A gaggle of young girls grab bottles of Paris Hilton's new perfume and spritz themselves and one another in Macy's at the Media City Mall. Manager Grace Chen rolls her eyes and shrugs. It's impossible to keep the sweet, fruity scent stocked, she says. "It all has to do with image. They all want to be like her."
The glowing display cases are sprinkled with other big-celebrity perfumes: J. Lo Glow, Still, and Miami Glow; Britney Spears's Curious; and Donald Trump cologne. Even Liz Taylor's White Diamonds, one of the first movie star perfumes from the 1980s, still clings to some shelf space here in the mall, which is nestled in the hip pocket of the entertainment industry. But she's tucked behind the J. Lo display. Today's headliners are moving the merchandise at the moment, explains Ms. Chen.
These flashy fragrances have helped an industry that was in a serious funk just three years ago, according to retail consultant Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail. With sales slipping some 2 percent annually, the industry was desperate for a splash. Jennifer Lopez delivered in 2002, launching her hugely successful collection, J. Lo. She's followed up with Glow and Still. The scent of money soon brought other celebs into the fray, including Beyoncé, Céline Dion, and Ashley Judd, to name a few.
"Celebrities have become the touch point for what we wear and how we wear it," says Ms. Liebmann. "We're now confronted with so many celebrities that they have also become the touch point for everything that we like and don't like."
With so much emphasis on looking and smelling like one's idol, perhaps perfume wearers are giving up some individuality along with their dollars.
"We've lost our confidence in ourselves to define our signature in the world," she says. "We're depending on flash-in-the-pan celebrities to do that for us."
Today, women want more of a wardrobe of perfumes rather than a single scent that sends a distinctive message of "me" to the world, Liebmann says. "Perfumes are more like clothes ... to be changed all the time."
Adding options to a woman's wardrobe is precisely what many of today's perfume designers have in mind, says Tamara Sevransky, a fragrance developer at International Flavors and Fragrances, which has created some of the top scents in modern perfume history. "Maybe 50 years ago, [women] didn't have so many roles in the world, so we could have a single signature scent," she says. "Now, we can choose the interview perfume versus the date perfume," she says, or the workout or shopping perfume, for that matter.
Products tied to a celebrity are risky - they can rise and fall with the fortunes of the famous name. But most are designed for a quick hit, both on the body and in the boutique, says Chandler Burr, perfume expert and author of "The Emperor of Scent." Celebrity fragrances barely linger long enough for a short trip to the mall, he says. "They use cheap ingredients to be more affordable and make more money," he adds. Compare that to a classic scent such as Chanel No. 5, which can last up to 24 hours and has endured since 1921. Today's celebrity fragrances are the perfume equivalent of InStyle magazine, he says. "They're sort of like buying a cheap, fun summer dress for a season and then tossing it out."
And with celebrity scents, not all stars are equal. "Trump is not doing well," says Ms. Chen at Macy's. "Men don't seem to go for the image thing the way women do."