Every Valentine's Day, the $5 billion-a-year perfume industry enjoys a boomlet as fragrances fly off the shelves and onto the throats, wrists and other pulse points of romance-minded consumers. 

The seductive power of perfume is as old as the centuries. 

Last year, after two years of bright sales in the fragrance industry, there was a slight decline amid the softening economy, according to The NPD Beauty Trends, the fragrance, retail and skincare tracking unit of market information provider NPD Group Inc. in Port Washington, New York. 

Scented bath and body products sales were up and gift sets continue to do well, increasing 8.2 percent from 2000, in department store sales, despite a disappointing holiday season. 

For the major fragrance players in the marketplace, Valentine's Day is second only to Christmas in sales. 

"We make a lot of noise at Valentine's Day because we have a story to tell," Andrea Robinson, president of Ralph Lauren Fragrances Worldwide, told Reuters. "We were one of the first companies, because of our uniquely named fragrance, to recognize the opportunity that we could take at Valentine's Day with just a little more effort put into it." 

For example, she said, Ralph Lauren's Romance fragrance does about 11 percent of its annual sales in February. 

Robinson said that the "whole package" is key to selling a fragrance, from the advertising to the in-store counter design to the shopping bags and, of course, offering a good price. 

Purchase a bottle of Ralph Lauren Romance or Romance Men, for example, and you can have the signature, silver heart-shaped charms and tags -- or the bottle itself -- engraved with your Valentine's initials. 

"Convenience and brand" is what one shopper, Steve Pothos of Long Island, New York, looks for when shopping for a fragrance. "My wife loves (Lancome's) Tresor, I was going by Macy's and stopped and got the whole gift set." 

NOSTALGIA VERSUS NEWNESS 

The impact of designer name brands has grown with 63 percent of 1,500 women fragrance users nationwide sampled by NPD Beauty Trends admitting that designer and celebrity names influence their fragrance purchase decisions. 

NPD revealed that younger women, ages 15 to 34, are most likely to be influenced by designer names and also more inclined to purchase newer fragrances, whereas women ages 35 to 64 are most loyal to classic scents. 

While most women who buy fragrance say fine department stores are their favorite outlets, specialty stores are now reaching more consumers and capturing a larger slice of industry sales than lower-tier department stores, such as J.C. Penney and Sears. 

Dawn Robertson, president of Federated Direct, the customer division of Federated Department Stores that includes Macys.com and Bloomingdales by Mail, said they "believe in the fragrance business" and have about 180 fragrances online -- 130 for women and 50 for men." 

"Eighty-percent of our business is fragrance and 20 percent other things such as body lotion, powders and body gels," Robertson told Reuters. 

"There are some hot new fragrances, and those are selling themselves for Valentine's Day," she said, adding that although more men will buy at this time of year, "about 88 percent of our customers shop for themselves," not waiting to get a gift of fragrance. 

Scents, like so many other things, go in cycles, so what's old eventually becomes new again. 

"There are classics and there's newness," Robertson said. "What we find online is that newness is important. (But) a traditional one, like Chanel No. 5, and Happy by Clinique, continue to be best sellers." 

A rather unique Valentine item in stores this year is Issey Miyake's Le Feu D'Issey Light in a round, pink case for women; or for men, L'Eau D'Issey in a blue case that when activated by pulling a tab in the back, flashes a "beating heart" effect. 

 

BASIC INSTINCTS 

Our attraction to scent is apparently a very basic part of human nature. 

"The sense of smell is the only sense that goes directly to the memory and sexuality part of the brain," according to Annette Green, an author and president of the Fragrance Foundation in New York. 

"Doctors have studied these things and ... they say that most people's smell preferences are based on experiences early in life, so it's really smells of mother's cooking, smells of the garden, a first romance" that play a part in whether we react favorably -- or not -- to a scent. 

"You smell something and it has no interpreters and it goes directly to the brain and stays there. It definitely elicits an emotional and memory response," she said. 

Hence, a fragrance one person may find unpleasant, or even downright stinky, another may practically bathe in. 

When Green began working with the Foundation nearly 40 years ago, fragrance was more for special occasions and not an everyday thing for American women. So, the foundation was established, she said, to encourage women to "understand the pleasures of fragrance." 

"Men love to give fragrance because they don't have to worry about size and color," she said, adding that perhaps fragrance should be given together with chocolates! 

Jo Malone, British perfumer and skincare expert who has made creating scents an art through her self-named shops in London, New York and other cities, said that since the rose is a traditional symbol of love, Valentine's Day is a perfect opportunity to wear it as a fragrance, because it's one that "men love on women and women love for themselves." 

"With fragrance, you can create wonderful memories of a person which you can revisit every time you smell that scent in the future," she said. "It's quite romantic." 

This year, Ralph Lauren's Robinson said, nostalgia is in the air, "letting someone know what they mean to you" is what is important.