September 7, 2008
THE SEMISWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
The New York Times City Section
As told to Joseph Huff-Hannon
ALI AFZAL, the 45-year-old owner of R. A. Fragrances and Perfumes, can enter a crowded room and tell who is wearing Jean Paul Gaultier, Givenchy or his personal favorite, Acqua di Gio from Armani.
But Mr. Afzal’s skills have not shielded him or the city’s perfume district, which runs along Broadway from about 28th to 34th Street, from the nation’s economic downturn. Behind the counter of his fragrant store near 31st Street, a modest space lined with boxes in pink, red and aquamarine, Mr. Afzal pointed out that the low value of the dollar hurts perfume merchants particularly because they buy their goods abroad. As a result, he has had to double some of his prices, and business has declined.
Mr. Afzal, a soft-spoken man with a closely cropped beard, was born in Pakistan and now lives with his wife and three children in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. One recent afternoon, as customers inspected the perfume boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling and haggled with his clerks over prices, Mr. Afzal talked about the life of a local perfume dealer. JOSEPH HUFF-HANNON
I’ve owned this store for 10 years, and I’ve been in this industry for 17. Since this is the only job that I’ve had in the U.S., it’s what I know. You have to keep on top of all the new perfumes, because new labels come out every month. One of the newest is Moschino Hippy Frizz; this has a fruity, summery scent. If you really want to be in this business, you need to have knowledge about the different scents, because there are very subtle differences. Some scents are citrusy, some are spicy, some are very bold, some are quiet.
People feel better when they wear something that makes them feel nice, that makes them feel attractive. Who doesn’t want to help people feel better?
Here we do wholesale and retail; we know our customers well, and they are all complaining about the costs. One big problem now is that the prices are fluctuating so much. Something might cost me $20, and tomorrow it will cost me $22. A bottle of Dolce & Gabbana that was $36 wholesale just a year ago, I’m now buying it for $56.
The dollar keeps falling, and as a retailer we don’t have a lot of flexibility, because most of the perfumes are coming from Europe: Chanel, Drakkar Noir, Joop. We don’t mark it up as much as they do at Macy’s. That’s why people shop here.
But in this market, some customers are losing their trust because there are a lot more people selling fakes now, down on Canal Street, or out on the street here. That’s another result of the dollar losing ground. People are getting priced out of the brands, so they are buying fakes instead. Earlier this year, some guys set up tables to sell bootleg perfumes right across the street from Macy’s.
We used to have a lot of customers coming from South America, tourists from Brazil or Argentina, but we don’t see many of them anymore. Now maybe because of the better currency exchange they can afford to buy it down there; they don’t need to shop in New York. But most of our clientele is still Spanish-speaking. I speak a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of French. I learned it all working here.
Our busiest months are right before Christmas, but this past year was definitely slower. I have six people working with me in the store now. I’m lucky because I haven’t had to lay anybody off, but I couldn’t hire anybody else now either. Still, we all get along. Everybody works hard.
Sometimes I get very stressed out. Today I’m O.K., but there are many, many expenses — salaries, electricians, so many different city taxes — and our profit margin isn’t that high. And in this neighborhood the rent goes up 15 or 20 percent every year.
This past year they wanted to raise the rent 50 percent over three years. I negotiated something better, but at the end of the day this won’t all add up. If our rents keep going up, and the price of perfume keeps going up, I don’t know how long they’ll be able to call this neighborhood the perfume district.
In the future I’ve been thinking of maybe just going into warehousing and shipping. But all of your orders come in by fax or e-mail, and I would miss having a store, talking to customers face to face. We have many regular customers, some of them have their own little stores, and they come in to buy three or four bottles of this or that.
These days the most popular perfume for women is Code, by Armani. Also Juicy Couture, that is a big one. The most expensive ones now are Dolce & Gabbana, and the price has gone up and up and up. Many customers don’t understand why. We have to explain that we aren’t raising the price because we want to, but because we have to.
My family is happy with my work. I bring my wife perfumes, and she wears whatever I bring home. She likes them all. My father is still in Pakistan; I visit once or twice a year. And yes, of course, when I go to visit, I always bring perfumes.