Austin—It stands to reason that if any industry could resist the tidal wave of e-commerce, it would be the fragrance business. After all, how can you smell a perfume or cologne online to decide if you like the scent?
But Eric Korman, founder and CEO of Phlur, says the startup can make it easier for shoppers to find scents they like while also offering up a more bespoke selection of products. “Department stores have been their primary distribution channel for the last 100 years,” he says. “People really dislike the fragrance counter; the store employees spritzing you. It’s a terribly designed UX, if you will.”
Retailers typically display many dozens of perfumes as part of their overall cosmetics offerings. Phlur (a take on the French word for flower, “fleur”) strips down the merchandise on offer to six unisex fragrances designed to either evoke places (New York’s Central Park, rural New England, or the desert Southwest) or a style (minimalistic zen, hipster, night out on the town.) Since shoppers obviously can’t smell the perfumes, Phlur suggests that customers try them out by purchasing a set of three that comes in 2 milliliter bottles—about a month’s worth of perfume—for $18. Phlur then credits that amount to a purchase of a full bottle of the chosen scent at $88.
Korman was employed at Ralph Lauren’s e-commerce division when he became interested in the fragrance business—though he says he hadn’t likely worn a scent since Drakkar Noir in junior high school. “But I couldn’t find a brand that was about fragrance, not about a designer or a celebrity,” he says. “Also, you can’t find out what’s in them. I wanted a purveyor that was thoughtful about the ingredients that went into them.”
Korman says he looked into artisan, small batch-style brands but found a price tag of around $200 for a small bottle prohibitive. “I thought that was outrageous and overpriced,” he says. “I thought, I can’t be the only one who wants honest prices.”
Fragrance sales totaled $4 billion in 2017, according to NPD Group. And niche areas of the market such as sales of natural and artisanal fragrances are growing especially fast—by 32 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Koman says he saw a market opportunity and moved from New York to Austin to found Phlur three years ago, with industry experts David Apel and Nathalie Benareau, senior perfumers at Symrise AG; as well as Chandler Burr, a former New York Times scent critic and author; acting as advisors.
Phlur has raised $6 million in funding from investors such as Austin venture firm Next Coast Ventures; Joey Levin, CEO of media firm IAC; RetailMeNot CEO Cotter Cunningham; and Roger Farah , former co-CEO of Tory 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.”