Fragrances became an affordable luxury during the pandemic, leading to the biggest boom in sales in years: 'I have never, ever seen anything like this'

Fragrances became an affordable luxury during the pandemic, leading to the biggest boom in sales in years: 'I have never, ever seen anything like this'
Fragrance sales were up 45% in the first three months of the year.Visoot Uthairam/Getty Images
  • Fragrance sales have been soaring since last August, and jumped 45% in the first quarter.
  • They became a small luxury during the pandemic, according to NPD Group's Larissa Jensen.
  • "If you think about what we all went through it could be ... consumers wanting to escape," she said.

During hard times, economists have historically turned to something called the "lipstick index." The thinking goes that even when times are tough, people will still carve out room for small luxuries - like, say, a tube of lipstick.

In 2020, times were certainly tough, but buying a tube of lipstick was suddenly pointless given that masks obscured our noses and mouths. Lipstick sales, and makeup sales overall, plummeted throughout 2020, making the lipstick index essentially obsolete.

But there was one beauty category that not only avoided free-fall last year, but thrived, leading to a shocking surge in sales in the first quarter of 2021 that has even industry veterans scratching their heads: fragrances.

Fragrance sales were up 45% in the first quarter of 2021 versus the year prior, according to data from market research firm NPD Group. Of course, the first quarter of last year included the onset of the pandemic, when fear and uncertainty may have started to affect consumer behavior, so it's worth comparing it to the same period in 2019 - when fragrance sales were down 27% from where they are now.

"I've been doing this 16 years and I have never, ever seen anything like this," Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor at NPD Group, told Insider.


Why do people keep buying perfume?

The ballooning sales beg the obvious question: Why, in the midst of a pandemic that has sickened tens of millions of Americans and shut down much of society, did people keep buying perfume?

It's impossible to know for sure, but Jensen has a few guesses, the main one being that fragrance may be the new lipstick index.

NPD Group recently conducted a consumer survey that asked why people were buying fragrances. Half of the respondents said it was a treat for themselves - another 20% said it was a gift for someone else. It seems that in the absence of occasions for putting on makeup, consumers opted for another small luxury, one that only required a quick spritz.

Read more: TikTok is reshaping beauty and skincare trends among teens. Here are the brands that are the biggest winners.

But Jensen took it one step further. She said that she thinks the rise in fragrance sales is inextricably linked to the pandemic, a dark time when people were looking for a getaway, if only mentally.


"There's a science behind your sense of smell and how it's directly related to memory - you smell something and it brings you back to a moment in time," Jensen said. "And if you think about what we all went through, it could be, to a degree, consumers wanting to escape."

"You can see how fragrance can be that beauty category that's really well-positioned as a means to lift our spirits," she said.

'Out of control' sales

Fragrances became an affordable luxury during the pandemic, leading to the biggest boom in sales in years: 'I have never, ever seen anything like this'
Jo Yong Hak/Reuters

The fragrance category includes a whole host of products, not just standard perfume. As people stayed home more, they started shopping for home fragrances and candles, a sector that "has been, no pun intended, on fire," Jensen said.

But what's driving the skyrocketing sales is customers buying jumbo-sized bottles of highly concentrated scents like eau de parfums from luxury brands - and buying them in stores, not online.

"The second stores started to open up regionally in June [2020], sales immediately pivoted back to predominantly brick and mortar, and it stayed that way, and it still is that way through 2021," Jensen said.


According to NPD's data, the fragrance category climbed back into the positives in August of last year and stayed that way through the of the year before surging in 2021 - Jensen said she expects that sales will be "out of control" throughout the second quarter of this year.

That upward trajectory mirrors the beauty industry more broadly, which is seeing a resurgence as mask mandates recede for vaccinated people and society begins to reopen. Now, consumers are going to want to not only look good again, but refresh beauty products they probably haven't touched in over a year. Lipstick sales are expected to rise now that we don't have to hide our mouths behind masks, and weddings and travel opportunities will reignite the need to get dressed up and invest in makeup, fragrance, or hair care products.

After living through a pandemic, these products could signal, both outwardly and inwardly, that life is returning to normal.

"It's sort of like a way of kind of finishing yourself and giving you a sense of normalcy that everything's going to be okay," Jensen said.