Capitalism begins at home: How the modern direct-sales event is defying the recession

Forget naughty lingerie and plastic storage boxes. In defiance of the recession, the modern direct-sales event is doing brisk business in scented candles, fine wines and Jamie Oliver saucepans. Holly Williams joins the party.

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The Independent Online

Ding dong... Avon calling! It's a familiar phrase but one that you might think belongs to a bygone era, of beehived housewives keen to make a little extra pocket money selling skincare products.

You'd be wrong. Avon may have recently celebrated its 125th birthday, but it is still the world's largest direct sales company, with an annual revenue of $11 billion (£6.8bn) rolling in from over 100 countries worldwide. The company has suffered serious financial woes of late, with a disappointing quarterly profit report and wobbles in share price, but while globally it may not be an easy time for the business, in the UK the recession has actually provoked a rise in interest in direct selling.

And it's not just Avon and Tupperware. Businesses range from predictable products like jewellery or cookware or cocktail-making get-togethers to parties showcasing items whose appeal seems, frankly, limited – how many greetings cards or scented candles does one really need? Lots, apparently: the direct-sales industry is worth an astonishing £2 billion a year to the UK's economy, employing 400,000 people. The Direct Sales Association (DSA) reports that these figures remained constant last year, defying the wider trend of business downturn and rising unemployment.

There's also no longer any such thing as a typical sales representative – they go from young people who consider it a start-up business and single parents who want to earn extra cash when the kids are at school, to students hoping to reduce their loans and others who are struggling in the stagnant job market. Direct sales are so of-the-moment, there are two theatrical productions celebrating them: Avon Calling combines sales with a poignant play in your own sitting room, while Soho Theatre is staging Dixie's Tupperware Party.

Just what is the draw of direct sales? Do these companies really offer a good deal for their hardworking sales leaders? And how can you make a living from flogging scented candles?

"You have to be happy to walk," says Philippa Onslow, Avon lady, as we near the end of her rounds. She's stuffing catalogues through postboxes up and down the streets around her home in Arnos Grove, north London, chatting to anyone who's in, and keeping precise notes about her deliveries. Onslow is 35, and a sales leader. That means that she looks after a team of sales reps, as well as going out and about in her 'territory', lugging catalogues, collecting order forms and delivering the products, on a three-week cycle.

It seems like a quick turnover: do people really want to buy new make-up every three weeks? It seems they do. Onslow has a history in sales – she used to work in advertising – and she knows how to manage her customers: who to give a certain lipstick sample to, who might be interested in bubble bath for a gift. She's impressively organised – everything goes in a spreadsheet. If Mrs X at number 19 bought a skincare product then, then by this date she'll be running out and might want to buy more...

You've got to be on it, really, to earn money in this game; Onslow gets maybe one order for every 15 brochures delivered. Sales reps buy the brochures and their own samples to give out, and don't make any commission till they've sold £78. Once they're shifting £148 worth of products, they get 25 per cent – not bad, but not that easy either. The products are certainly reasonably priced, but you've got to shift quite a few Glam Gloss sticks at £2 a pop to make a salary.

Onslow only started working with Avon in September, and she joined determined to run it as her own successful business. Already, she's got a team of 38 sales reps under her, who she supports, sending out morale-boosting e-mails as well as monitoring their progress in those spreadsheets, naturally. "Organisation is key," she reminds me. She gets between 2 and 5 per cent commission on what they sell, too. Onslow is extremely bright and friendly, but the steeliness of the committed salesperson shows through, too.

"I knew straight away I wanted to go into sales leadership. That's what really sold me into Avon – it's something I can grow. I didn't join Avon just for a bit of extra money, I joined Avon to pay me a salary. Which it's not quite, but it's almost there." At the moment, she earns between £500 and £600 every three weeks. It's hardly riches – but Avon sales leaders have been known to make a very tidy sum; the UK had its first 'Avon millionaire' in 2010.

