This story is part of our week-long series on the strategic trends among fashion and beauty brands for holiday 2020. 

To drive sales during the holiday gifting season, fragrance brands are looking to digital tools, rather than eager department store salespeople. 

Fragrance relies on the holiday season more than any other category. According to data from The NPD Group, more than 35% of fragrance sales are made from Thanksgiving to Christmas in the U.S. This year, that time period happens to coincide with the peak of the second wave of Covid-19, making it more difficult to sell a product that people are used to testing in person before buying.

According to The NPD Group data, one out of three fragrance consumers are influenced by in-store samples. Foot traffic in physical retail was down 52% on Black Friday this year, according to Sensormatic Solutions. Department stores’ foot traffic is around half of what it was a year earlier, according to SafeGraph. For some retailers, it’s even lower — foot traffic at Nordstrom is only at 30% of what it was a year ago. 

As a result, brands are turning to social media platforms to convey scents virtually. L’Oréal Group, for example, teamed up with Pinterest to launch a virtual fragrance finder tool that quizzes users on gender, favored ambiance and fashion style. The tool then recommends a fragrance and links to product pages on the websites of its brands including Armani Beauty, YSL Beauty and Viktor & Rolf.

“What we were hearing from fragrance brands across the board was, ‘OK, holiday is our biggest time, and we need to hit our sales mark this holiday season, but people aren’t in-store,’” said Rachel Goodman, manager of beauty partnerships at Pinterest. “Within our fragrance best practices, we always talk about featuring the bottle, [as well as] figuring out what the right way is to translate the scent and the notes of that fragrance, so that people have an idea of what that fragrance represents.” According to Pinterest, searches for “spicy fragrance” increased 35%, “earthy fragrance” grew by 34% and “floral fragrance” rose 25%, year-over-year in 2020. 

Coty, meanwhile, has invested heavily in Gen-Z apps this year. For the holiday season, its Gucci Bloom fragrance rolled out an AR campaign with Snapchat. Launched on November 29, the campaign features an AR experience allowing users through a virtual maze game to find five Bloom fragrances, including Gucci’s new Bloom Profumo di Fiori. The AR experience links to Gucci’s website to browse and purchase the fragrances.

“Many brands — especially beauty brands — had already been starting to integrate AR into their campaigns for a long time, because they saw how much it improved the overall performance. But there’s no question that Covid accelerated many brands’ investment in AR,” said Carolina Arguelles, Snapchat’s lead in AR marketing.

For its new Aventus anniversary fragrance, cult fragrance brand House of Creed, meanwhile, held its first-ever virtual launch, replacing its usual influencer trip, in October. The brand hosted a virtual speakeasy event with influencers and customers, offering a cocktail-making class.

Pre-pandemic, online had “been 10-15% of our business,” said Emmanuel Saujet, the co-founder and CEO of Creed’s distributor of record in North America ICP. But it “has been exploding for the last 6 to 7 months. I think we’re doing some catch-up with the bigger boys, which are already 30% [or more] online. I think that, within the next year, our business will be in excess of 30% online.” 

These heritage fragrance brands are increasingly seeing competition from DTC fragrance startups like Scentbird, Skylar and Snif that have had online sales built into their business models from the start.

DTC fragrance brand Snif, launched on October 13, takes a Stitch Fix-style approach to online sales: Shoppers receive both a full-size product and a free sample. If they don’t like the sample, they are able to send the full-size bottle back at no cost.

“When you look at traditional perfumes, they are super out of touch with today’s millennial and Gen-Z consumers,” said Phil Riportella, co-founder of Snif. “In a world where consumers buy pretty much all products online, fragrance is still one of those things that you don’t, because you want to smell fragrance in real life. In order to make this a success, we would have to take out all the pain points; make buying fragrance online as simple and straightforward as possible.”

Clean fragrance brand Skylar, meanwhile, has created a “scent club” with small roll-on bottles of fragrances for $20. If users like the product, they can purchase a full-size bottle online for $78. For holiday, the brand is catering to gifters who want to give the recipient more choice in their scent: It’s selling a nine-fragrance sample kit with a card redeemable for a full-size scent, for $78, so the recipient can choose their own favorite. 

“Full-size fragrances, sets and our sample palette have seen the biggest increases during holiday,” said Cat Chen, founder and CEO of Skylar. 

“We think e-commerce will continue to grow over the next few years within the fragrance category,” she said. “Though you can’t smell it on your phone or laptop, we have tools like our Scent Quiz and strong visuals and product descriptions to ensure you find the scents that are right for you.”