I sat on my friend Wendy's living room couch, feeling like an audience member at a live cooking show, as we watched a woman expertly slice, dice and cook three courses all in an hour.
But it wasn’t TV, instead we were captivated by a Pampered Chef seller — a friend of Wendy’s — who chatted breezily with us while effortlessly pitching apple wedgers, paring knives and baking pans. I had no intention of buying more kitchen gear, but lulled by the informal atmosphere and a warm strawberry tart, I ended up buying a pizza stone and an oil spritzer. The other half-dozen guests all put in orders, too.
This kind of in-home gathering is the modern-day version of our mothers’ Mary Kay or Tupperware parties, and it’s called direct sales. It works on the same underlying principle as Mary Kay: Sell directly to clients by creating networks of friends and neighbours. In the comfort of a living room or kitchen, you’re shown how, for example, a single glass bowl used for measuring, mixing and baking can save time and cupboard space, or how a must-have new bracelet can revive a tired outfit.
Increasingly, the centuries-old industry is attracting parents who are trying to carve out more time with their children while still earning an income. Maureen Cameron, a mother of three who lives in West Vancouver, started selling Stella & Dot jewellery at home parties — or trunk shows, as this particular company has branded them — after seeing a friend excel at it. Cameron liked that she’d be dictating her own hours. Her typical sales parties feature a group of women catching up over wine and cheese, while trying on earrings and necklaces also flaunted by celebrities like Kelly Ripa and Kourtney Kardashian. By the end of a two-hour show, Cameron racks up an average $1,000 in sales. She pockets 25 percent of this, or $250. The party’s hostess is also rewarded with free jewellery.
“Working for Stella & Dot has paid for my children’s music lessons, clothes and school fees,” says Cameron. “Last Christmas, my earn- ings went straight into taking my family to Hawaii.”
She was averaging four to eight shows per month before scaling back to return to a full-time job in public relations. There are dozens of direct sales companies hawking everything from children’s books to sex toys. Many utilize the Internet for both sales and marketing, training recruits through webinars and processing orders online. The sellers, in turn, tap their own social networks on Facebook, Twitter and email to book home parties.
There are about 75 different direct sales companies in Canada. A study commissioned by the Direct Sellers Association of Canada (DSA) claims the industry was worth a whopping $2.18 billion in 2008. It’s an overwhelmingly female sales force — of the estimated 882,000 direct sellers in Canada, 91 percent are women. Mothers have traditionally been drawn to the flexible schedule and the social aspect; today’s companies are capitalizing on female sales reps who, unlike prior generations, are more likely to be university-educated, technologically adept, and may already have corporate experience under their belts. Most work the home party circuit part-time, but there’s potential to live comfortably off a full-time direct sales job.
Pampered Chef, a cookware company with about 4,000 reps in Canada, boasts that their top full-time sellers enjoy earnings of $175,000 per year. Sellers usually begin by buying a “starter kit” that can range from $29.95 to $199, depending on the company. They may come with a bundle of products valued at two or three times the start-up cost, as well as training and marketing materials like catalogues and DVDs. This “business in a box” method makes it quick and easy for people to start selling, explains Ross Creber, president of the DSA. The group represents 45 companies that abide by a code of ethics and business practices. Most companies encourage reps to earn even more by building a team and getting a cut of the sales generated by their recruits.
Christine Ormond, a mom of two in Hamilton, Ont., has a team of 1,300 people in Canada, the US and the UK selling Stella & Dot jewellery. She quit her job as an ultrasound technician to be a full-time direct seller and nearly tripled her previous income. Reps usually start with a party or two for friends and family. Networking out from there creates a pool of people who host parties for their contacts in their homes. Experienced sellers say the business becomes viable as soon as your sales move beyond your immediate social circle. But this is often the stage at which many sellers throw in the towel. One former seller from Sherwood Park, Alta., says she lost her motivation to sell Stella & Dot after two months, when she could no longer find or convince any more friends to host parties.
“Make sure you have a large social circle and belong to several different groups so you can build a good referral base,” says the former seller, in hindsight. “You should be an assertive, outgoing person and be willing to put in the time for self-promotion.”
There is an upside to the socializing demanded by direct selling. Kyla Ouillette, a mom of two boys under three and a seller of spices and cookware for Epicure Selections, credits direct sales for bringing her out of her shell after moving from Rimbey, Alta., to Yellowknife, a new city where she didn’t know anyone. “I was timid and shy,” says Ouillette. “I didn’t want to get out there, but once you do get out of your comfort zone, you meet a lot of new people.”
Remember that direct sales is a commissions-based job. You have to calculate the total hours invested against your net earnings — and it doesn’t always pay off. Laura McNeill, a Calgary stay-at-home mom of four, quit selling Tupperware when she realized the time she was spending “harassing friends,” driving to the head office to deal with customer returns, and holding parties on evenings and weekends was working out to earnings of only $2 an hour. She also felt pressured to reinvest in new products in order to update her display kit, which became costly. “Eventually, I really was making no money, just building an excessive inventory of product,” says McNeill.
But selling a product you believe in will go a long way, says Ormond, the Stella & Dot high-earner. “Pick a company and product you can be passionate about,” she advises, and the sales will roll in easily.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2012 issue with the headline "Birth of a saleswoman," pp.54-56.