Getting to try out lots and diverse fragrances can be a daunting task, not least because there is the difficulty of keeping up with all the new releases and of getting actual samples to try out at home.
So here are some tips to help you out!
1.Map out your destination: do you want to go mass market testing or upscale boutique? It makes all the difference in the world in the proceedings, as you will see. I would suggest you make a list of coveted fragrances for each itinerary and then follow my suggestions for each.
And above all: forgo perfume and anything scented on that day. You want to have as much "virgin" skin on exposure as possible.
2.If you choose to go the department store/Sephora way. There is a specific code of conduct for this, so pay attention.
We all know that one of the major obstacles in unobtrused testing is sales assistants and their sometimes predatory jump-up on you with their "can I help you?". To avoid that without having to say 10 times "I'm merely browsing" there are several techniques. One of which is to dress as unconspicuously as possible: too expensive and fashion-forward and you look like someone who needs someone on his beck and call; too shabby and you look like a possible shoplifter. You want to mix with your surroundings, be a little bit anonymous.
Avoiding eye contact also works great. Take a little basket at hand if you're at Sephora -or anywhere they offer those- and browse the fragrance aisles unobtrused, spritzing to your heart's content, swifting to another bottle if you see a sales assistant coming your way: no one will bother to stop you. Should they do and you're in a good mood, you can assume your girliest look and say pleadingly: "Can I play just a little bit? It's such fun!"
3.If you want to actually get samples from a department store for testing at home. First of all, preferably go when you actually do need to make even a tiny purchase (say, a nail polish). Then when you do ask for the item, you can also interject questions about the fragrances you need samples of. They do have them if it's something new no matter what they might say and they are intended for your use, so be a little persistent, although always polite. Ask questions and be prepared to hear the wrong answers. You're not there to outwit them, you're there with a mission. Make them like you. Questioning shows that you have an actual interest in the scent and you are a potential customer, not just a sample hoarder, so the sales assistant will be more receptive. If they do not have sample vials to give (it can happen once in a while), you can bring your own and ask for a fill-up from the tester. Sephora in particular offers this as a standard practice, so don't be afraid to at least suggest it.
If your interest is on something older, it's probably hidden under the counter and you have to ask for the tester. Be brave and do it, they will produce it for you.
4.If you choose to go the niche boutique/upscale store with exclusives. A completely different approach is needed here. Dress as eclectically or classically expensive as you can, without going overboard of course. Drop the tacky fake items at all costs and look tidy: a tidy exterior has been scientifically proven to inject the idea that the person is organised and knows what he/she wants.
If you have actually shopped in the same shop before, it is a good idea to carry a little shopping bag of the store (with your sunglasses or your scarf inside): it lets them know instantly you're a customer and they will be extra friendly! If not but you have a small shopping bag from a comparable store, carry that instead: they will perceive the competition and strive to get the sale themselves.
Let them approach you and then state your purpose clearly. "I came to sample the new Chanel fragrances" or "I have read that the new Amouage has just come in!" They will be glad to show you.
When the difficult time of actually requesting a physical sample vial comes, you can always pretend you already have a perfume on and would prefer to sample at the leisure of your home. If they seem a little obstinate, claiming they have no sample vials, you can produce your own from your (expensive) purse and politely ask them to fill up from the tester. If they cannot do that, you can at least ask for blotters to spritz and sniff at home: you can have your own blotters and little envelopes to put them in seperately in your purse. They might look at you funny at this point, pay no attention.
If they decline, have the good manners to smile and thank them anyway. These people just work in a luxury shop, they don't own the things, plus they're on their feet all day. Don't envy them!
5.Befriend a competent sales assistant at your favourite store. It can't be stressed enough. She is worth her weight in gold! She will tell you about all the lasest news (those that she knows, at least), when items arrive and if there is a waiting list she will phone you when it's still getting started, so you do have a chance to get your item in time. Not to mention she will fill your handbag with samples following any actual purchase you make at the store!
6.If you're generally bored/daunted/sick of the whole shopping experience and want to do everything from home/desk.
a) You can swap for them on any perfume board for afficionados, such as Makeup Alley, or Basenotes. There is a technique involved here too: first amass some samples you think people will want to trade you for, then browse for those you wish for and get into the fine details. Preferably choose established swappers with good feedback and always make clear what each one's end of the deal is before sending. Swapping is a matter of trust and supposed to be fun. If you feel weird during the proceedings, better let it pass.
b) You can order niche samples from several fragrance sites directly, such as Aedes de Venustas, Luscious Cargo, Luckyscent and First in Fragrance. They make the bulk of their revenue out of samples anyway, I suspect (if their bestseller lists are any testament to that!).
Unsniffed purchases of whole bottles is strongly discouraged. You can be stuck with something you hate and no one wants! Don't be swayed by the ad copy just because it's not a magazine you're reading it in. It's still ad copy!
I would also personally advise against purchasing things that come only in nanodrops for exorbitant prices. Time and again has proven that those are ultimately disappointing and they soon crop up in people's swap lists anyway, so you can save the bucks and go route a (see right above).
c) You can email/write to perfume companies directly and ask for their sampling programme. Sometimes they have wonderful sample packs that will delight you. Its' worth it! Ormonde Jayne, Nobile 1942, Vero Profumo, Etat Libre d'orange (with their set of 17 miniatures) and others are such companies.
Some even have free giveaways such as Tauer Perfumes who frequently does so through his blog, which is the ultimate in a joyous experience.
Artisanal perfumers generally are very willing to send samples of their work for a nominal fee: try Abdes Salaam profumo.it, Anya's Garden, Aftelier, Sonoma Scent Studio, Ayala Moriel, Michael Storer, Liz Zorn/Soivohoe fragrances.
Also major companies have cottoned up to the power of the Internet and began to harness it by launching seperate pages for their new scents, often hosting sample giveaways and contests with prizes. Googling a new perfume name along with the sample/giveaway/contest tag will make those pop up. Example: here. I simply entered "Chloe new perfume sample" on Google!
d) You can also buy from respected sellers online, such as The Perfumed Court, The Posh Peasant and Fishbone fragrances. They have a great selection, but as prices are a little expensive, you might want to keep this for things you can't lay your hands any other way. You're guaranteed good service.
e) Last but not least, every time you make an online purchase at any site that carries fragrance, no matter what the purchase is, you can write at the comment form that you would appreciate fragrance samples with your order. They will oblige and send a little something, most of the time.
Pic courtesy of theage.au