Ways of making you buy
You may think that you don't need a new necklace, or another pair of earrings. But then you just haven't met Kandy Smith, the queen of pyramid selling.
Friday 23 July 1999
Kandy Smith meets me with outstretched hand. She has extremely green eyes. "Only 1 per cent of the population have green eyes and they don't hold up well you know in terms of eyesight," she says, by way of introduction. Kandy is full of facts and stories. She burbles. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a cascade. She looks to be in her forties, and has one of those tans that seems as if she were born with it. This is not far off, actually, as she was brought up in India and Africa.
Our hostess, as they say in direct sales, is an opera singer named Pat Jones. She is in the kitchen, pouring glasses of wine and water. There is another woman there too. "I am not drunk. I just have vertigo," she says, holding on to the counter. She has been off work for two weeks with this. "It is so boring," she says. So she has dressed up in a powder- blue trouser suit, replete with dashing sash belt, and come to the party.
She is wearing three necklaces. "Which one? Which one?" she asks. Pat tells her which one she likes. Kandy stays silent. "I let people sell to each other," she says. And she does. In the end the woman buys all three for almost pounds 100, and Kandy hasn't really said a word.
I have been told that Kandy Smith is "the epitome of direct selling". This is a bit of a secret world for most people, though not Kandy. She used to be in car alarms but five years ago stumbled into the wrong sales meeting in London and decided it was time for a change. She had a friend who sold Cabuchon jewellery and was tempted. There were rumours that one woman's monthly commission cheque was pounds 69,000. Many of the women drove Porsches. But Kandy figured it would be better to start with something new, and joined a company called Caura.
So she took her last car-alarm commission cheque, bought pounds 1,800 worth of Caura stock and went on holiday to Dubai. There, by the pool, a woman said she liked her earrings. By the end of the day Kandy had sold pounds 800 worth of the stuff. Caura took off - evidently even Princess Diana bought it - and at the peak Kandy had 2,000 people in her network in some 35 countries. She gets a percentage of what every one of those sells and her average monthly commission cheque was almost pounds 4,000. But then, in May 1998, Caura was bought by a company called Jeunique ("Just think unique with a `j'," they say). The transition didn't go smoothly, and Kandy's network - and income - fell apart - but after a year she has built it back up to 1,000 people, though only a few hundred are "active".
Kandy is telling me this as we sit on a sofa at the party. The piano is still tinkling, but by now I have discovered it is being played by a pianola computer. Pat says it's brilliant as you can't always get an accompanist to come to Milton. There are about 10 people and they are astonishingly dissimilar. I look up at the jewellery display - Kandy owns it all - and see three women. One is 25 with a tongue stud and very, very short hair (later she tells me she is going to a "tiara and Wonderbra" hen night). Another's an older woman who says she is a farmer's wife. She is wearing something flowery. Then there is Pat who is in something svelte. They crowd around, asking each other's opinions. Kandy smiles from the sofa. Welcome to the world of passive selling.
Kandy's goal is to buy her own island. "That's really what I'm aspiring to," she says. Has she gone shopping? "Well, I'm very fond of the States. And there's one in the Maldives I've had my eye on for some time. I don't want just any island. I want a warm one. There are a lot of islands off Canada that are bloody freezing." Is she serious? "Oh yes. I read about them and find out about them. I've done all these personal-development courses where you set your goals and write them down, and visualise, and cut out the pictures of what you want. It works!"
As I leave, Kandy shows me the calculator. "The total so far," she hisses in a stage whisper (she wanted to be an actress, and it shows). The figure was more than pounds 700. The tongue-studded woman has purchased about pounds 100 worth and Pat has gone wild, saying she is "shopping for the millennium". But the mood is relaxed, not frantic. No-one has tried to sell me anything.
Kandy lives in a six-bedroom cottage in a tiny nearby village and so I find her the next day in another rural idyll. She lives here with her husband, a food technologist, their two cats and a dog named Blossom. On her front door is a little wooden bear holding shopping bags. "Whoever said money can't buy happiness, didn't know where to shop," it says. Kandy loves this. "That is my motto!" she says, "I've got that on my computer too."
The total from the night before is pounds 792.80. She is very precise about figures, though much less so when I ask how many hours a week she works. "Hmm. That is very difficult. I'm doing it all the time. I'm always wearing it. Even in the swimming pool I have a piece on." The pool? "Oh, yes, some earrings, usually. People admire them and then I give them a catalogue!"
Kandy is one of those people who just keeps talking. Now she is telling me a story from when she went clothes shopping with her mother in Birmingham. She was waiting outside the changing cubicle when a woman admired her earrings. "And I was wearing a lovely thick gold bracelet and she liked that too. When my mother saw me, she thought I'd been mugged. I'd sold them. I'd only put them on that morning. The earrings - they were clip - still had the price tag on." Then she tells me that she has actually sold a brooch while travelling on the Underground.
Me: "Somebody talked to you on the Tube?"
Kandy: "Yes, they wanted my starfish brooch. It was a beautiful piece of work."
Me: "Somebody talked to you on the Tube?"
Kandy: "Yes, a gentleman spoke to me and said that his wife wanted to buy a brooch like mine. I had a catalogue."
Kandy: "I give catalogues to people everywhere. If I'm filling up with petrol, I look across and smile and say that I've got a free catalogue.
Kandy: Then I walk away. I don't make them feel like they've got to say something back. Many phone me later. I probably get a 50 per cent return now. When I started, it was more like 1 per cent.
Kandy always prefers to buy direct. "Why should I give Mr Tesco my money?" she asks. "If everybody bought from everybody else, then we'd go back to the old way of bartering, wouldn't we? Wouldn't that be nice? Then all those big companies would stop creaming bits off the top for packaging and distribution and everything else."
She beams at me. This is infectious stuff. I say that I couldn't sell anything. Kandy says she cannot either, which is patently untrue. "Look. You saw me last night. What did I really sell? Did you notice how that farmer's wife kept asking for your opinion? That's personal recommendation, isn't it?
"We have all networked for all our lives, passively without even realising it. Did you go to a movie that you liked recently? Did you tell someone else about it? Then you networked it, didn't you? Did you ever go to a restaurant you liked, and then tell others? You've networked it, haven't you?"
She looks at me expectantly. The only possibly answer was "yes" - though I don't know why.
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