Perfume Pushers Mimic Barneys Employees, Actually Work For The Manufacturer

Have you ever walked through a department store and been assaulted by fragrance pushers, poofing their scents into your face and asking you to try their fine line of products? It may surprise you to learn that not all of the perfume poofers work for the store, some actually work directly for the manufacturer. Their job is to appear to be be a normal store employee, while steering you towards the scents sold by their real employer.

They’re called “freelancers,” and one such freelancer working at Barney’s in New York stepped to The Consumerist with the low-down on how this high-end trick turns, inside…

Our tipster, name withheld upon request for fear of retribution,

    “Beware when shopping this holiday season, the Barneys employee suggesting fragrances for you may not be a Barneys employee at all.

    It may come as a surprise to most customers at New York’s high-end retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys, but most of the employees you see behind the counter in fragrance and cosmetics departments aren’t actually employed by the stores where they work. Known in the industry as “freelancers” because they are not technically full-time employees, these skin care and fragrance “specialists” work directly for the manufacturers whose products they are hired to push from behind the counter. These employees rarely disclose their bias, preferring to understate their obvious preference with lines like “Let me show you a beautiful…” or “Here’s a really nice…”

    It’s understandable that this system of freelancing at department stores has become so widespread. The companies employing the freelancer benefit by having someone at the store to promote their products exclusively. Of course, if a customer requests or prefers another item instead, the freelancer must help the customer. This is how retailers benefit – they receive the freelancer’s labor for, well, free, and the customer gets the impression that Barneys has hired an army of employees to help customers find the products that they are seeking.

    Of course, a few savvy customers have realized that not every employee behind the counter is a store employee, and a few ask the too-enthusiastic freelancer to divulge where their employment lies. However, it’s a sad state of affairs when a legitimate business feels it needs to lie in order to sell its products. Most of us believe that the phrase “carpe diem” “caveat emptor” no longer applies to American businesses, except for the fake Louis Vuitton purses and cashmere sweaters sold on 5th Avenue outside these high-end luxury retailers. Once a customer steps inside one of these businesses, a whole different standard applies. What’s next – General Mills freelancers dressed in supermarket uniforms touting the benefits of their latest sugar-filled cereal? It appears to be yet another form of ad-creep, like product placement in television shows.

    Unfortunately, freelancers are not the only ones to watch out for – store employees cannot be fully trusted either. Like the freelancers, they too are biased towards certain products, and not only the higher-priced products that will increase their commission-based pay. Motivated by “spiffs” (cash bonuses), counter-managers and associates promote certain fragrances or other products and receive anywhere from $10-$25 per item sold from a given company. Other more creative “spiffs” may be awarded to whichever associate sells the most of a given product over a certain period of time such as a few weeks. Fortunately, spiffs are not as widespread as freelancers and are less of a cause for bias, for the most part. Spiffs tend to be found on harder-to-sell high-priced products.

    Does this mean that the only appropriate course of action is to ban freelancers and spiffs altogether? I would like to think not. Despite the shortcomings of the freelancing system, there is a benefit. Because freelancers typically only work for one line of products, they tend to be more knowledgeable about the ingredients, quality, and cost of the products within their chosen line, while store employees have less detailed knowledge about the many product lines that they sell. As for spiffs, when it comes to fragrances at least, my personal opinion is that they are not immoral. Fragrances are not meant to “solve” anything and serve no medical or practical purpose. When one sells a fragrance, one is selling an idea such as “elegance” or “sexiness.” As long as a customer is smelling the fragrance before purchasing it, it appears that a purchase is not being made based upon faulty information. However, when it comes to skin care, a spiff entices the store employee to – I won’t say lie – mislead the customer, touting the benefits of a certain product with an unmistakable enthusiasm while downplaying the benefits of another. Skin care employees function as over-the-counter street doctors, and as such, have an air of legitimacy and responsibility despite never having taken the Hippocratic Oath.”

The biggest problem with freelancers is lack of disclosure. Freelancers should wear a nametag to indicate who their real master is. — BEN POPKEN


Edit Your Comment

  1. bambino says:

    I’m glad the tipster doesn’t regard ‘spiffs’ as immoral because hey, payola was common at one time too, right? Such garbage.

    BTW, I believe the phrase they’re looking for is ‘caveat emptor’ as opposed to ‘carpe diem’.

