Investigators sniff out the hidden fragrance industry

Except for being scented liquids, Gucci’s Flora Attractive Gardenia Eau de Parfum and Unilever’s Dove Go Recent Pomegranate & Lemon Verbena Scent bathe gel do not need quite a bit in widespread. One is 100 occasions costlier than the opposite by quantity and is offered by a trend label, not a packaged items firm.

However each have been created by the identical firm, the Swiss fragrances group Firmenich. You might by no means have heard of it, however the smells it concocts permeate 1000’s of merchandise, from perfumes, toothpastes and deodorants to laundry liquids. Unseen and unheralded, it’s an ambient presence in properties.

These are good occasions for luxurious fragrances. Gross sales of scented candles, and perfumes from manufacturers and celebrities such because the singer Ariana Grande, have grown as folks indulge. Firmenich, which silently produces lots of them (together with Grande’s R. E. M) has been carried alongside: its wonderful perfume gross sales rose by 33 per cent final 12 months.

The trip was rudely interrupted final week when Firmenich and its three greatest rivals have been raided by antitrust investigators from Switzerland, the EU, the US and the UK. They’re suspected of colluding to lift costs, blocking rivals from supplying their prospects, and limiting manufacturing of some fragrances.

Firmenich, Givaudan of Switzerland, Symrise of Germany and the US group Worldwide Flavors & Fragrances haven’t admitted any wrongdoing: they are saying they’re co-operating with the inquiry, which can not result in expenses. It covers not solely fragrances however “perfume substances”, which go into meals to make them scent good.

We have no idea which merchandise regulators have their eyes on, however I can make a remark on the hole between costs of luxurious scents and of bathe gel. You needn’t struggle too laborious when prospects will fortunately pay for a label and a tiny bottle of scent. Producing family staples is a wrestle that creates a temptation to collude.

The presence of Firmenich and the others is the hidden issue behind the posh business’s “perfume increase”. Labels realised there was cash to be made by including perfumes to their attire traces, however few of them had Chanel’s capability to make the scents themselves. They wanted companions and the perfume teams have been keen to help.

The rise in gross sales of luxurious perfume began throughout the pandemic and has carried on. Sue Nabi, chief govt of the US magnificence firm Coty, which makes perfumes for manufacturers together with Burberry, Chloé and Tiffany, famous final 12 months that buyers have been “shopping for an increasing number of . . . costly objects” for themselves, not simply as items.

However whereas luxurious perfume is rising quick, it types solely a small a part of the business. Most is much less glamorous and extra quotidian: making air fresheners, deodorants, soaps, gels, washing powders, ground cleaners and every kind of different merchandise fragrant.

The Geneva-based Worldwide Perfume Affiliation is a part of the antitrust inquiry and informed me that it conducts all conferences “below strict competitors coverage tips”. It estimates that in 2017, wonderful fragrances accounted for 9 per cent of gross sales of scented merchandise; practically 70 per cent concerned private care objects akin to shampoo.

Life is harder within the latter enterprise: development is way weaker and perfume corporations face worth rises from their 3,000 uncooked materials suppliers, together with farmers of lavender and patchouli. Additionally they have to barter with the world’s greatest packaged items corporations in promoting their fragrances, together with Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

The business produces an enormous vary of smells and smells: Givaudan alone makes 176 “perfume molecules”, starting from benzyl salicylate (“floral, balsamic, candy”) to Alicate (“fruity, rhubarb, fragrant, lilac”). However irrespective of how candy they scent, promoting chemical compounds to multinationals is a slog.

The truth that folks select perfumes fastidiously however care little concerning the provenance of pine scent in ground cleaner dictates the phrases of commerce. When Gucci needed a scent with “ultra-dry woody notes”, it consulted one in every of Firmenich’s grasp parfumiers, who combined the method. When a multinational makes a grocery store product, it has a plethora of provider decisions.

Maybe perfume corporations colluded to slender these decisions: we will know when the inquiry ends. In the meantime, the raids inform a narrative about being profitable in scents, or different merchandise. Get as shut as doable to buyers who’re insensitive to cost, and steer clear of industrial provide chains.

I’ve one other commentary: one authorized technique to restrict competitors is to merge. When managers agree on costs inside an organization, it’s known as technique, not collusion. Like others, the business has been consolidating: Firmenich is merging with the Dutch biosciences group DSM: the €41bn deal was cleared by EU competitors authorities final month.

Count on extra mergers after this. And while you subsequent spray fragrance or wash your hair, study the small print on the again in addition to the labels on the entrance. The scent might have wafted all the best way from Switzerland.

john.gapper@ft.com

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