We pop to see one of Onslow's regulars, 64-year-old Brenda Scammell – who used to be an Avon lady herself: "I used to have the little square case, and you literally had to ding on the bell, 'Avon calling!'," she remembers. Now, she has arthritis in her knees; for her, Avon is "brilliant" because it comes to her home.

The 'at home' element of direct sales is certainly one of its major appeals. Most direct sales happen at parties – a host invites their friends, family or colleagues round, and a sales consultant talks the group through the products, passes out catalogues and order forms. The hostesses, while they may provide drinks and nibbles, benefit from commission paid in products. The idea is to have a fun night in, get the girls round and do a spot of shopping from the comfort of your sofa – and, of course, sales figures are sure to be helped by a feeling of uneasy obligation to one's host.

Another company that has really nailed direct sales is Jamie At Home. Yes, it's run by Jamie Oliver: he's the ideal brand for modern direct sales. This is Tupperware deluxe, selling to a huge fan base of Jamie groupies who are ready to lap it up.

Caroline Erasmus is kind enough to let me gatecrash a Jamie At Home party she's hosting in her house in well-heeled Wimbledon, south London. She's one of a trio of women who were approached about Jamie At Home while brunching in Jamie's café-cum-cookery school, Recipease, in Clapham. At Erasmus's house, we're served impeccable nibbles and glasses of wine; it's all swishy fringes and pearl bracelets and high heels tapping elegantly across the scrupulously clean wooden floors. "Obviously I've bought things in [Jamie Oliver's] shop but we didn't know he did parties. We are fans of his things and his food," Erasmus tells me.

So it should be an easy night for Karen Walsh, the sales consultant. She's been doing these for two years: "I was at a Pampered Chef party [another direct sales company], and was deliberating whether to go back to work, how I was going to manage that with my two children. I thought, well maybe this is something I could do." Friends mentioned to her that Jamie At Home was just launching. "That was much more up my street... I had a design background before so I liked the products. The next day I looked into it and signed up." Walsh had worked as a design assistant to milliner Philip Treacy for 10 years – but direct sales is a little more manageable if you have a young family.

We all sit down, and get ready for the hard sell, but actually, 41-year-old Walsh is softly spoken and the guests are often louder than her. She shows f us the products very effectively (I never thought I needed a ceramic rice steamer before), gets us playing little party games and we watch the naked chef himself give a video demonstration. The range is named 'Jme' (geddit?), and this does lead to some unfortunate third-person sales techniques, in which he enthuses, "what's great about Jamie...".

We pass round salad servers; there are actual coos over a cheeseboard, and much approving discussion of dishwasher friendliness. Jamie At Home is, apparently, an "exclusive brand", that is "desirable and collectable". Actually, the stuff is very nice, and were I a little more house-proud I might be tempted to "invest"; it's not outrageously expensive though hardly supermarket-basics prices either. A 'Terrific Trifle Bowl' is £29; storage jars start from £3.50. An average party spend is £250.

Jamie At Home also offers a way to run a business with virtually no overheads – when economic times are hard, with banks reluctant to give start-up loans or help small businesses, the appeal is obvious. But even as salespeople might be hungrier to sell, guests are surely also tighter-fisted. Jamie at least has an established brand loyalty behind the sales pitch – how does it work for other products? What about, for instance, scented candles? For believe it or not, some people can make a living out of shifting lots and lots of candles. PartyLite, an American direct-sales company, has been going for more than 30 years. It now has sales consultants in 17 countries across three continents. That's a lot of wax.

Maria Elias is a PartyLite pro. She's been in direct sales for 15 years, switching from Tupperware to candles four years ago. An average party makes £200, and she holds around six parties a week. "Since the recession, we have to work a little bit more on the presentations, but people are still having parties," Elias explains. "Ladies who maybe can't afford to go out use it as a social event. There's some that have one a year, but certain groups I see every two months because they are fanatical candle burners." She reports that new types of people are signing up as reps, too: she's recently had a 22-year-old man, sick of being unemployed, who decided to give it a go. It's an observation the DSA backs up: there was a 26 per cent increase in men in the industry last year, as well as a 29 per cent increase in over-fifties.

