A Fragrance of Your Own Online

Web custom perfumer Eleuria.com has learned from rivals' mistakes and makes it easy to select the scent that's right for you

By Heather Green

I admit I'm predisposed to like a site that asks me to compare myself to Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn -- as perfume portal Eleuria.com does. Especially if that site, swathed in various tones of purple and bedecked with two-dimensional flowers, is trying to persuade me to buy custom-made perfume that I design myself. After all, the idea of wearing perfume nowadays does feel like a throwback to the 1950s Hollywood star system. And then having your own personal fragrance made up? Well, tell Cary Grant I'm waiting to start filming our scene.

For all its allusions to glamour, though, Eleuria has its feet squarely on the ground. And what a relief that is. Unlike the dismal first attempt of Reflect.com, the much-hyped joint venture between Procter & Gamble and Redpoint Ventures that dishes up customized cosmetics, Eleuria is easy to use. It asks questions that make sense. You understand what the people who put the fragrance together are trying to get at. The site is simple to navigate, and when you have questions, say, about whether to get perfume or eau de parfum, plenty of tabs along the way offer answers. Granted, the graphics are unpolished and could do with a face-lift. Still, overall, I felt like a sophisticated consumer at ease with buying custom-mixed perfume.


  That may sound easy, but it's not. Just the thought of the hassle I went through six or seven months ago, when I first tried Reflect, makes me shudder. The site was overproduced and blindingly slow (and I have a T-1 connection, for goodness sake). Trying to take Reflect's seven-question survey, apparently designed to delve into my tastes, added insult to injury. The questions were lame and treacly, straight out of a Cosmopolitan quiz. I mean, what was this question meant to say about me? "My personality is best represented by a peacock, a hawk, a swan, a dove"? By the end, I was laughing out loud, cutting, pasting, and e-mailing the questions to friends. The experience didn't exactly encourage a purchase.

Buying a personalized product online is harder than buying in a store, so the process needs to be as smooth as possible. Paradoxically, perfume, more than beauty products, might just work online, albeit for a very specific audience that buys luxury items. After all, it's impossible to know even in a fragrance shop what a custom-blended perfume is going to smell like until it has been mixed for you. The same holds true online. Furthermore, Eleuria offers this guarantee: "If the recipient isn't completely satisfied with their blend, we'll work with it until they are, or refund the purchase price."

That said, the biggest hurdle to overcome is getting someone to make their first purchase. Reflect's debut showed what shouldn't be done, and Eleuria seems to have taken those lessons to heart. Granted, offering just one item, perfume, is easier than Reflect's cross-section of hair products, lipsticks, creams, and makeup. Eleuria, though, has successfully avoided the dopey questions that invariably seem to go hand in hand with the beauty business. Instead of asking me what kind of flower I would be if I were found in a meadow, Eleuria asked me to rank a list of aromas. ("The forest on a warm/humid day" was my top pick, with "baby powder" ranking at the bottom). Another great thing about Eleuria is that you can see all the questions before answering them, so you know what you're in for. At Reflect, you were forced to answer a question at a time and then wait an eternity for the next Web page to load.


  Eleuria's 30-question survey was simple and straightforward. I was asked to pick a description of how I spend my leisure time, what season I prefer, how much I exercise, what kind of skin I have, how often I wear makeup, why I wear perfume, and what type of clothes I tend to wear. Of course, it's up to me to be truthful. As a New Yorker, I would like to say that I prefer trendy clothes. But the reality is I like jeans and T-shirts best. I knew, in the interest of getting something I really would wear, that I had better come clean. After all, too many of the perfumes that I bought in the past represented my aspirations to sophistication. And they just ended up in the trash.

After completing my questionnaire, I saved my profile and then submitted it. Within a few seconds, a description of the perfume that matched my different choices came up. Here's what I got: "The perfumers at Eleuria recommend an elegant blend of floral and mossy notes with fresh top notes consisting of bergamot, petitgrain, and clary sage, modified with mossy notes of vetivert and pine needle, and rounded out with the freshness of amber. Suggested heart notes include jasmine, galbanum, tea rose, hyacinth, neroli. Suggested base notes include oakmoss, tonka bean, cedarwood." Here, I ran into a problem of definitions. I didn't really understand what heart notes or base notes meant, although I could guess. The site, though, didn't offer a complete enough glossary for this.

All in all, though, things were going well until I hit a serious design flaw that could send frustrated customers away. When I moved on to purchasing, I couldn't decide how much I wanted to spend. So I did what any good surfer mulling over a decision will do: I prevaricated and clicked on information about the company -- and lost my order. No doubt that wasn't smart of me. But in my defense, I will say that the button allowing you to save your profile wasn't available after you clicked through to the prices. So I wasn't sure the profile had been saved, and I couldn't back-click to the purchasing page. Luckily, I figured out that I should go back and log in as a returning visitor. I am not sure that many people, say, women of a certain age and income who actually tend to buy $500 bottles of perfume, would know that cybertrick.


  The final test was actually getting my eau de parfum, heart notes and all. I really was excited when it arrived in the mail. Here I was, rubbing elbows with Princess Grace. To be truthful, when I opened the bottle and smelled the perfume, I wasn't that optimistic. It smelled a bit metallic and common.

That all changed, though, when I put it on. The perfume was light but distinctive. It was bright, without being overpowering or flowery. I never cared for fragrances like Passion or Giorgio Armani and had shied away from wearing the ones I bought in the past, like Guerlain's Jardins de Bagatelle, because they felt too much like a statement. Instead, this perfume was complementary, not primary. In short, it was just right. Oh, Cary...

Green covers the Internet for Business Week in New York.

Have a question or a comment? Let her know at heather_green@ebiz.businessweek.com.

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