An empty bottle will get a return. That, at least, was what Ronald Senkirk, vice-president and general manager of the $10-million Parfums Caron U.S. division, was hoping when he started using empty perfume bottles to lure potential customers to Caron's fragrance boutique at Bloomingdale's department store in New York City.

Senkirk placed an artfully crafted empty vial inside an elegant black silk purse, and distributed the free gift to well-heeled customers who were invited to attend the boutique's opening celebration. To fill the bottle with one of the exotic Caron perfumes of their choice, all customers had to do was bring the bottle to the Caron fragrance booth -- a luxurious marbled affair, with crystal chandeliers and mirrored walls. There, the customer got a whiff of the company's entire product line.

The promotional gimmick worked so well that Caron has made a practice of distributing the gift, at around $2 a package, to attendees of high-society charity events. So far, the company has handed out 20,000 vials, and more than 50% of them have wafted their way back to the boutique counter.

Caron's strategy has proven a potent formula for success. The empty perfume vials are helping to launch the company's department store boutiques. First-year sales for each boutique are expected to reach $200,000. "The strategy has been so successful, we have no plans to discontinue it," says Senkirk.