Monique Pridgeon has just challenged her friends to name eight different shades of lip gloss she sells, but they are hard-pressed to come up with more than two. "This stuff is right on the table!" Pridgeon shouts in mock frustration.
And, in fact, the coffee table in her aunt's Silver Spring living room is covered with so much lip gloss, lip shine, lipstick, eye shadow, eye glimmer, chocolate-scented soap and kiwi-lotus body lotion that it looks like a department store cosmetics counter.
Pridgeon, 30, invited eight young women for food, girl talk and tips on selling the new brand, mark, Avon's first attempt at designing makeup geared to teenagers and college students.
But Avon's hip new lipsticks are being sold the old-fashioned way: at gatherings like this, reminiscent of the Tupperware parties of the 1950s where homemakers gathered to eat, drink coffee and buy the newfangled plastic bowls. And direct sales are, of course, part of the company's own tradition of the Avon Lady who once went door-to-door selling cosmetics and who still works from home.
The centerpiece of Avon's strategy is parties like Pridgeon's, "beauty bashes," where mark sales representatives persuade their friends to buy the makeup and even start selling it themselves. Pridgeon, who has sold more than $1,000 worth, has already convinced several of her guests to sign up as saleswomen.
The mark campaign gets high marks for inventiveness from marketers, stock analysts and fashion editors. The parties are part of a nine-month-old marketing campaign that features hip marketing methods, too, such as commercials on MTV and catchy print advertisements.
The print ads are designed to arouse the curiosity of young women, about the products and the possibility of selling them, since mark, like other Avon products, is sold only through direct-sales representatives and a Web site.
The advertisements in fashion magazines such as Allure show head shots of real mark sales reps saying things like, "Mark helped me pay for college and thickened my lashes," and urges women to "Meet mark."
Tina Wells, chief executive of the youth-oriented Buzz Marketing Group, based in New Jersey, says the ads click with teenage girls.
"They're like, 'Who's mark? What is mark? Is he a boy? Is he cute?' " said Wells, 24, who spends her days scouting trends, taking 15-year-olds out for pizza and accompanying them to proms.
The ads worked on Pridgeon and her friends. She became a sales rep after seeing a TV spot in September. Sporting a newsboy cap, tight black pants and stiletto heels, Pridgeon tests her pupils on which actress graces the cover of the upcoming mark catalogue or how many shades of lip gloss mark sells. (At her day job, Pridgeon schedules commercials at the Travel Channel.)
At 4 on a recent Saturday afternoon, the guests, mostly single, are glammed out: The uniform seems to be heels, off-the-shoulder tops and dangly earrings. All wear full makeup, including eye shadow, mascara and blush. They're also college-educated and ambitious. One is an internal investigator for the Homeland Security Department, one a bank manager and another an advertising sales assistant for a local television station.
Like at a Tupperware party, they share a potluck meal of lasagna, garlic bread and fruit salad while a Mariah Carey special plays on a muted television.
What they all have in common is a friendship with Pridgeon and little experience in direct selling.
"We knew that direct selling was not necessarily on the tip of their tongues," said Deborah I. Fine, president of Avon Future, which makes mark. But "we knew that women had always connected through beauty products and beauty rituals. Makeup is to women what the concept of sports is to guys."
When Pridgeon offered a prize of mark samples to the woman carrying the most makeup in her purse, one woman, the only one who was not a mark salesperson, came up short. Leslie Ridgeway, 41 and Pridgeon's boss at Discovery Communications Inc., held up a tube of ChapStick when Pridgeon asked who was carrying lip gloss.
"What is that, lip balm?" Pridgeon asked with a laugh. "It has to be lip gloss. See? That's why Leslie is here to buy some makeup today."
This stuff is priced at the same level as drugstore brands like Cover Girl, with lipsticks at $6 and nail polish at $4. But the names and packages take their cue from trendy department store brands such as Benefit, Stila and Urban Decay that charge $14 to $24 for lip glosses. Mark has become the makeup industry's version of Target -- the discount chain that has cultivated a reputation for bringing good design to the masses.
The cosmetics are getting rave reviews in fashion and beauty magazines like Vogue. One that's gotten an especially large amount of attention: the Electro-Lights line of lip gloss, which comes in translucent colors with scents like blackberry plum tea and cran-apple pear.
So far, Avon has signed up 20,000 young women to sell mark, far fewer than its 500,000 traditional American sales reps, but more than the company expected. Some of them are as young as 16, and some skeptics wonder whether teenagers -- some inexperienced with money and selling -- will make the best salespeople. (Avon requires parental permission for girls younger than 18.) The average sales rep, though, is a 20-year-old college student, and Pridgeon's friends are older and already familiar with the working world.
Young women who are single, fond of makeup and have lots of discretionary income are a tempting market for Avon, founded in 1886 by David H. McConnell, a perfumer assisted by the first Avon Lady, P.F. Albee. The New York company sold $6.8 billion in cosmetics last year through 4.4 million reps. By contrast, mark's sales of $28 million last year were a fraction so small that William Steele, an analyst for Banc of America Securities, referred to it "as almost a rounding error."
Since Andrea Jung took over as chief executive in 1999, Avon has tried to capture younger representatives and customers, even though sales rose by a tenth last year and the company is already a Wall Street favorite. The average Avon representative is pushing 40, and the company wants to reel in younger customers and saleswomen and hold onto them as they age -- a good way to grow over the long term.
Cosmetics is a tougher game these days: It is a $5 billion business in the United States but grew only 2 percent last year compared with 5-percent growth rates in the late 1990s.
So Pridgeon and her reps will have their work cut out for them. In fact, the women at this party, to show their support and friendship for Pridgeon, buy about $200 worth of her cosmetics. Pridgeon gets a 40-percent profit on makeup, or $80 on sales of $200, and 25 percent on accessories, including tote bags, watches and necklaces. They don't just buy makeup from each other, though. These women all throw their own parties, too, for their own groups of friends.
When they leave, Pridgeon will log on to the mark Web site and order the makeup using her own credit card, a requirement that ensures inexperienced sales people won't buy too much inventory.
"I knew about Avon, but I don't think I would ever have become an Avon rep without mark," she said. "I can do beauty parties every day of the week."