How the Subscription Model Revolutionized the Way We Buy Perfume

For consumers craving variety and attractive price points, signing up for a fragrance service makes a lot of scents

Photo illustration by Trent Joaquin/Getty Images

To hear Leila Zagwolsky tell it, she helped pioneer the online fragrance-subscription business almost as an afterthought.

In 2010, in the jaws of the Great Recession, Zagwolsky made the nervy decision to open a brick-and-mortar fragrance boutique in Santa Ana, Calif. She called the place OC Perfumes, and word gradually spread among Orange County’s affluent denizens. Zagwolsky had already notched a career as an executive for a number of fragrance brands, and her business model was based on bringing her accumulated experience to shoppers. Rather than just hiring chirpy sales associates to sell them pricey bottles at a counter, Zagwolsky gave customers the chance to purchase travel sizes of luxury niche scents—scents that she would help them select—and try them out first. After wearing the fragrance for a month, OC’s clients could return to the store to sample another one or, if they liked what they’d been wearing, purchase a full-size bottle from her.

People liked the arrangement so much that, after six years in business, Zagwolsky decided there might be a market beyond Santa Ana. “We wanted to take that concept from a local level to a digital platform,” she explains, “to take it to a national level.”

Courtesy of Luxury Scent Box

In 2016, she did. Enlisting her sister Lindsey as her business partner, Zagwolsky launched Luxury Scent Box (known today as simply LuxSB). Every month, her online firm ships 9-milliliter sampler atomizers loaded with the scent a customer has preselected by taking a detailed online survey that Zagwolsky designed herself. With a modest membership fee of $15 a month and over 500 designer and niche fragrances to choose from, LuxSB has grown at an average of 200% annually since it went online.

“Our concept,” Zagwolsky says, “is to [help you] discover your scent.”

Take a wander around Google, and you’ll quickly find quite a few upstart companies that are out to do much the same thing. In the past few years, fragrance subscription services with names like Luxury Scent Box, Perfume Surprise, Scentbird and ScentBox have exploded onto the scene. Buoyed by venture capital and adding subscribers at a steady clip, these companies have upended the tradition of heading to department stores or specialty retailers to buy large and costly bottles of perfume.

Instead, for a monthly fee of around $20, customers can receive a variety of name-brand, high-end fragrances in the mail, scaled down to travel sizes that afford a month’s worth of daily spritzing. The services allow shoppers to effectively test drive a fragrance before committing to a larger purchase—or not. Some members opt to wear an ever-changing array of new scents and never buy a full-size bottle again. (For a rundown of the services and how they work, see sidebar.)

A few years ago, these services may have been seen as little more than parasites feeding off the fat and happy host of legacy fragrance companies, but not now. “This is an important part of the fragrance landscape today,” says Linda Levy, president of the Fragrance Foundation, whose members include heavyweights like Coty, LVMH and Revlon. “In a world where people want to live with a fragrance before they make a commitment to it, it makes total sense.”

In a broad sense, fragrance subscription services are a variation of a trend that started a decade ago with on-demand content streaming. Rejecting cable providers’ all-or-nothing business model that required consumers to buy a costly bundle of hundreds of channels or simply do without, consumers instead flocked to services like Hulu and Netflix, which allowed them to make à la carte purchases for far less money. It’s a highly popular option, which is why the subscription model has spread to industries ranging from shaving razors to fishing lures. A 2018 study by McKinsey revealed that 15% of online shoppers now belong to at least one subscription service, a category that’s consistently grown by over 100% a year for half a decade and is now worth some $2.6 billion.

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