On a recent weeknight in D.C.’s Palisades neighborhood, about a dozen women, many with flutes of prosecco in hand, swarmed around the table in Kristin Biggs’ dining room. They weren’t chowing down at a buffet, though. The diverse group (women in their 20s, 30s and 40s and a toddler) was trying on gemstone necklaces and stacking on enameled bracelets at a buzzing home sales party for costume bling company, Stella & Dot (stelladot.com). Biggs, a chatty former pharmaceutical sales pro, now works for Stella & Dot as an independent stylist, both throwing bashes like this and recruiting other reps.
And while Biggs gave no organized sales pitch, she seemed as enthusiastic about finding guests a new bauble as pouring them bubbles. Choruses of “that’s adorable on you!” echoed around the room as women slipped on chokers and cocktail rings.
“I like that the shopping comes to you,” said Maria Jose Ovalle, 35, an Alexandria fashion blogger (verybusymamablog.com), media strategist and frequent Stella & Dot customer. “It’s basically hanging out with your friends, chatting and having a coffee or cocktail.”
The concept of home-party sales started in 1948 with Tupperware, and the basic drill hasn’t changed much since: Someone, whether it’s a consultant or rep for the brand (or a friend of theirs), volunteers to host a bash. The host invites pals over to their place, and — often fueled by cheese, crackers and chardonnay — the rep proceeds to show off the merch.
Besides jewelry, that might include cooking gadgets (Pampered Chef), handbags (Thirty-One Gifts), baskets (Longaberger) or women’s clothing (CAbi). The party thrower gets an excuse to have people over — and usually some free merchandise as a reward. The sales rep then pockets a percentage of the event’s sales.
“It’s a great way for wannabe entrepreneurs to start a business,” says Amy Robinson, the vice president of media relations for the D.C.-based Direct Selling Association. “You don’t have to have that much product to start selling.”
Plus, home sellers enjoy flexible hours. This means consultants can care for kids during the day and sell handbags a few nights a month, or work a day job and host a party or two a year.
All this “come over and see my stuff” can add up to big bucks: Direct-selling companies netted $31 billion in U.S. sales in 2012. Consultants can earn as little as $200 a month and as much as several thousand, Robinson says. There are some 1,500 direct sales companies in the U.S., hawking everything from aromatherapy products to wine.
The idea of browsing and buying in someone’s home, shoes kicked off, appeals to many people. It’s like a real life HSN show, with snacks.
“Shopping is often a chore for me,” says Sacha Cohen, the 40-something president of Grassfed Media. “But if you add in the social element and a few drinks, that’s appealing.”
Many of these companies specialize in clothing or accessories, meaning you’ll have old (or new) pals around to tell you whether those earrings make you look glam or garish.
Plus, with many products, there’s a try-before-you-buy element that’s lacking in retail stores. Pampered Chef events usually mean cooking demos and food; parties for CAbi, a women’s fashions line, end with massive clothing try-on sessions.
“It’s nice to personally touch and feel the products, and try things on in a non-mall setting,” says Vienna homemaker and CAbi consultant Katherine Brown, who liked the parties so much she became a seller.
Some guests do find that the pressure to buy something detracts from the pleasure of kicking back with girlfriends and pawing through products.
“I’m a sucker for these home-sales parties, but I definitely feel like I need to purchase something,” says Page Holland, a 40-something contractor who lives in Great Falls, Va. “You want to help your friend’s business, but sometimes it’s a struggle. And I’ve experienced aggressive sales people.”
Add to that the fact that many consultants would love to recruit you to host a party, and some people just prefer a get-together that’s about laying down drinks, not credit cards.
Still, at Biggs’ cozy bungalow, the mood was far more cocktail party than sales convention.
“I just throw the jewelry out and people sample it, tell each other what looks good and what doesn’t,” she says. “It’s very much about connecting with other women.”
And that night, she took orders for eight statement necklaces.