it.” For Moab, which I decided I liked the best, Scentsei messaged me a Spotify playlist that included tunes from Spoon, Calexico, and other artists. (Ultimately, I decided to apply my $18 credit to purchase a full bottle of Moab.)

“What’s unique about this is that it’s not focused on the transaction, but on the post-transaction experience,” Korman says. “The industry is very blind in understanding who likes what, mostly because the brands themselves aren’t selling directly to the customers.”

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