Enter the beauty floor of a department store at your own peril. The unprepared must run a gantlet between cosmetics kiosks and bubbly makeup artists in a valiant effort to avoid the most dreaded of creatures: the perfume spritzers.

Armed with bottles of the latest fragrance, they stand smiling and ready to douse passersby, hoping a sudden olfactory epiphany will strike. What are the chances, really? Turns out, pushy spritzers may not be the most effective way to get shoppers to buy fragrances, so retailers are taking a new tack.

Sephora is testing a method developed by a San Francisco-based fragrance startup called Pinrose that brings technology and psychology to your nose. Founded in 2013 as an online perfume seller by Erika Shumate and Christine Luby, Pinrose stood out because of a quiz that attempted to figure out a shopper's personality, using the results to recommend scents they'd enjoy the most. Now these quizzes are getting a test run on iPad displays in Sephora shops and tried out at Nordstrom.

"This industry was kind of old and clandestine and hard to understand," said Luby, 34. "Buying fragrance isn't very fun."

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Shumate, 32, studied the psychology of scents at Yale University and worked to find a way to describe them in a manner people actually understand. "People have a really hard time describing what they want in a fragrance," said Shumate. "They walk in, and they say, 'I want something fresh.' Or 'this smells fresh to me.' Or 'this is too heavy.' Or 'this is too strong.'"

Though scent is one of the most evocative human senses, it doesn't really have its own vocabulary. Pinrose wants to get past the thinking part of your brain and dive into the limbic system, which processes various senses and serves as its emotional center. This is where smell coordinates with memories and where emotional reactions are induced. You can't merely explain the ingredients in a bottle to get to that place, said Shumate.

People often struggle to find the vocabulary to describe the fragrance they want. Photo / 123RF
People often struggle to find the vocabulary to describe the fragrance they want. Photo / 123RF

Until now, the perfume industry has sought to circumvent this conundrum by hyper-sexualizing its products, promising romantic success for wearers if they spray it all over themselves. It's not whether you like it; it's whether someone else likes it. Simultaneously, perfume bottlers have leveraged celebrities, too, giving wearers a straightforward pitch: If you want to be like Jennifer Lopez or Matthew McConaughey, put this on.

Scent sellers have sought to push past these tropes, trying androgynous scents that shun gender norms or using surreal imagery to illustrate scent conceptually. But Pinrose's strategy is at a whole new level: It uses brands aimed at different personality types, rather than mimicking a wine menu.

Tambourine Dreamer is billed as "perfect for vineyard picnics and bottomless brunches." You're supposed to wear Gilded Fox "with a barely there come-hither stare." Spray on some Cuddle Punk for "pillow fights and love bites."

How do you choose a scent that matches someone who identifies with these sentiments? A test, of course.

Pinrose's quiz was first developed from the responses of 500 women before it started selling scents online. More than 300,000 people have now taken the quiz, and the system is constantly updated. Pinrose hopes to eventually tailor its questionnaire, using an adaptive algorithm to include time of day and location. It's 7-to-11-questions long and takes less than a minute. Each inquiry is presented as a pair of images, shapes, and colors (some versions include sound-based questions, too.) Select between forest or sunset; grass or sand; waves or calm water.

Take this question-pink or green? Colors tend to correlate with scent notes that may be that same color. Pick pink, and you may like more floral scent notes such as frangipani or gardenia. Green means you're probably more keen on something grassier or earthier, maybe moss or cedar.

Shumate also looks at shapes as an emotional and physical response in your nose.

In this question, you're asked to pick between a spiky shape and a cloud. Spiky is more correlated with energetic scents, as if it's resonating at a higher frequency. This includes sharper citrus notes, such as grapefruit or lime-something that's quite bitter. The cloud suggests you'd like a rounder smell, perhaps nectarine, plum, or cassis.

The quiz, once solely online, is now found in 10 Sephora locations and 26 Nordstrom stores. Shumate said she's seen increased sales at venues that have the on-site iPad. Pinrose, meanwhile, is nearing profitability, Luby said, though she declined to share revenue figures.

Sephora now runs the Pinrose test off iPads in its stores. Photo / 123RF
Sephora now runs the Pinrose test off iPads in its stores. Photo / 123RF

Quizzes and similar tactics are helpful to narrow customer choices as they wade through a sea of options, said Hana Ben-Shabat, a retail analyst at consulting firm A.T. Kearney. But whatever the method, the tool has to actually work: If shoppers take the quiz and hate all the suggestions, the store has wasted their time.

"The success of the tools and the value to the consumer have to go beyond gimmicks," said Ben-Shabat. "It has to be truly effective."

Sephora (which, ironically, has never used overzealous spritzers in its U.S. stores) declined to reveal its long-term plans for the Pinrose quiz. Brooke Banwart, Sephora's vice president for fragrance, acknowledged that shoppers are "loving this quiz" and engaging with it. The retailer has its own recommendation system, too, dubbed Fragrance IQ, that asks a few simple questions about what the shopper likes. "All of Sephora's technology efforts are centered around helping our clients discover and play in beauty," she said.

Given the rise of automation everywhere else in the modern world, hopefully that won't involve robot spritzers.