Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover. But just imagine Chanel cosmetics without their chic black cases. Elizabeth Taylor's White Diamonds perfume without its glitzy rhinestone bow. Origins body essentials without their earthy, recycled wrap.
Not a pretty sight, is it?
Plowing through the overkill of any cosmetic and fragrance department, it doesn't take long to grasp the first commandment of this dream-machine business: Snare the consumer with the outer shells of paper, plastic, metal and crystal.
Counters look as rich as museums, with miniature artworks doubling as boxes, bottles, caps, compacts and tubes for the products that feed the fantasies.
From October through December, when 40 percent to 50 percent of annual fragrance sales occur, the counters explode in fireworks of extravagant, brilliantly colored gift packages. Many of them are the industry's "blockbusters": enticing boxes filled with a mind-boggling number of products.
But don't think for a minute that these elegant containers are an afterthought. Along with advertising, packaging is an essential "come hither" element of any fragrance or cosmetic.
A customer's "first clue to quality is the packaging," says Suzanne Grayson, a marketing consultant and former Revlon executive. "If the packaging is inferior, she is already disposed to think the product is inferior. And it works the other way. ...
"A lot of it has to do with the image of the brand," she adds.
"For example, you can give a Chanel user the exact same fragrance in a plain bottle, and she will tell you she likes her fragrance better. It's very difficult to separate the image of the brand from product performance," says Ms. Grayson, whose Santa Barbara company researches consumer responses on blind tests of cosmetics and fragrances.
Packaging has mesmerized the industry since the dawn of modern cosmetics in the '30s, when there were only a handful of players and Revlon introduced a revolutionary concept: matching lipstick and nail polish.
But today, with a recession and so much competition, "marketers have to bend over backward to entice the consumer. And that's what we're doing," says Ms. Grayson.
"If you look at the department stores now, you will see everyone is using packaging to attract the consumer, to say, 'Come over and look at me.' And a beautiful package adds to the value of the product. You can't take a beautiful perfume bottle and put it in a plain box. It would be suicide."
The memorable suicides -- perfumes like Cher's Uninhibited, which bombed for lack of the right wrap, among other factors -- keep the industry on its varnished toenails.
"The packaging was Art Deco. Cher's image is hardly Art Deco," observes Annette Green, executive director of the New York-based Fragrance Foundation.
Another loser was Max Factor's Just Call Me Maxi. "They spent a fortune on it, but the fragrance and packaging didn't hang together," Ms. Green recalls.
The fate of a fragrance hangs on many threads, Green concedes, including its position in the store, the salesperson, the advertising. "But in front, it's the fragrance and the package and the name" that count, she says.
Revlon's Charlie, for example, got it all right. "Everything went together. It was a period when women were looking like little boys. Charlie came in a clean, classic, simple bottle. It played down femininity."
These days, femininity is back, say industry experts like Marc Rosen, who owns a New York design company specializing in cosmetics and fragrance packaging.
"Oscar de la Renta's new fragrance, Volupte, is very feminine in terms of the bottle. Giorgio's Wings is that way. Dune from Dior has a feminine feel in the coloration of the carton. It's a pink-salmon color. Giorgio has blue. Those are colors we haven't seen in a long time in fragrance packaging."
No one in the secretive $30 billion cosmetics and fragrance industry, is willing to say exactly how much it costs to woo the consumer with outer trappings.
But one insider says, "It's well known in the industry that, with almost every fragrance, the packaging is more expensive than the fragrance in it."
Paula Begoun, author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me" and "Blue Eyeshadow Should Be Illegal," agrees: "All you're talking about is some oil and plants. It's all image. It might cost 50 cents for the perfume itself and the rest is paying for (the name), the box and the advertising."
Not true, Ms. Green says, noting: "It takes years to research and develop any good fragrance." The packaging "is expensive," she admits. "But ... I assure you, not as much goes into the packaging as goes into the developing of a fragrance."
Some industry insiders insist that counter frills account for only 3 percent to 5 percent of the retail price. And besides, consumers are willing participants in the game.
Says Marc Rosen, "I think it's a myth that consumers don't know what they are paying for: the package, the fragrance, the whole look. If you ask them what they respond to initially, they will say the package. I don't believe they think: 'If I could get it in a plain glass bottle I could save money.' That bottle, that box says a lot about you, about how you feel about yourself. There are a lot of subliminal things it connotes."
Men relate to fragrance bottles "very much the way they relate to buying a car," he says. "For them, it is a sexual thing, an extension of themselves. With women, it's less overt. It's more sensual and more fashion related."
But merchants are sensitive to environmental issues. In a recent survey conducted by Packaging magazine, consumers rated cosmetics the most over-packaged items on the market.
American jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris, for instance, believes he addresses the issue with his collectors' items and sturdy, "reusable" boxes.
While companies like Elizabeth Arden might be taking a few quiet strides toward package reduction, the Body Shop, Origins, Aveda and M.A.C. make a big issue out of being friends of Mother Earth.
Not everyone calls the efforts -- large or small -- altruistic. "The people who are paring back are doing it as a marketing and advertising tool," says Melissa Larson, senior editor of Packaging magazine. "They're not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. They're doing it because they think it will make the product more attractive."
Origins and M.A.C. encourage consumers to return bottles and boxes to stores for recycling. "Which, by the way, brings the consumer back," Ms. Larson says.
Daria Myers, vice president of marketing for Origins, agrees that the company's "Origins Empties" program brings customers back.
"But we don't attach any prize to it," she explains. "We're just offering it as a service, and we'd prefer they would recycle on their own. We don't want to be in the recycling business."
Returns are shipped to the East Coast and reborn. Old glass is turned into new glass; plastic caps into blasting materials for tools and molds; compact cases into plastics for lawn furniture and railroad ties.