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The perfume business rolls with roll-on scents

Fragrances, it seems, are on a roll – a roller ball, that is.

From Marc Jacobs to Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren to Paco Rabanne, Kate Spade to Clean, popular prestige brands are now offering an alternative to the atomizer.

In some Sephora locations, a roller wall of fame displays the top 20 roll-on scents; they're grouped by how fresh, flirty, sexy or sporty they are, with info about their notes.

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Standard roll-on bottles are roughly the same size as a tube of mascara or lip gloss, containing seven millilitres of fragrance. They're portable, inexpensive (generally between $20 and $35), easy to apply and, occasionally, even refillable.

Fragrance-industry expert Karen Grant says that the format serves as a "functional sample" compared to the tiny tester giveaways.

"Brands offering the [roll-on]have seen positive results," Grant, a senior vice-president and global industry analyst with NPD Group in New York, says. "It's new and feels younger and fresher, so, if a consumer carries one, the hope is she'll use it more frequently than once a day and not leave it on her counter at home."

Like conventional perfumes, roll-ons have the most oomph when applied wherever the body releases heat – inside the wrists, creases of the elbows, the neck. Hence the industry term "pulse point rollers."

But not all roll-ons are created equal.

While many contain alcohol, Toronto perfumer Susanne Langmuir's fragrances don't. Since launching her custom business more than nine years ago, she has used either jojoba oil or dipropylene glycol (a neutral liquid) as the bases for her rollers because she says they make good "carriers" for the raw materials. Since they are alcohol-free, they do not evaporate on contact the same way and also don't feel greasy on the skin.

Langmuir explains that each base has its benefits. "Alcohol brings a fragrance to life and exposes the top, middle and base layers, so it's more like fireworks. But from an application perspective, a lot of people prefer oil because it's not as strong and certain fragrances can be longer-wearing in an oil base."

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Langmuir's scents, sold under the name Sula Beauty, are available in 1,000 locations across North America; roll-ons, she says, account for 80 per cent of her sales.

It will be interesting to watch whether this format goes industry-wide. So far, trendsetters like Chanel, Hermès and Frédéric Malle have yet to roll out their own versions but have recently added purse-sized sprays to their repertoires – a sign they acknowledge the importance of the travel-friendly size. Niche brand Le Labo offers an alcohol-free, silicone-based gel that comes in a small pump format.

As I see (and smell) it, the roll-on fragrances create a more localized experience. Where an atomizer disperses scent, the roller ball keeps it contained to the area of application, which can be a bonus in offices that discourage strong perfumes.

I have also noticed that roll-on scents are typically lighter and more youthful. My theory is that the industry still sees this as an entry point into perfume, especially given the price.

As Grant points out, "the challenge is you don't want the roll-on to be a tradeoff; you want to encourage greater usage so core customers are using it in addition to [the spray]and you're [also]introducing the perfume to a whole new customer."

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