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.