  2. Mary Marsala with Fries says:

    “Most of us believe that the phrase “carpe diem” no longer applies to American businesses…”

    Me neither. I’ve never seized the day in a department store once in my whole life!

    That aside, this piece makes a good point: Where should the line be, and who should draw it? My vote is for a 100% informed consumer, no matter what…hence, these freelancers can do what they do, but I want them wearing a nametag that identifies who they’re working for, if it’s not who I, as a normal consumer, would first expect.


  3. homerjay says:

    ummm……. so?

    Are people really that incapable of thinking for themselves that they need a spritzer (freelancer) to tell them what smells good?
    These people are there for one reason only (from the consumer’s POV) and that is to open the case and hand you the box that you ask for.

    I get the feeling the ‘tipster’ is just another Jon Stossel wannabe. These companies have done nothing wrong. This is no different than the chumps at Best Buy ONLY wanting to sell you service plans and accessories.

  4. kerry says:

    Huh. I always assumed that the ladies spritzing perfume and standing behind the makeup counters were probably working for the manufacturer, not the department store.

  5. acambras says:


    While full disclosure is never a bad idea, I have a hard time getting worked up over this story.

    If pharmaceutical sales reps were masquerading as doctors, I’d have a real problem with that. But I don’t care if the spray lady at Barney’s is employed by Barney’s or by the perfume maker. I’ll avoid her either way.

  6. ConsumerCONspiracy says:

    One should really be cautious with sales assocites too. Some sales associates receive additional pay as “specialists” for a certain line. They push there product because the vendor gives them extra pay, and different perks. I used to be one! I was a specialist for TUMI brand leather goods and besides free products, I would get a bonus check of about $300-400 every 2 to 3 months!
    These “specialists” are in every department in every store, and may be persuading you to make a purchase that just might not be the right one for you! Watch Out! They are hiding all over the place!

  7. Best Buy apparently has a similar problem. I was helping my mom buy a printer the other day and this douchebag in an Epson shirt, Epson lanyard, etc. is pushing (surprise, surprise) Epson printers. Mom thought he was a Best Buy employee, until I pointed out the logos.

  8. B says:

    I always assumed they were escaped mental patients who have some sort of fetish for spraying unsuspecting strangers with weird-smelling concoctions, but that’s just me.

  9. chip says:

    hasn’t this been the case, for like EVER?! what’s next the story of the neiman marcus chocolate chip cookie? BTW Barneys lost the apostrophe in the 80’s.

  10. Dude, you smelled bad. face it.

    and it’s just straight up capitalism.

  11. GaryGnu says:

    Oh the humanity. Salespeople may not be completely motivated by altruism when trying to sell you something.

    This just in, department stores lease out whole departments. In further news, where your General Mills cereal is displayed depends on who is paying what in slotting fees. Anyone who doesn’t bring a healthy dose of skepticism with them to a store deserves to misuse carpe diem.

  12. sassenach says:

    Only a man would be surprised that cosmetics department employees are on the take.

  13. Jurph says:

    With all the doublespeak that’s become common in marketing, why not have them wear a nametag that says “Brand Specialist” or somesuch? If you can get a good spread of freelancers in your cosmetics department, you actually have more depth and breadth than a department full of generalists. As long as they know each other’s names and specialties, so they can redirect questions to the right expert, they could conceivably function better than a traditional department.

    I’d be curious to know how much competition and cooperation there is between them. If you’ve read Pratchett and Gaiman’s “Good Omens” you know where I’m going with this. They’re coworkers, and probably friendly with each other to some degree, so it’s not unreasonable to think that Alice from Company A might recommend Company B’s competing product, because Bob gets a “spiff” for making that sale and Alice only gets regular commission. Alice would naturally expect Bob to return the favor.

  14. Um — 90% of department stores divide the makeup and fragrance counters by manufacturer so if you’re at the Clinique counter talking with the Clinique counter girl, you’re only looking at Clinique products, regardless of whether she’s employed by the store or the manufacturer.

    This is probably only news to people who’ve never, you know, been to a department store.

  15. JLam4911 says:

    Big deal. They’re actually called “merchandisers” and they don’t just work at the perfume counter. They work in the clothing sections of department stores too. Most of the people you see milling around department stores during the holidays are actually working for the manufacturer.

