ORLANDO, FLA. -- For three decades Tupperware was virtually a household word.
Its pastel-colored tumblers and mixing bowls were a kitchen staple; its home parties a national pastime.
For more than three decades following World War II, the company was phenomenally successful, using homemakers to peddle its product where it could best be shown -- in the home.
But Tupperware's fortunes turned in the '80s.
The Tupperware saleswoman began to stray from the fold, migrating into a work place historically dominated by men. Some 12,000 defected in the past five years. Customers, too, were leaving the home to enter the work force. Tupperware parties began to fade.
Sales and profits plummeted.
But now officials of the Orlando-based company believe they have found the answer. If it can't reach women at home, it will follow them to work. The office Tupperware party, officials hope, is in.
This month, Tupperware unveiled a $4 million advertising campaign to recruit a new generation of party hostesses and saleswomen and to lure customers.
Commercials promote lunch-hour parties in the office conference room and "rush-hour" parties at home or at work.
The party -- the company now prefers to call them "demonstrations" -- is light on games, just a brief "icebreaker" to loosen up the prospects. No recipe cards are distributed, no steaming appetizers pulled from the oven in gleaming Tupperware dishes as guests arrive. No oven.
Tupperware dealer Carmen Ghani stands surrounded by two dozen women who have gathered in a conference room of an insurance company in Hialeah, Fla.
It is the lunch hour, so Ghani has 45 minutes to demonstrate a tableful of products and to take orders. She speaks rapidly, repeating buzz words and phrases like "freezer to microwave," "dishwasher-safe," "airtight," "unbreakable" and "warranted."
The items she demonstrates are geared to the life styles of the working women who surround her. There is a line of food containers that hold one serving, a traveling desk useful for working while jetting to business meetings, and the Ultra 21 cookware line, which goes from freezer to microwave to table.
"Years ago we planned what we wanted. Now, we plan what the customer wants," said Ghani, who makes about $400 a week working full time for Tupperware.
Tupperware was the brainchild of Earl Silas Tupper, a chemist and inventor who discovered a way to turn polyethylene -- used for electrical insulation on radar wire and cable during World War II -- into moldable plastic. He founded a plastics company and introduced Tupperware in stores in 1945.
At first, the products bombed.
Consumers were accustomed to glass, tin and paper-wrapped goods. Plastic, still in its infancy, was viewed as brittle, smelly, crude.
Then, too, the public didn't understand how to "burp" Tupperware. There is an art to closing the container, then opening it, expelling some air and resealing it, to create the vacuum that keeps foods fresh.
Tupper removed his product from store shelves, convinced they should be sold in the home. His timing was impeccable.
In the 1950s, 70 percent of the nation's households included a working husband, a stay-at-home wife -- the chief purchasing agent -- and one or more children. Women had time on their hands, and the Tupperware home party -- two hours of games and demonstrations of the products was well received.
In 1958, Earl Tupper, sold the enterprise to Rexall Drug and Chemical Co. But the party plan and the high-quality standards he had stressed remained.
Tupperware grew steadily throughout the 1960s and 1970s. But, while it was growing, American women were moving into the work place. From 1960 to 1980, the percentage of working-age women in the labor force grew from 35 percent to 50 percent.
But, at first, Tupperware didn't take notice. But, by the mid-1980s, the signs were unmistakable.
In 1983, 8 percent of the sales force quit. The same year the strong dollar made the products more expensive for foreigners. That hurt Tupperware's international operation, which then accounted for about half of the company's sales.
The following year, an additional 7 percent of the sales force left. Tupperware's revenue dropped from $878 million in 1982 to $777 million two years later. The company still was profitable and was never near collapse, but its parent company, by then Dart & Kraft Inc., wanted the hemorrhaging to end.
In 1984, it began installing a team of managers with strong marketing backgrounds to reposition the company. The following year the company conducted a market study to find out what was wrong.
The study concluded that a quarter of all American women between 18 and 42 use Tupperware products. Twenty-five percent more said they would attend a Tupperware party if invited.
Another 25 percent said they would buy the product but wouldn't attend a party. Tupperware executives devised a relatively simple plan to solve the problem -- a toll-free telephone number and a full-color catalogue. Prospects who call the number are mailed a packet that includes an introductory letter, a catalogue and literature aimed at recruiting hostesses. An area dealer makes a follow-up call.
Doug Martin, president of Tupperware Home Parties North America, says the results of the television advertising campaign appear promising. The company estimated it would receive 70,000 calls during the just concluded six-week advertising campaign. It received that many in the first two weeks.
Tupperware, which has about two thirds of the food-storage container market and whose biggest competitor is Rubbermaid, is spending $60 million to automate two distribution plants in South Carolina and Tennessee. The work will allow it to send products directly to consumers. Dealers spend as much as 40 percent of their time delivering products.And, as always, Tupperware is expanding its product line. The company introduced its first toy in 1967 when it realized women were coming to home parties with children in tow. Martin said the company will expand toy and entertainment lines.