The Perfume Shop’s chief operating officer Jo Walker likes smelling people. Her party trick is to go up to people she doesn’t know, have a good sniff and tell them what perfume they’re wearing.
“There’s nothing better than to see people’s faces when you tell them what perfume they’re wearing, especially if it’s less well known,” she says. “I smell everything and have always been in fragrances, so it has become my passion.”
It’s not just fragrance that Walker is passionate about though – she positively glows when she talks about Perfume Shop. Not only is it a job, it is her life. She can’t bear to be out of touch with the business and only allows herself one week’s holiday with her husband to Menorca every two years.
“When I meet people at parties I can’t wait for them to ask me what I do,” she enthuses. “And when they do, within about 10 minutes I will have asked them if they shop at Perfume Shop, told them where their nearest store is and probably recommended a fragrance.”
Walker has plenty to be passionate about. She started working at Perfume Shop when it was just a small chain with a handful of shops and has been instrumental in its growth to today’s 156 outlets.
Walker started out as a store manager at the retailer’s shop at the old Bullring in Birmingham, which she describes as “very basic”. “We just had a few shelves with a few perfumes and if there were particular special offers, we’d just handwrite the signs,” she remembers. “The department store managers had a peak at our offer, but didn’t think we would have any impact on them or that we would last long.”
Those department store managers were clearly wrong. The business, set up by Merchant Retail Group, was sold to AS Watson, part of the Hutchison Whampoa group, in 2005. It has continued to grow and it is now the biggest perfume operator in the UK after Boots.
Walker says one of the key drivers of Perfume Shop’s growth is price. “When we started out, perfume was very expensive and wasn’t attainable for everyone,” she says. “We made it much more accessible. Our entry price is as low as£8. That way we can also recruit quite young customers. We get customers as young as 11 or 12 coming to us then staying through their teenage years and into adulthood.”
Apart from price drawing in younger customers, Walker believes the culture of the business is a step change from department stores. Perfume Shop has a comfortable feel where staff are impartial but helpful, she says. “Some shoppers were afraid of the perfume counters in department stores because it would feel a little snooty, but there are no barriers with us,” she says.
In Walker’s 16 years at Perfume Shop she has also witnessed one of the biggest changes in the industry – the rise of the celebrity perfume. The likes of Coleen McLoughlin, Sarah Jessica Parker and Katie Price all lend their names to perfumes that grace the shelves alongside those of Armani or Yves Saint Laurent.
“You only have to look at the circulation of OK! or Heat magazine to see that we’re obsessed with celebrities,” she says. “And we do well in this area because those perfumes and celebrities tend to resonate with a younger customer, where price is critical too.”
While celebrity perfumes don’t have the same brand lifecycle as traditional perfumes, the market is set to grow along with the nation’s celebrity obsession. “We’ve even got a Hollyoaks perfume coming out later this year, so television shows are now getting in on the act too,” she says.
Walker remains confident that Perfume Shop has much more potential because as a business it is still just a “teenager”. But she is well aware the retail market is tough and believes retailers should go back to basics to ride out the storm.
“We all need to remember what retail is about,” she says. “And remember who made us what we are today – and the customer and our staff. For us, all our staff are a name, not a number, and that filters through to the customer experience. If you keep your foundations solid, you should get through the tough times.”
With healthy growth potential ahead, Perfume Shop should come up smelling of roses.
Following the scent
1992-present: The Perfume Shop, various roles from store manager to trading director and, in 2008, promoted to chief operating officer
1988-92: Debenhams, assistant on a perfume counter