    So what? If you go into a store and you expect not to have someone try to sell you something, you’re just insane. And if you think that being helped by an “unbiased” salesperson is important, remember that actual store employees generally getting paid 8-10 bucks per hour and couldn’t give two shits what you buy.

  16. DeeJayQueue says:

    when you see the Epson guy at Best Buy (or staples or oMax or anywhere else) he’s not there to sell anything. he’s there to train the employees how to sell things and to make sure the products are displayed right and that they all work how they should. In the course of doing this people will inevitably come up and ask questions, so the reps aren’t strangers to a sales environment, but they’re not there as salespeople.

  17. thatabbygirl says:

    I totally expect a person behind a Clinique counter, or working the perfume counter at Target, to not be an objective person trying to help me find the most appropriate product. But when I go to a high-end store like Barney’s or Sak’s, etc, I do expect that the higher prices are in part because of the high quality, objective customer service I can expect to receive there. I think that’s what makes this story interesting and notable.

    Also, I often find I need assistance fragrance shopping, because there’s such a limited number of fragrances you can evaluate before your nose gets overwhelmed and stops distinguishing effectively. I rely on the salesperson to give me an edited selection based on my initial request so I’m not just sniffing randomly.

    For those two reasons, I found this post both interesting and relevant, unlike most of the commenters above.

  18. momo says:

    is this related to the barneys barebacker???

  19. ElizabethD says:

    I actually found one of my favorite perfumes — “Shi” by Alfred Sung — thanks to a fragrance freelancer wandering the aisles at Macy’s five years ago. It never occurred to me that she was Macy’s employee.

  20. The Jo Malone rep who helped me at Saks, was awesome. She gave me tons of free samples and got me on the company mailing list.

    She also helped mail out a package even though I didn’t have the mailing address [she called me later to get it], and held the product since it was the last one.

    I get notices about special events and product launches on the line now.

  21. “But when I go to a high-end store like Barney’s or Sak’s, etc, I do expect that the higher prices are in part because of the high quality, objective customer service I can expect to receive there. I think that’s what makes this story interesting and notable.”

    In my experience, high-end stores are far MORE blatant about having the cosmetic counters separated by brands, staffed by specific employees generally wearing the uniform of the BRAND, not of the store. The profit margins on high-end cosmetics are HUGE — Bobbie Brown is not sending you over to Nars and losing your profit. You’re more likely to get objective makeup advice at the drug store, where the clerk is paid hourly and really doesn’t have a personal stake in whether you buy Cover Girl or Maybelline.

    If you want reasonably objective advice on cosmetics, go to Sephora. (And Sephora’s store brand rocks anyway if they happen to be pushing the store brand that week.)

  22. Katie says:

    The nice part with the freelancers or fragrance models (seriously not a made up term, it’s a real job title in the industry) is that they are sometimes a little easier to get samples out of. The downside is that if you go in looking for one perfume and mistakenly ask them about it without knowing who they really work for, they tend to insist things like,”Oh! Well if you like that, you’ll like THIS even better.” Which is rarely true, and annoying when you’re looking for apples and they’re trying to shove oranges down your throat.

    One way to spot them is if they are carrying around a single fragrance bottle and/or pre-scented and pre-printed fragrance strips with its advertising. (Most stores usually have plain paper strips for general use for their regular employees.) Many times the freelancing people are hired on to work campaigns for only one scent at a time.

  23. Kat says:

    Not much different than Best Buy having reps from Canon or Epson hanging out in the printer aisles. However, you could tell who they were. I used to work for a BB and most of the printer reps wore a company (e.g. Canon, not BB) uniform or else just nice clothes with a nametag which had their employer listed on it as well.

  24. econobiker says:

    “spiffs” are used in all sales environments where the counter person has control over what products he/she presents or recommends to the customer from perfume to truck parts… This is versus places like discount stores or food stores where the merchandise is presented to the customer. In those enviroments the manufacturer pays for prefered placement.

    Also most of the merchandise displays are puchased by the manufacturer and given to the store.

  25. Michael says:

    Whoops! At first I read it as “Motivated by ‘spliffs'”…

  26. John Stracke says:

    At Micro Center, the printer section is dominated by HP reps, but they’re clearly labeled.

    (Not that I have a problem with HP; they make good printers and haven’t tried any DMCA crap like Lexmark.)