Elias, who is 47, looks after a team of 80 party planners and runs her own "nights" across London and the south-east; I go with her to visit some regulars in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. When we arrive, the candles are set up in the conservatory, twinkling away. Our hostess, Lydia Hall, has two extremely well-trained children who make tea and pass round crisps and M&Ms.

Elias looks very much the businesswomen, in a smart navy suit, and maintains a firm grip on the whole situation, leading me and the gaggle of young mums through all the special offers. PartyLite heavily incentivises the hostesses to get their guests to buy stuff – as the total spend ramps up, so do the gifts, offers and deals for the hostess. As a partygoer, you can't help be aware of that side of the deal.

Fortunately, the guests are fans. There's fussing over snail-shaped garden candle holders and a glittery candle lamp stand that looks like it's made of tin foil. After about 20 minutes, though, I can feel the powerful candle scents sticking in the back of my throat. They are unapologetically sweet, and remind me of the Moonberry Musk and Raspberry Ripple body sprays I used as a pre-teen. They even have those sorts of alliterative names: Fig Fatale, Plum Pleasure, Apple Allure...

Diptyque this isn't – but nor are the products shudderingly, snobbishly overpriced. And PartyLite is clearly doing something right: the guests tonight swap and sniff away at different scents, discuss favourites and plan their next party for just a few months' time.

I'm just obviously not their ideal customer. What product could I be enthusiastic enough about to host a party for? Something my friends enjoy too? Ah yes – alcohol.

Best In Glass do wine tasting and cocktail making, and on a spring evening one of its sales consultants, Paula Giles, visits my Brixton house to hold a party for me and my friends. There are the by-now familiar pass-the-parcel type games to warm us up, and Giles is predictably very enthusiastic. She also readily admits she's no expert sommelier: "I am not a professional – I just like having a drink," she tells us cheerily. We get a little wine tasting basics: sniffing and swirling, sucking the air "like Hannibal Lecter" as Giles helpfully puts it. It's not the most informative evening, and there's a minor calamity when a cocktail shaker gets stuck, but hey – you get a bit of free booze. Which, let's be honest, is only likely to help sales.

"I've been direct selling for 12 years on and off, part-time, full-time, when I've been out of jobs – it's been really handy," Giles explains. She's a single mum, and likes the fact that it lets her spend time with her son. She makes 20 per cent commission, on up to about £300 a party.

Not, she adds, that it's an easy job. "A lot of people think, 'Oh God, my car needs fixing, I need £500 quick' – but it's not like that. Direct sales is about building your network, talking to people. It's going to take three months at least to feel comfortable with the product you're selling. If you're excited about the product, then you're going to get that across."

Giles clearly enjoys mixing up a cocktail and creating a "totally sociable, fun Friday night". Obviously this is a job she works at, and that works for her. Again, it's all about flexibility, adaptability, independence, building your team, and taking pride – and enjoyment – in your work. That said, I probably won't be booking another party any time soon; although direct sales could be a way out of recession for thousands, I think I prefer my Friday night without the expectation that I'll be buying a wine thermometer at the end of it.

Direct appeal: The bestsellers

Avon

Nailwear Pro+ Nail Enamel, £6: Bestselling product in 2011, one sold every 10 seconds

Anew Clinical Eye Lift PRO, £19.50: Three sold every minute

PartyLite

Forbidden Fruits Tealight Sampler, £9.15: 8,375 sold between 1 January and 27 April

Buddha Tealight Holder, £26.95: 4,206 sold between 1 January and 27 April

Jamie At Home

Flip jars, various colours and sizes – from £3.50 to £14.50: 174,463 sold in 2011

Really Good Rice Pot, £36: 21,436 sold in 2011

Best In Glass

Ice Pod Decanter, £49: At least one sold at 95 per cent of parties

Cocktail Gift Set, £29.99 to £39.99: One sold at every party

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