An industry built upon the fragrance of a breeze

"For a refined woman, a perfume is something highly personal. It becomes a part of her identity, and she will remain faithful to it for years, if not the rest of her life," explained a graciously distinguished and tastefully dressed woman in the French capital. "One does not change perfumes like clothes."

With such established fidelity among its quality clientele both at home and abroad, the French perfume industry has not only managed to hold its own among increasingly competitive foreign groups, but it has proved innovative and flexible enough to successfully attract new generations and society-conscious classes to its products.

Apparently untouched by the West's clinging economic crisis, the French perfume industry is not only flourishing but booming.

According to the Federation for the Industry of Perfume, Beauty and Toilette Products in Paris, sales of this industry for 1978 came to a massive 9.1 billion francs (2.24 billion). Over 3.6 billion francs ($900 million) came from exports.

During the 1979 Christmas period, at least a score of new feminine and masculine perfumes hit the market, such as Guerlain's "Nahema" and Sonia Rykiel's "7th Sense." The growth of masculine perfumes, which now represent 8.8 percent of total sales, was illustrated by the appearance of new brands such as Cerruti's "Leonard" and Rochas's "Macassar."

"Economic incertitude has incited men and women to look to themselves to solace," noted Charles Zviak of l'Oreal, basing his remarks on a recent sociological survey to determine the reasons behind the present perfume boom. "Their interest is stimulated by anything that flatters the senses, be it hearing such as opera; taste, the new cuisine; or odors, perfumes."

In 1978 overall perfume sales were 13.2 percent higher than in 1977. Almost one-third of French production is exported. West Germany, taking 16.2 percent of export sales, is by far France's major customer. It is followed by Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Based on recently released figures by the federation for the industry, foreign sales increased by 17.8 percent in 1978, slightly lower than the startling 23 percent surge in 1977. Still, the French perfume industry seems far from complaining.

French domestic consumption has in particular undergone vigorous growth. After growth of 9.2 percent in 1977 and 14.2 percent in 1976, annual per head consumption rose 11.3 percent in 1978 to 185 francs ($48).

Yves Rocher surpassed all records over 1977 sales with a 64 percent growth rate. This was the result of a "double formula" procedure that combines his so-called "natural" product lines with mail-order sales

Christian Dior sales in 1978 climbed in 1978, only 36 percent. But the two companies cannot be compared directly. Rocher sells directly to the public. Dior, with a broad distribution network, still ranks as No. 1 in France. During 1978 Dior recorded 284 million francs ($72 million) in sales compared with Rocher's 224 million francs ($56 million).

Other companies did not fare so well, although all the prestigious brands could claim a relatively good year. The French subsidiary of Elida gibbs, however, watched its sales drop by 1.7 percent.

Figures for 1979 are not yet available. Trade experts believe sales were less favorable through most of the past year, but believe there was some improvement around the holiday season.

Over the past two years, the French perfume industry has noticed as increasing participation of clothes designers and manufacturers in the market.

The 1978-1979 period was marked by the success story of Yves St. Laurent's perfume "Opium," despite the controversy the use of that word for a product line precipitated in many quarters. Launched in 1977, it sold mainly to the under- 30s age group. Sales quadrupled in 1978 and doubled the company's perfume subsidiary sales.

Almost half of France's perfumes are sold in department stores, clothing shops, perfumeries, or other retail establishments. More recently, companies such as Rocher began the totally new tactic of selling directly to customers by correspondence. This now accounts for 10.4 percent of the domestic market.

Perhaps the most controversial form of selling, however, is by "selective diffusion." To make their products more exclusive, some traditional companies only permit certain shops to sell their products. Guerlain has gone even further by selling only in its own shops, of which there are four in Paris.

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