The ‘free’ perfume hustle

One of the things I love the most about London is that, no mater how long you’ve lived here, there’s always something unexpected waiting to surprise the unexpecting pants off of you. Often that something has no reason to be astonishing, it’s always been there, you’ve just never noticed before.

The Perfume Seller's, 'Laurelle', stall on London's busy Oxford Street.


I noticed this perfume seller on Oxford Street last month, giving out “free perfume, for one day only – today’s your lucky day!”

“Paco Rabanne and other designers”, he claimed, tempting tired shoppers over as they passed what appeared to be a pop-up shop: a temporary banner was tacked over the sign for whatever used to be there, there were no proper fixtures or fittings and heaps of boxed perfumes everywhere.

It was close to dusk and a crowd of tourists had gathered around the shop front, the boss – a sort of Middle Eastern-looking Del Boy – passed out free bottles of scent, working the audience like a holiday camp Red Coat. “One hundred percent, genu-i-ine free. Take it home, wrap it up for Christmas, just tell your friends –’

Being nosey as hell, I pushed to the front, watching ever more iridescent plastic monstrosities, colours ranging from Disney lilac to Poundshop gold, flying out fast. The cheap floral aroma wafting on the breeze was making my nose tickle.

“Something for the girlfriend, mate? And how about another one to take home to the wife?”

My boyfriend dragged me away.

“How can they afford to give stuff away for free on Oxford Street rent?” I asked. Andy looked at me, in much the same way as he does when I eat pasta and sauce and predictably drop it all over my white shirt, and explained. It was only free to begin with.

“He’s been bluffing tourists for donkeys years, love.”

It’s free at first, until he’s got a crowd gathered. Then, when new shoppers get excited by all the people, it’s suddenly £5, £10, £20. And how are tourists – people in a strange land – to know they’ve been had? Not until it’s too late, anyway. Apparently the name changes sometimes, he might move a few shops up or down the street, but it’s a scam that’s been going strong for an awfully long time.

I was so surprised – blatent scamming? In London? Surely not. Somehow, I thought that in a city as obsessed with rules and regulation as this, there was no room left for old-school wide boys.

I happened to be passing through that part of town again three weeks later. He was still there, in fact, that’s when I took the picture.


11 thoughts on “The ‘free’ perfume hustle

  1. I see this man every time I go oxford circus. The last time I was in oxford circus me and my boyfriend gathered round to see what the fuss was about. Instantly I thought there was something dodgy going on so i stepped back and watched for a while, I realised he was throwing free perfume to the same 3 girls in the crowd and thepoundland to the rest of the people.


    • Ha ha! It’s so funny they still get away with it and people fall for it (haven’t they heard that there’s no such thing as a free lunch). I kind of like it though, it’s like a little bit of the old entrepreneurial market spirit despite the fact we’ve lost most of the markets.


  2. Still doing this last week as I came across it, same place. i did notice the 3 people he gave free gifts to were there every time I went by, later in the day, thought it was dodgy but enjoyed watching from other side of road.


  3. I happened to be passing in my business suit. I stood and watched for a while. The whole cycle lasts a few minutes. Each time the same group of women were given the free stuff as the crowd gathered. The marks got some other bag of stuff from the back of the shop. I began to notice some menacing characters staring at me increasingly threateningly. After one of the performances was finished, one of these characters, while looking me in the eye, shouted, “Old BIll”, at which point the whole shop closed within seconds and everybody left. I never said a word, only watched.


  4. Are the perfume genuin though? If they are, then if you pay $100 for 6 bottles, still good. They are selling at Burwood, SYDNEY today.
    Anyone know the quality of the perfume??


    • Genuine what? Genuine, own brand tat. Only the plants get real perfume, then they start selling stuff that, as far as I can tell, is pretty much the same scents you get in the Pound Shop. I hate to recite a cliche, but if a deal seems to good to be true…


  5. This is astounding, but the same scam has been running IN THE SAME PLACE, on Oxford Street, on and off, for DECADES, because about 21 years ago, as a half-gullible,nhalf-smart lad, I walked into the same open-plan “shop”, almost across the road from the now long-defunct Virgin Megastore, and I was quickly relieved of £5, which was a exchanged for a “mystery” box, “but you don’t want that, there’s an even better offer I’m gonna make you” a guy on a cheap PA was shouting to the bewildered crown gathered. I cottoned on pretty sharpish that this was only going in one direction when they were upping the cash demands to £10, the £20, and spoke up loudly that I wanted… – was about to say, my fiver back – but then one of the half a dozen “helpers” interjected with “I know what you want”, and I was quickly wisked off to the back room, where I was on high alert, fearing that a beating and a throwing out were awaiting me, but luckily, I was simply given my £5 back unceremoniously by a guy counting a big wad of them, and I rapidly made my exit, leaving all the other bemused tourists to their fate – can’t save them when they’re in a trance like they were! I felt sorry, but I was worried for myself, and elated I wasn’t out a fiver – I had no money back then – but even today, I’d hate to lose a fiver to a pointless scam that makes you feel like an idiot.
    Amazing, right? 20 years+ ago!
    Well, just a few years ago (4-5?) this very scam was sort of on the news, whereby they claimed that the authorities had finally cleaned up the scams on Oxford Street, but clearly they’re back again, so I guess they never actually left at all, just took short breaks here and there! (this scam happens in many location in the UK, I even saw it in a residential area, with about 20 people attracted into this clearly temporary pop-up location that was in no way commercial, by a tasty newspaper ad promising the earth! Again, this was in the 90’s.)


    • People are not stupid you only get what you pay for nothing more nothing less same people keep comeing back for it every year entertainment value for money bargain in a bag I have it my self far better quality than the pound shop that’s why people keep coming back for it,, but you wouldn’t now that because you had your money back,, main shops rip off on price you pay for the name fragrances virtually the same you just pay a lot lot more for the name should have given them y fiver, rather than go up the street to spend a # hundred 💯 shop wise and follow the crowds :$


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