Smell you later: How do brands sell scents online?

Candles, incense and perfumes sold online can’t be sniffed until after purchase. So how do brands convince us to buy?

Moody Incense launched in December 2020. (Photo: Moody Incense)


According to customers, Moody Incense’s joss sticks smell great. That’s a relief – since there was no way they could check before buying.

That’s because Moody, an Australian brand which launched in December 2020, sells its scented products exclusively online. Although it has plans to start stocking physical retail locations soon, where customers will be able to take a whiff before they purchase, the challenge for now is to figure out how to communicate the scent of its incense sticks in other ways.

Most of the time, when someone buys a scented candle, a bottle of perfume or a pack of incense sticks, it's in real life, at a store. In the year to October 2020, fragrance sales were down 21% across the board in the U.S., due to store closures. In 2019, just 19% of fragrance brand sales were made online, although that number jumped up to 33% last year.


The sense of smell might not be available for brands to tap into when selling online, but it is possible for them to evoke the scent of their products through the use of words, pictures and even sounds.

Moody, as its name suggests, pitches each of its incense fragrances as mood setters, and the product descriptions and visuals reflect this idea accordingly.

“It does take the heat off the fragrance itself – because we’re creating all this content around when you should burn [the incense], how you should burn it, what you can do while you’re burning it,” the brand’s cofounder Tayla Gentle says. “We put a lot of focus on the mood you’re trying to set.”

"Morning Glory," a citrus-y incense stick, is described as a “zingy” fragrance that will “give all your senses a real good wake up,” while "Relaxo Mucho," which contains calming ylang ylang, promises to “cause serious amounts of chill.”

“We wanted them to smell delicious to most people, but we [also] knew we wanted to set an entire world around these fragrances,” Gentle adds, referencing the Spotify playlists and blogs that Moody has published to complement each of their scents. “People can really deep dive into this mood.”

Pictures can also summon different scents to the mind. On its Instagram account, scented candle brand Otherland features photographs of its candles nestled among the ingredients that make up its scent notes; the bright yellow "Canary" candle is pictured alongside slices of cantaloupe melon, while "Out of the Blue" is surrounded by hydrangea flowers.

Keap, a scented candle brand from New York, even goes as far as publishing an emotive poem alongside each of its fragrances, to help tease its scents out. To describe its berry-laced "Wild Figs" candle, poet Rawaan Alkhatib writes: “Deep within the orchard you / crush a fig underfoot; / the ripe, heady scent / mingles with the milky sap of the trees, / fruit peeping out from clusters of glossy leaves.”

“We spend a lot of time writing stories that are linked to the scents, and weave this broader picture of what we’re about,” says Keap’s cofounder Stephen Tracy, who says that candles have the power to get people to focus on the here and now – an important function in the world of smartphones and social media.

There are times when descriptions are best kept simple, though. When it comes to actually naming its scents, Tracy says Keap tries to stay away from “esoteric” names, and instead stick to what’s in the tin. For perfume brand Snif, which only sells three scents at a time, fragrance names like "Sweet Ash" and "Poppy Issues" give away what some of those scent notes might be.

Snif sends 2ml samples with each bottle of perfume it ships. (Photo: Snif)

Try before you buy

Scent is incredibly personal: it’s estimated that humans have up to 400 olfactory receptors in their noses, creating an enormous range in how a single smell might be translated from one nose to the next. And our sense of smell can change over time, or because of other factors like getting sick. Throughout the pandemic, candle brands have dealt with an increasing number of complaints from people who say their candles don’t smell of anything.

This individual experience means that no amount of wordsmithing can help the fact that some customers simply won’t like the scent they ordered. Moody says it will allow customers to return their incense pouches with up to five sticks missing, no questions asked. But this type of policy is hard to translate when selling candles, which can’t be resold if they’ve been lit, or perfumes that now have liquid missing from the bottle.

Sampling is one way to get around this problem. Keap sells miniature candles, which cost $12 for four different scents, giving customers a lower barrier to entry before committing to a full-sized (and more expensive) candle. No doubt inspired by Warby Parker’s home try-on service, Snif has built out its concept around the idea of trying before buying perfume online.

Every package that Snif sends out contains two bottles – a full-size perfume with a tamper-proof seal, and a 2ml sample that can be tested for seven days. If the scent is a good fit, the customer simply keeps the perfume and has the amount deducted from their credit card at the end of the trial period. If they don’t like it, they use the return label to ship it back.

The process has been iterated since Snif launched in 2020, with an option to buy the perfumes outright (bypassing the trial process) now available. While the majority of Snif’s customers (80%) use the try-before-you-buy service, a significant number now simply purchase the perfumes immediately, rather than having the seven-day hold placed on their cards.

The brand’s founders have been debating just how much detail to give customers on their scents. When Snif first launched, it didn’t tell customers anything about the raw materials or scent notes in each fragrance, hoping that the trial process would answer their questions.

“We didn’t want to guide and define our customer’s experience with our scents,” cofounder Phil Riportella says. “We wanted them to smell for themselves, and really trust their own nose.”

They soon noticed that customers did need at least a little bit of guidance, though, and now the product pages for each Snif perfume contain a brief list of what’s in the bottle.

“We want to be very clinical with the notes. We didn’t want to use poetic metaphors as descriptions, or over-complicated notes like some brands do,” Riportella says, adding that over-explaining a fragrance can also lead to confused customers.

“You might not like vanilla [for example], but when it’s mixed with different ingredients you might love it,” he says. “Fragrance is very personal. It smells different to everyone and on everyone.”

What is Thingtesting?

Thingtesting is a database of internet-born brands. We’re building the un-sponsored corner of the internet where consumers can come together to talk honestly about new things. Read more about Thingtesting.

Create a free account so you can make your own lists, whether that’s because you love them or because you want to try them.

Feedback? Yes, please.