Avon Calling -- for More Sales Representatives

Sangie Nixon-Corum at a Pampered Chef show in Pomfret. Direct sellers offer prospect of extra income in hard times.
Sangie Nixon-Corum at a Pampered Chef show in Pomfret. Direct sellers offer prospect of extra income in hard times. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
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By Emma L. Carew
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mary Kay, Pampered Chef and other direct sellers aren't just pushing people to buy these days. They're trying to get them to sell.

Even as the industry made famous by the Avon lady and Tupperware parties struggles with falling consumer demand, its best-known companies are actively recruiting sales representatives by offering the prospect of extra income during uncertain times.

The companies' efforts have had noticeable effect. Pampered Chef reported a 10 percent year-over-year increase in new sales consultants in the second quarter, while Mary Kay and Avon saw 22 and 20 percent increases, respectively, during the first quarter compared with a year earlier.

Concerns about job security led Carolyn Holcomb, a teacher at the private Visitation Academy in Frederick, to start selling Pampered Chef kitchen products in April. Holcomb said she was worried about looming college tuition for her three teenagers.

"If suddenly all the parents decide, 'We just lost our job and we can't afford to pay tuition,' there goes my job," she said.

Direct sellers' business models depend largely on sales representatives who host parties at friends' or clients' homes, demonstrating and selling products such as cosmetics and kitchenware. The companies have taken advantage of previous recessions to build their sales corps.

"One comment I continue to hear from our new beauty consultants is 'I can't get laid off,' " said Rhonda Shasteen, chief marketing officer at cosmetics maker Mary Kay. "I think that's something a lot of women are not feeling right now, they're not feeling in control of a lot of things."

Many recent entrants into the field have turned to direct selling because of a lack of traditional employment opportunities, according to David Koehler, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"People are using this as a revenue stream that normally wouldn't consider this an option," Koehler said. "Because of the recession and lack of traditional opportunities for jobs, you're seeing direct-selling businesses taking off."

Starting a direct-selling business doesn't cost much, and representatives can work part-time, making it attractive to people who otherwise might have looked to now-scarce retail jobs to supplement their income. And the companies don't have to pay for office space, pensions or health benefits for these employees, meaning they're relatively cheap hires.

"The cost to add these additional sales reps is relatively low for both sides," said George Van Horn, a senior analyst at Los Angeles-based research firm IBISWorld.

However, additional sales representatives have not translated into increased revenue for the companies. The Direct Selling Association, a D.C.-based trade group, reported that industry sales were 5.8 percent lower in 2008 than in 2007. Avon said its revenue in North America fell in fiscal 2008, and Tupperware saw sales decline in the second half of last year.

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