Want to set your own targets and choose when you work? This could ring your bell, says Caitlin Davies

Ding dong - who's that woman at the door with a tote bag of make-up? It has to be the Avon lady, the butt of many a fond joke in the swinging Sixties when "Ding dong - Avon calling" became a national catch phrase. But far from fading away, Avon ladies - now called representatives - number 160,000 in the UK; more members than the British Army.

The beauty company started in the US in 1886, the brainchild of a door-to-door bookseller. In 1959, it launched in the UK, which remains one of its largest markets. Avon says today's reps are more sophisticated and subtle in their techniques, using listening skills to succeed rather than jamming a well-heeled foot in the door. Men are out there selling eye-lift cream and after-sun oil spray, too, although normally as part of husband and wife teams.

Gail Reynolds, 35, stumbled across the job while working as a part-time accountant. She had just moved to Hastings when she saw an ad for sales reps, which promised a way to meet new people. Her first customer was her neighbour; her first order was for £135. Four years on, she now places orders, she says, of £15,000 every three weeks. "I will never go back to working for somebody else," she says. And this is the big draw of the job; you're a self-employed businesswoman setting your own sales targets, overseeing customer deliveries and handling accounts, and you work the hours that suit you.

New reps pay a £15 joining fee, get training and a selling guide, and can buy a starter pack with samples. Avon produces a new brochure every three weeks, from which reps order stock; a week later, the products are delivered for distribution. Orders are supplied on credit, with payment due 13 days later. Depending on sales, reps earn up to 25 per cent commission, while a sales leader also earns commission from her team's sales.

Reps need to buy brochures and bags upfront, and if they don't meet the minimum order requirement (£72), there's no commission. Drawbacks include the occasional product being out of stock, and having to get cash from customers, not cheques.

Avon's website states that the job gives reps the chance to earn £500 or more a month. But most reps, like Jacqui Gymer, 50, work just a few hours a week to earn some pocket money. She sells only to work colleagues in Essex because she doesn't fancy knocking on peoples' doors. But she says Avon products have a good reputation. "It sells itself and people like it," she says.

Reynolds is on the other end of the scale, as she's a sales leader. She recruits other reps, including her husband, Brian, a former supermarket manager. They work 10 to 60 hours a week each, fitting it around their three children. She has her own website ( www.gailsavon.co.uk) and is in charge of 160 reps, whom she stays in close e-mail contact with. "Some women are painfully shy," she says, "but I just say, bless you, after your third campaign you'll be fine." Her youngest rep is 18; the oldest 81.

Apart from being friendly and good at selling, Reynolds says you need to be reliable and have clear goals. Two years ago, she and Brian decided to buy a home - they've just made their first payment and Brian has bought a Jaguar.

Although Andrea Slater, president of Avon UK, says reps don't need to be extroverts or "ultra-salesy", many are mistresses of the soft sell. Charlie Marston, 34, is a former conference broker and hotel sales executive, and she became a rep when she moved to a village and didn't know anyone. When a pregnant rep at a toddler group asked Marston to lend her a hand with distribution, she agreed. A year later, she is one of five Avon reps in her Stratford village and has her own established client base, fitting her work around her children and making deliveries while walking the dog.

She does her business online, spending about four hours a week at the computer. "I wanted extra income to contribute to the household, " she says. "Now I can pay for holidays for all of us. Yes, there are lots of 'ding dong' jokes but then that's what I am - an Avon lady. If you can talk to people, you can do it."

To find a local rep, or to sign up online, see www.avon.uk.com