Avon is calling again

Avon is 50 this year but the company isn't in a mid-life crisis – recession has boosted its sales force. Just don't call them 'Ladies'. Emily Dugan reports

Ding Dong. What's that sound? It's the return of a kitsch Sixties icon. Many thought the Avon Lady had died out with bobby socks and free love, but the door-to-door pedlar of cheap cosmetics is back and business is booming.

Thanks to the recession and a celebrity revamp fronted by Reese Witherspoon, Avon is one of many direct selling companies making a comeback this year. Apparently Britons have been grabbing their best fixed smiles and garish lippy to claw their way out of the crunch sale by sale.

Whether it's a Tupperware party, a home makeover visit or simply delivering everyone's favourite waste of paper – the Betterware catalogue – an army of direct sellers are coming to a doorstep near you. A shortage of jobs, combined with the attraction of flexible hours and cheap start-up costs have given the unglamorous work a new lease of life.

Last year there were around 400,000 people working in direct sales, but since January it is estimated recruitment has grown between 10 and 15 per cent.

Richard Berry, director of the UK Direct Selling Association, says there are unprecedented numbers of people turning to the work. "Direct selling is almost uniquely immune to economic trends," explains Berry. "When you have a recession and people want a low-cost way of making an extra income, direct selling is a great option. The reason our members tend not to suffer from a drop in consumer demand is that the products they tend to sell are low-cost household and personal products, all of which are the last thing to suffer a downturn in demand. We expect the next annual figures to show a 5 per cent increase in total sales."

Avon cosmetics, which this year celebrates half a century of pressing the UK's doorbell buttons, seems an unlikely survivor of the downturn, but with 5.8 million sellers working worldwide it is doing better than ever. So who are today's Avon Ladies? For a start, they're not just ladies. Now called "representatives", Avon is increasingly recruiting men who have lost their jobs or want to supplement their incomes.

Five years ago Debbie Davis, 29, and Dave Carter, 40, left menial jobs in a printing factory and catering to sell for Avon. Now the Sunderland couple's teams are among the company's top sellers. Between them last year they had a net turnover of more than £2m, taking home more than £250,000 in earnings. Now they drive sports cars, take several holidays a year and are building an extension to their home.

"I've been paid £18,000 for the last three weeks", says Davis. "We used to be really skint. We never had any money and we needed extra income really quickly. After a few months it started to get really interesting. Every time we'd see the results we couldn't get over it."

And now thousands more are following their example. "Because of the credit crunch, people need the extra money. The last six months have been phenomenal growth, we've got loads more sellers. We've found there are quite a few people made redundant who are joining," explains Davis.

To begin working for Avon, a representative pays a start-up fee of £15 which is deducted from their first two orders. From then on for every £100 of products ordered, they receive a 20 per cent discount off the recommended brochure selling price, rising to 25 per cent for orders over £140. It is this discount which creates their earnings. But for the more ambitious seller, Avon's management scheme allows people to recruit and manage their own teams. It is this work that holds the elusive attraction of getting rich quick.

Pauline Brawn, 53, from Dorking, Surrey, started working for Avon part-time in January when money began to get tight. "My income has grown day by day. My husband retired and initially I just wanted a way to earn extra money but when the recession deepened we lost quite a lot as a result of banks and building societies and I wanted to maintain my lifestyle without going out and getting full-time work."

She makes no attempt to hide the company's anti-feminist image. "I went into it because I'm a girlie and all girlies like make-up. It struck me as a quite easy way to make money; there's nothing arduous about it, you just chat to friends and the products sell themselves."

And it's not just Avon that has had a deluge of interest for the opportunity to peddle household goods. The pattern is the same across the UK. Yvonne Clay, the head of brand at VIE At Home, which specialises in makeover parties and home visits, says this year has seen dramatic improvements in business. "This has been a really good year for us. We've had a 14 per cent increase in recruitment since January and we now have 10,000 consultants working for us."

Even Tupperware parties – the once fashionable choice of get-together for Seventies housewives – have made a comeback thanks to an increase in recruits. However, according to Tupperware HQ, they never actually went away.

"The Tupperware parties never really stopped", insists Matt Hall, manager of UK operations for Tupperware. "They're on the rise now and we've got a growing number of sales and consultants. The number of active sellers is up two per cent since this time last year."

It seems that no matter how deep the recession gets, there will always be a desire for useless homeware, superfluous make-up and alarmingly girlie makeover parties. As long as they're sold with a perfectly-lipsticked smile.

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