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New York Times On Tough-Sell of Direct Selling Parties In Cities

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New York Times On Tough-Sell of Direct Selling Parties In Cities

 

New York Times published an article about the rise of home parties and trunk shows by women involved in direct selling in bigger cities like New York and the challenges they face. 

Nine women were gathered in the immaculate Midtown East apartment of Mallorie Corcoran, 29. Tall, svelte and long-maned, the guests and their hostess clustered around a table in the living room, picking at fruit platters and sandwiches but generously pouring themselves wine and seltzer.

“Thank you so much for coming,” Ms. Corcoran said. “We have our new holiday collection, so there are lots of goodies for you to try on.” The women laughed. “And there are lots of different price points — a lot of our stud earrings are $30 and under. So everyone just have fun. Drink wine. Eat.”

And, if they were so inclined, buy. For another table was bedecked with sparkling wares from Chloe & Isabel, a direct sales jewelry company started in New York in 2011. Soon the women, any resistance mellowed by the convivial atmosphere, were modeling convertible pendant necklaces in front of a floor-length mirror, flipping through Chloe & Isabel catalogs — and pulling out their credit cards.

If you live in suburbia, chances are good to excellent that you have attended a direct-sales party, which mostly still follows the midcentury formula pioneered by Tupperware and Avon.

A group gathers for canapés and drinks in someone’s home — often, a friend of the sales consultant who acts as host for a cut in sales or discounted wares. They hear a brief pitch or view a demonstration, then make their way to an area where merchandise is displayed and a representative waits discreetly to ring up purchases.

Such parties are shucking the stigma of bored housewives making a little pin money.

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Chloe & Isabel is splashed on the pages of Vogue and Town & Country. Some jewelry pieces made for Stella & Dot, a favorite of celebrities, use hand-cut stones and intricate beading from a workshop also contracted by Lanvin and Prada. The cosmetics and skin care from the Santa Monica-based Beautycounter are sumptuously packaged and tout environmental responsibility. Mary Kay consultants are making room for “coaches” selling Beachbody fitness products and “independent business owners” vending Rodan & Fields skin care.

Though the Chloe & Isabel shoppers seemed enthusiastic enough, such sugarcoated solicitation is not always going down easily in get-to-the-point New York. “The supply is a runaway train, and the demand doesn’t exist,” said Jessica Schilling, 41, a manager of a nonprofit and a mother of two who lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and receives frequent sales pitches.

Maria Guido, 42, news editor for the website ScaryMommy and a mother of two who recently moved from Brooklyn to Beacon, N.Y., said she bought from a friend selling for the nutritional supplement company Shakeology, “and then I realized: ‘I just spent $150 for a month’s worth of protein shakes. What am I doing? This is absurd.’”

The Direct Selling Association, a trade organization based in Washington, D.C., reported 18 million mostly part-time workers in the industry last year, nearly three-quarters of them women.

Home-party sales have been around since at least the 1940s, when Frank Stanley Beveridge opened a cleaning supplies company in Massachusetts called Stanley Home Products. Mr. Beveridge found that one of his door-to-door salesmen was making big profits by doing demonstrations in homes with housewives’ help.

Modern hostesses add a contemporary spin with the use of e-commerce, mobile credit card swipers, and heavy use of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Many companies argue that despite the easy allure of ordering online in your pajamas, a significant sector of women crave the sociable aspect of trying on clothes and jewelry together and assessing what works in a group.

The Los Angeles-based company CAbi, a large direct seller of clothing, came about when the designer Carol Anderson noticed women leaving retail stores “deflated by the anxiety and inefficiency of endless, isolated browsing,” as CAbi’s website puts it.

But Jamie L. Mullaney, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and anthropology at Goucher College, and author of “Paid to Party: Working Time and Emotion in Direct Home Sales” (2012), said that monetizing friendships can be problematic.

