Here's One Way To Sell Perfume
Marketing strategies aren't always nice

We put perfume in the "health and beauty" category, products that make you feel nice, look nice, and smell nice. But, like all other products in this category, perfume has be be sold. You can't be in the perfume business unless you can sell your perfume. If you want to develop a profitable perfume – or any other – business it helps to be aware of marketing strategies that have been used successfully by others, even ones a little rough around the edges.

1975 gave birth to the "Perfect Pretenders" promotion. The company, Perfect Pretenders, Inc., was an offshoot of Canyon House, a long forgotten mail order company that, in its origins, was largely focused on the teen and pre-teen market, advertising products from its "Super Values" catalog in magazines such as Teen, Tiger Beat, Grit, and Boy's Life. The promotional emphasis was on groupings of products that seemed to offer a lot for a little – "6 iron-on patches," "100 stick-on decals" – always for $1.00 plus $0.35 postage and handling and a limit of two per person as larger orders could have invited refund requests. These and other products that Canyon House developed could be packed into inexpensive envelopes and mailed at bulk rate for pennies per order. The Perfect Pretender fragrances were born out of this "$1.00 plus $0.35 for shipping and handling" milieu.

The thinking must have been simple. Young girls love fashion items, especially when they can be purchased for just one dollar. And certainly young girls must love perfume, especially when it can be purchased for just one dollar. The challenge was to develop a perfume product that could be sold profitably for $1.00 plus $0.35 for postage and handling and shipped in a cheap envelope in the same way as other Canyon House products were being shipped. The Perfect Pretenders filled the bill.

What were these fragrances? Advertising left this largely to the buyer's imagination but to help the buyer's imagining the advertising showed ten full size bottles of famous fragrances and specified what each of these might cost per ounce – Arpege at (approximately) $40 per ounce, Chanel No. 5 at (approximately) $40 per ounce, Joy at (approximately) $100 per ounce – and so on. You can see one of their ads here.

The Perfect Pretenders were ten glass "nips" packaged in a snap-top plastic box. To use them the consumer broke off both tips of the glass vial. The vials were color coded and a package insert identified which famous fragrances each was said to imitate. Each nip held approximately one drop of fragrance. You can see them here.

The promotion for the Perfect Pretenders perfume nips was successful. Very successful and it provided a breakout for Canyon House and it's owners. While sales of "Super Values" catalog items had been respectable, available teen media had limited circulation. Sales of the Perfect Pretenders were dramatic, so much so that ads could be run profitably in general media including both full color pages in monthly magazines and large black & white ads in daily newspapers. Lots of perfume was sold, or rather lots of "nips."

Like so many other over the edge mail order promotions of it's era, the Perfect Pretenders drew heat. Legal issues were addressed, marketing was halted, and the corporate registration for Perfect Pretenders, Inc. was forfeited. Little remains of the promotion but an occasional Perfect Pretenders collection found on EBay and offered for many times the original price.

The concept was strong; the pitch was simple: get a large value for very little money. But the advertising crossed the line and ultimately killed the promotion. Could it have been "cleaned up"? Certainly. But then would it have been as successful? Not likely. But if your aim was to found a lasting perfume business, this concept could get you started ... if you could develop a very low cost product, sell it at a very low price, and deliver a package so nice that it left buyers wanting more. (Not easy to do!)

Followup: The Perfect Pretenders disappeared and Canyon House was acquired by a publicly traded company.


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Philip Goutell
Lightyears, Inc.