The scenario goes like this: Thousands of last-minute shoppers rush to fragrance counters and snap up bottles of perfume, toilet water and after-shave for everyone on their lists.
That's the vision dancing in the heads of fragrance executives and retailers these days, and it's not entirely far-fetched.
Traditionally, 60 percent of the year's fragrance sales are made between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And 75 percent of them are to men buying gifts for women.
Maybe he can't afford a diamond ring, but how about a $40 bottle of Elizabeth Taylor's White Diamonds?
"The week before Christmas is the biggest week of the year," said John Stabenau, a vice president of Neiman Marcus.
"And fragrance sales have been increasing appreciably this season."
But the business is highly competitive. There are about 800 fragrances on the market, and 80 were introduced this year.
Nationwide, annual sales have remained at about $4 billion for the last five years. Although the market for men's fragrances has grown in the last decade, women's fragrances still account for more than $3 billion of the total.
"Fragrance is not a growth industry," said Allan Mottus, a marketing consultant in New York. "There's a market-share war going on. I don't remember when there were so many launches at the same time."
There never were, said Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization. The casualty rate is likely to be high, however.
Dorothy Foster, a marketing and sales consultant, estimates that only 15 of the 80 new scents will still be on store counters two years from now.
"Unless a perfume fits into a strong niche or has a real reason for being, it won't last," she said. "You can sell everything once, but the proof of success is repurchase."
Eugene Grisanti, the chairman of International Flavors and Fragrances, the essential-oils company that has developed many successful perfumes, including Chloe, White Linen and Tresor, sees no letup in introductions in the near future.
"I see a built-in predictable pattern," he said in an interview last week. "There will be more launches with bigger bucks spent. It will continue to be intensely competitive."
Among the year's new fragrances considered most likely to succeed, according to reports from stores, are Elizabeth Taylor's Fragrant Jewels, Gio de Giorgio Armani, Sunflowers by Elizabeth Arden, Wings by Giorgio Beverly Hills, L'Eau d'Issey by Issey Miyake, Escape for Men by Calvin Klein and Polo Sport from Ralph Lauren.
All of the fragrances except Issey Miyake's are backed by high-visibility advertising and promotional campaigns. Escape for Men was introduced with a $20 million campaign, Gio de Giorgio Armani with a $50 million campaign.
That money doesn't come from the designer or celebrity whose name is on the bottle, but from the fragrance company that holds the license to make and market products under that name. Many of these fragrance companies have been bought in recent years by conglomerates with deep pockets.
Unilever, the consumer products maker based in Rotterdam and London, owns Elizabeth Arden and Parfums International, which holds the licenses for Elizabeth Taylor, Fendi, Chloe, Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino brands; Calvin Klein Cosmetics; Faberge (best known for Brut); and Versace Fragrances.
L'Oreal, the French cosmetics giant, owns Cosmair, whose fragrance licenses include the Lancome, Ralph Lauren, Paloma Picasso and Giorgio Armani brands. Procter & Gamble's
holdings in the fragrance field include Navy, Old Spice, Hugo Boss and Laura Biagiotti. Issey Miyake's fragrance is produced by Shiseido, a heavy hitter from Japan.
And then there's Estee Lauder with a list of scents including Beautiful, White Linen, Knowing, Spellbound and the perennially popular Youth Dew, plus other offerings from its Aramis, Clinique, Prescriptives and Origins divisions.
"When I entered the industry 32 years ago, it was an entrepreneurial French business," Ms. Green said. "But it's harder today for the classic French houses to compete with the promotional dollars spent by the Unilevers and L'Oreals."
One upstart who made good on his own is Fred Hayman, a boutique owner who introduced Giorgio Beverly Hills in 1982 with a limited advertising budget. Sales reached a high of $75 million in 1985.
The usual route for a designer is to license his or her name for royalties of 5 percent to 7 percent of sales. It costs the designer nothing but the time devoted to approving the scent and promoting it. There was a mini-trend a few years ago for companies to sign up celebrities from the worlds of entertainment and sports, but the only star with staying power was Elizabeth Taylor. Cher didn't last, or Julio Iglesias or Gabriella Sabatini.
It generally takes three years for a new perfume to pay off its initial development and marketing costs, assuming the fragrance stays around that long. It isn't yet clear whether Donna Karan's gamble last year on forming her own company to bring out a fragrance will pay off.
Because of start-up costs, her perfume lost $5.9 million on sales of $4.1 million in the first six months it was on the market, through March 1993. If she had licensed her name for a 7 percent royalty, she would have earned $287,000 on sales of $4.1 million.
This year's big sellers are all expected to come from the giant companies. Although final sales figures can't be tallied until after the Christmas season, Mr. Mottus drew up an interim list headed by Lauder's Beautiful (with sales of more than $60 million); Calvin Klein's Eternity (about $58 million); Elizabeth Taylor's White Diamonds ($48 million); Lauder's White Linen ($46 million); Klein's Escape ($40 million), and Lancome's Tresor ($40 million).
White Linen has been on the market since 1978, Beautiful since 1985. The others have all been introduced in the last five years. Yet classics like Youth Dew, Chanel No. 5 and Opium by Yves Saint Laurent continue to sell steadily and well.
Among the important fragrances expected to arrive in the next year or so are offerings from Calvin Klein, Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, the jewelry companies of Chopard and Van Cleef & Arpels and a lighter version of Dior's Poison.
Saint Laurent plans to bring its controversial Champagne fragrance to this country next year despite the recent ruling by a French court barring the company from using the name Champagne in France.
"Newness drives the industry," Ms. Green said, "but many customers go into a store for something new and end up buying a classic."