“It’s risky because it promises women time with their friends, and downplays the sales aspect,” she said. “But of course, ultimately the goal is to sell products.”

Even though Professor Mullaney and colleagues who helped her with the book attended as researchers, when they were gently herded to the merchandise-bedecked kitchen island at night’s end, “we’d still walk out with mascara, or a kitchen utensil, which is useless to me because I don’t really cook,” she said. “So even then, we felt obligated, which was fascinating to us.”

Some companies encourage branching out of one’s social network to target more distant acquaintances, what sociologists call “weak ties.”

“I remember one company guidebook said, ‘You think you don’t know that many people, but write down the 2,000 people you know on a first-name basis,’” Professor Mullaney said. “As an example, they used ‘the woman who works the cash register at your local store,’ and ‘the person who delivers your mail.’ When we start stretching the boundaries like that, it doesn’t seem very sustainable.”

The money earned from such undertakings can be scant. Although these companies typically trumpet the six-figure success stories of megasellers, according to research published by the industry critics Douglas Brooks, Bruce Craig and Robert FitzPatrick, the top 1 percent pull in an average income of about $128,000, but up to 99 percent of sales reps do not earn any net income at all.

Mr. FitzPatrick and his colleagues studied publicly available data from 11 of the biggest companies, including the cosmetics global giant NuSkin (whose consultants, Mr. FitzPatick found, made a mean average of $300 a year).

Unlike many companies, Rodan & Fields provides an “income disclosure statement” on its website, which states that in 2014, entry-level consultants made an average annual income of $769, while an executive consultant, the next level up, made an average of $3,196.

“Virtually nobody makes money except the top 1 percent,” Mr. FitzPatrick said, “and that’s usually made from recruiting other distributors, which is where the real money is made. So is that worth it to ruin your social network?”

Indeed, Ms. Guido, after feeling besieged, promptly “hid” 10 of her more relentless Facebook friends selling various wares. “At least with home parties, there’s cake or something,” she said. “With Facebook, nothing about it is fun. It’s just being inundated with these announcements, and being opted into a group you never asked to be a part of.”

Though home sales in New York may be more fun, it can be a challenge to spread out the goods in apartments the size of many suburbanites’ walk-in closets. “I did a show in a 350-foot studio, and I just put my trays of jewelry on the bed,” said Jessica Sigler, 30, a Stella & Dot stylist in Manhattan.

(Chantel Waterbury, founder and chief executive of Chloe & Isabel, countered that the parties can be a fun way to gawp at real estate, a favorite New Yorker’s pastime. “I’ve been to beautiful garden parties in Brooklyn and tea parties on the Upper East Side,” she said. “The décor is at a higher level.”)

Ms. Sigler has also tailored her trunk shows (in company parlance) to account for New Yorkers’ famous lack of free time. “Everyone’s so busy, so I’ll layer them on events that are already happening,” she said, mentioning one pop-up event at a blow-dry bar. “The women getting their hair blown out are often going to an event,” Ms. Sigler said, “and need something to complete their outfit.”

But not everything sold brings a feeling of completion, as Ashley Yancey, 29, an executive assistant at a book publisher, discovered. Two years ago, after moving to the city from a small town in Ohio, she was working as a restaurant server and looking to supplement her income. She thought of an Ohio friend who did well hosting home parties selling for Pure Romance, a company that offers “sensual items” such as a purple dildo called Mr. Dependable.

“In Smalltown, U.S.A., those parties were an event, sometimes the highlight of the weekend,” Ms. Yancey said. “In New York, you’d never make a night of it. You’ve got so many other things you can do.” She hosted three parties, she said, which were “an epic failure.”

“I had nice snacks, had the catalog ready, alcohol to loosen people up because of the subject matter, but the few people who did show just did pity buys.”

After two months, Ms. Yancey gave up. “And I still had all these sex products, and that was weird,” she said. “It’s like, how many vibrators does a person need?”

 

12/01/2015 |

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