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We designed a 'Morning Edition' fragrance – and learned why perfume sales are up

Customers walk-in to Olfactory NYC at their Georgetown location on Thursday May 16, 2024.
Zayrha Rodriguez/NPR
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Customers walk-in to Olfactory NYC at their Georgetown location on Thursday May 16, 2024.

In a well-lit storefront along the main drag of Washington D.C.’s upscale Georgetown neighborhood, Olfactory NYC CEO JJ Vittoria stands in front of a wall of perfume bottles.

The store is bustling with people on a mission to design their own fragrances. I’m here on perhaps the weirdest, and definitely most pungent, assignment I’ve ever gotten at NPR: to make a signature scent for Morning Edition and Up First.

The process at Olfactory NYC requires a lot of sniffing, and with the help of a personal scent-ologist, customers leave the store with a personalized bottle of perfume for $85.

To capture the essence of a daily morning news radio show and podcast in the form of a scent, Vittoria suggests a base with hints of lemon, white tea and bergamot — “fresh out of the shower notes,” as he describes them.

A scent-ologist smells a tester at the Olfactory NYC in Georgetown on Thursday May 16, 2024.
Zayrha Rodriguez/NPR /
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A scent-ologist smells a tester at the Olfactory NYC in Georgetown on Thursday May 16, 2024.

Perfume sales have risen since 2018.

But how are fragrance brands drawing in customers in an era of digital shopping?

A new generation of beauty product lovers are discovering fragrances on social media, and perfumers are experimenting with creative ways to move their products.

Vittoria’s new Washington D.C. store joins three locations in New York and one in Boston. Vittoria knows his way around the scents in his store, but he isn’t a perfumer by trade. He has a finance background and saw an opening in the world of fragrance for an experiential format that can educate new “frag heads,” as he calls them.

“Fragrance can be a very sterile experience,” Vittoria said. “I just felt like there was room to change that. You come in here, it’s bright, it’s colorful, it’s supposed to be inviting. We’re supposed to just have people walk up the street and get into the world of perfumery, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Customers sit down at the counter in Olfactory NYC in Georgetown on Thursday May 16, 2024.
Zayrha Rodriguez/NPR /
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Customers sit down at the counter in Olfactory NYC in Georgetown on Thursday May 16, 2024.

Lauren Goodsitt, who analyzes beauty and personal care trends for the market research firm Mintel, says Olfactory NYC’s business model has hit on something consumers are looking for right now — the desire to smell unique.

She says people who don’t have the money to create a personalized perfume will use other techniques, like layering perfumes and scented body oils, to get an individualized scent.

“The data really does suggest that consumers are interested in customizable formats and that they are using their fragrance as a reflection of their mood as well as their individuality,” Goodsitt said. “There is this need to smell different or to want to smell unique.”

A search for “#perfumetok” on TikTok yields tips on how to get there, as well as influencers touting their favorite fragrance brands.

Some of those brands offer discovery sets, or a set of sample bottles, so customers can more easily find a scent that fits them without ever having to go to the store.

Walter Johnsen, the vice president of product development at InterParfums, says social media puts information about the world of perfume right at people’s fingertips, which is leading to growing interest in the industry. InterParfums designs fragrances for brands like DKNY and Oscar de la Renta.

JJ Vittoria, CEO of Olfactory NYC, mixes multiple oils into strips of paper at their Georgetown location on Thursday May 16, 2024.
Zayrha Rodriguez/NPR /
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JJ Vittoria, CEO of Olfactory NYC, mixes multiple oils into strips of paper at their Georgetown location on Thursday May 16, 2024.

Johnsen says he’s noticing people in their late teens and early twenties buying more different kinds of perfumes and using them more often.

“This generation is basically saying that they are buying fragrances that they feel very personal about,” Johnsen said. “They buy fragrances that make them feel good,”.

Back at Olfactory NYC, 23-year-old friends Lauren Reyes and Andrea Mariscal Guzman are working on their perfumes.

Reyes says her mom has always had a signature scent — and she wants that too, now that she’s out of college and starting her professional life.

“I think that both of my standards in which I look also have to be represented in how I smell,” Reyes said. “I can’t look beautiful and smell not beautiful.”

Customers smell some of the tester fragrances at Olfactory NYC at their Georgetown location on Thursday May 16, 2024.
Zayrha Rodriguez/NPR /
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Customers smell some of the tester fragrances at Olfactory NYC at their Georgetown location on Thursday May 16, 2024.

At the Olfactory bar, CEO Vittoria and I continue our quest to capture the aura of Morning Edition in a fragrance. He blots oils onto strips of paper and I sniff the combinations he layers over our base of lemon, white tea and bergamot. We settled on adding some grapefruit notes. It brings out the citrus to conjure a fresh, breakfast-y start to the day.

It’s a combination of scents I wouldn’t have had the vocabulary to describe before setting foot in Olfactory, but does manage to make me think of the morning news somehow.

“You do still need a bit of that touch and smell kind of experience,” Vittoria says. “Smell is something that is very animalistic. It’s something that is very core to us.”

This story was edited by Obed Manuel.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: June 24, 2024 at 1:52 PM EDT
An earlier version of this article misspelled InterParfums' name as Interperfumes. It has been corrected.
Nina Kravinsky
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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