Sniffing out profits in Chicago by marketing French perfume

The lines of green and blue contrast boldly with the white background the shop displays. The effect is a pretty one, unassuming yet eye-catching. And unmistakably French.

It is, in essence, a family-run perfume shop that brightens a corridor in the blocky Illinois Center office complex. But the Boutique Dans un Jardin represents a challenge to the traditional perfume industry, not to mention the United States conglomerates busy buying French parfumiers.

For all its charm and simplicity, this small boutique is being applauded all the way back in Paris by economists who worry about the level of French exports.

''We have been trying to find outlets in Chicago for French perfumes - we promote French sales in the Midwest, but it is really difficult. The whole imported perfume industry is located in New York, unfortunately,'' says a representative of the French Trade Commission in Chicago. ''That is why it is so interesting to us to see the opening of a shop for Dans un Jardin.''

This particular Dans un Jardin (In a Garden) is the 15th to open in North America, according to Lucile de Baudry d'Asson, the energetic French countess who launched the firm in Paris in 1978. Since then, more than 100 boutiques and kiosks have been opened by franchisees in France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, England, Canada, and the United States.

''Americans love boutiques, and one reason that our customers come here is because they like nice design,'' Mme. de Baudry d'Asson says. ''But the success of each shop depends first on our product. It is a complete line of plant-based fragrances, bath products, and accesssories for the home.

''There is a big gap between the popular or cheap fragrances you get across a drugstore counter and the fine, traditional perfumes of Christian Dior or Estee Lauder. Our skin-care line resembles the traditionals, but it is much less expensive, perhaps 40 percent less than Estee Lauder, depending on the product, '' she says.

A tall, slender, aristocratic-looking woman who jogs in the Tuileries when in Paris and in Central Park when in Manhattan, Mme. de Baudry d'Asson founded Dans un Jardin after spending 13 years with Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York. She became the first vice-president of the bank who was neither a man nor an American. Her responsibilities included mergers and acquisitions in southern Europe, which involved perfume manufacturers, among others.

The countess says she looks for franchisees in her own mold: women who are reasonably ambitious and have some background in business, who have the aptitude to consult with other women about skin care.

But ''it is most important that they bring their hearts into the shop - they must be generous people by nature.''

Gay Johnson of Chicago, who runs the Illinois Center Dans un Jardin and is one of its franchisees, says she and her husband risked what they could. The Johnsons entered into a partnership with William Bromstedt, who already had a Dans un Jardin franchise in the affluent North Shore suburb of Lake Forest.

''We invested all our savings, all of it,'' Ms. Johnson says. ''We did it because we thought franchising was the way to go, but most of them were out of our range. There just aren't many franchises available for $100,000. Dans un Jardin appealed to us because it was marketing oriented and run by a banker.''

Once established, an American franchise can develop a substantial mail-order business, Mme. de Baudry d'Asson says.

''Mail ordering is essential in America, where the distances are so great,'' Mme. de Baudry d'Asson says. ''In a European city, there is one place to shop in the center of town. In Tulsa (Okla.), there are four or five places in widely scattered shopping centers.''

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