When Avon, the US cosmetics giant made famous by its doorbell-ringing sales ladies, announced its closure in Australia earlier this year, it seemed more people were surprised that it was still operating than it was closing down. After all, when was the last time you heard about Avon, except as a signifier for a bygone era?
Ding-dong, Avon calling! The catchphrase instantly transports you to a Kodachrome fantasy of 1960s suburbia. But just how much of a throwback is the Avon business model?
The internet age may have dented door-knocking, but direct selling via parties is enjoying a renaissance, with businesses harnessing social media to cut out the retail middlemen and sell directly – most often, whether it’s beauty, weight-loss or household products – woman to woman.
Tupperware, Intimo, Herbalife, Rodan + Fields, Doterra, Thermomix – these companies and many more are mobilising armies of underemployed women with promises of cash, discounts, flexibility, recognition and rewards that include holidays and cars.
In return, the women simply sell the products to their personal and social networks. And if these representatives want to make more money, the companies’ advice is generally the same – recruit your friends to sell for you.
Pennie Frow, marketing professor at the University of Sydney Business School, says there are pitfalls to getting involved in multi-level direct-selling schemes. And women can be vulnerable to exploitation, especially if they’re not completely aware of what they are getting into.
“The flexibility and convenience of selling directly can be an advantage, especially to child carers,” says Frow. “It can also offer them the opportunity for some financial independence – if they manage to make any money.”
But, she adds, it’s a big if. “It sounds attractive, but in reality achieving any significant financial benefit is difficult. Also, direct selling can involve losses if the terms require the upfront purchase of product.” That said, it is possible to make direct selling work. We talk to three women who have done just that.