Fuller Brush Co. is brushing up on a new sales technique: The most famous name in door-to-door salesmen is turning to catalogues and direct-mail pitches to reach new customers.
In a limited experiment, Fuller Brush Co. last month quietly began mailing out 48-page catalogues and small eight-page pamphlets to residences in major cities and rural areas where there are few door-to-door salesmen -- or, as now is the case, sales ladies.
"We are conducting a test to determine whether or not we can generate business in areas where there is virtually no sales force," said Richard Benner, executive vice president of the company's household division. Those areas include the Washington metropolitan area and many Southern cities, particularly in Alabama and Mississippi, Benner noted.
To entice the customer, Fuller Brush is selling more than bristles. The catalogue is full of items that the company says will make "every day easier," ranging from closet organizers to bagel cutters to portable picnic benches.
"It's a different approach -- a rather innovative one for a company that for 80 years has been selling solely door to door," said Elynor A. Williams, director of corporate affairs at Hanes Group, which, like Fuller Brush, is owned by Sara Lee Corp.
Hanes' direct-marketing division is conducting the catalogue test for Fuller Brush.
The test may be an innovative one for Fuller Brush, but direct-mail expert Maxwell Sroge said "I really don't think they have an alternative. They need some kind of direct selling that doesn't involve a sales force because people don't want to do that kind of work anymore."
Women who in the past sold products door to door to make a few extra dollars on the side now are entering the general work force, and are seeking to earn more money in full-time jobs. That not only makes it difficult to attract salespeople but also makes it harder for the ones they do attract to do a good job.
"Nobody's home during the day anymore. At seven out of 10 households, there is no adult home so there is nobody to call on," Sroge said.
That realization is one reason why Avon Products Inc. is increasingly emphasizing its catalogue unit, which last year pulled in more than $200 million in business, Sroge said.
Fuller Brush's test catalogue is part of the company's year-old campaign to increase business, which has been flat for about seven years, Benner said.
A year ago, the company boosted the commissions paid to its salespeople. At the same time, it expanded its product line -- and since then has been selling cutlery, space-saving organizers, a car-care line, and a new line of scissors and shears in an effort to change its age-old image.
Fuller Brush was founded by Alfred C. Fuller in 1906 after he was fired for being careless at a series of different jobs. Just before founding the company, Fuller was a salesman for a brushmaker.
At that time, he heard complaint upon complaint about the brushes he sold. When his boss ignored his suggestions on how to improve the brushes, Fuller designed his own brush and went into business for himself.
Direct selling constitutes by far the largest portion of sales at Fuller Brush -- exact financial figures are not disclosed by its parent company, Sara Lee.
The company also sells industrial brushes to municipal governments and schools as well as to retail outlets.
After several sluggish years, Fuller Brush is beginning to see its business grow -- primarily as a result of the large sales force in Mexico, where there are some 60,000 representatives selling brushes -- "far, far more than here," where several thousand women now go door to door, a Sara Lee official noted.
With the help of the U.S. Postal Service, however, the Fuller Brush company's offerings soon may arrive at many more doors across the nation.