compulsive shopping

I Can’t Stop Buying Perfume Sample Sets

Photo-Illustration: retailers

In the Before Times, my idea of a perfect day was popping into Sephora, sniffing as many scents as humanly possible, and walking out with a fistful of samples. Such laissez-faire pleasures are, alas, a thing of the past, but my habit of sample hoarding is not. In fact, since the pandemic started, my collection has grown exponentially, because I simply cannot stop buying perfume sample sets.

It’s difficult to shop for fragrance right now; the shuttering of brick-and-mortar stores means that most perfume shopping is taking place online, where all you have to go off of are elegiac descriptions and accord lists. Sample sets are an easy, low-stakes way to try out intriguing scents, test the compatibility with your skin chemistry, and expand your perfume wardrobe without having to commit to a full-size bottle. Sniffing so many different fragrances has helped me refine my taste and ascertain which notes I gravitate towards the most, and it’s helped me be more discerning in what scents I decide to invest in: only the ones I fell absolutely head over heels for were worthy of a full bottle. The ones I liked okay I used up but didn’t repurchase, and the ones I really didn’t care for were handed off to friends, family, or fellow perfume aficionados on the Fragrantica forums, who are always happy to coordinate a swap.

There’s also a functional aspect I like about sample sets. Because they’re so light and portable — a sample is usually one-to-three milliliters they’re perfect for sticking in your pocket or tossing into your purse. A dainty crystal vessel may look nice on your nightstand, but it’s hardly practical for a mid-afternoon touch-up spritz.

During quarantine I haven’t always put on pants, but I’ve always put on perfume. With its transportive abilities, wearing perfume is an act of escapism — spritz on a tropical coconut scent and voilà, you’re tanning on a beach in Bali. Receiving a new sample set in the mail is like taking a mini vacation to a faraway locale; a tiny dab whisks you to a different time and place — a blessing when you’ve been stuck inside the same four walls for months on end.

One word of warning, though: Once you start collecting, you won’t be able to stop. Here are some of my favorite sets that I’ve picked up, and a few that I’m eyeing for the future.

The perfume sample sets I’ve bought

The Margiela Replica line was my jumping-off point into the world of fragrance, and I highly recommend it as a starter set for any budding perfume enthusiast. I have the now mostly sold-out sample pack, but these two seasonal sets have all the scents I love. This collection nods at nearly every olfactory family, from salty marines (“Sailing Day”) to spicy woods (“By the Fireplace”), and fresh citrus (“Under the Lemon Trees”) to musky floral (“Sunday Morning”). The thematic concept of the Replica line is about invoking the memory of happier times, so even if you can’t physically be lounging in a smoky jazz club right now, at least you can smell like it.

I’ll admit that a couple years ago I walked past the D.S. & Durga storefront, contemplated going in, but ultimately chickened out. In my defense, there was no one else inside and the person behind the counter looked extremely cool and intimidating. To assuage my lingering regret, I ordered their Greatest Hits Discovery Set, and let me say, there’s a reason why these scents are their best sellers. I especially love “Rose Atlantic,” a sweet, soft marine floral, and “I Don’t Know What,” a layering scent that pairs beautifully with other fragrances.