Remember the famous pink Cadillac that successful Mary Kay sales women used to receive? Well, these days, the Cadillac has been supplanted by a sleek, black BMW for top reps, and direct selling—as the type of merchandising pioneered by Mary Kay is officially called—has become, as the Washington Post describes it, “hipper and higher end.”
The original Tupperware party, the grandmother of direct sales, may never have taken root in more sophisticated climes such as Manhattan or Washington, DC, but upscale successors to this 1950s classic have. “I keep getting invited to parties by people selling skin products or jewelry or clothes or whatever,” an anguished New York friend practically wails. “I guess they’re trunk shows? But they’re generally hosted by women who don’t need the money, and I feel really weird about getting these and saying ‘no.’ But I don’t want to go either… help!”
Help is not on the way anytime soon. Everyone seems to be involved in direct sales, even high profile people like Cathie Black, former chairman of Hearst Magazines. Black threw one of these shindigs for Ruby Ribbon, an apparel and undergarment company she was advising. “It was hysterical; they were running upstairs in our apartment trying things on and looking in different mirrors,” Black told Crain’s New York Business. “This is a way to empower women to have their own businesses.”
The language of female empowerment is endemic to the new Tupperware movement. “We are here to find a way to happiness.” Those are the words of Jessica Herrin, the Stanford University-educated founder of Stella & Dot, the California-based vendor of fashionable jewelry, spoken to a gathering of five hundred women in London. “To empower ourselves in our mission to combine happiness and success, and to find a way to share that with others.”
Chantel Waterbury, chief executive of Chloe & Isabel, which sells both trendy and classic jewelry—Ashton Kutcher is an investor—has called her venture “a jewelry lifestyle brand empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs through our innovative social retail opportunity.”
In 2014, the Direct Selling Association, the Washington, DC trade association for this burgeoning industry, reported that there were around 18 million people working in direct sales in the US; the majority work part-time and three-fourths of those working are women. Other prominent direct sellers are the Pampered Chef, which sells cooking gadgets, Rodan + Fields, skincare, and cabi, women’s clothes and accessories. Hosting a “direct sales soiree,” as the New York Times dubbed a Stella & Dot gathering, is like throwing a private party with pick up foods and a little wine to release the buying instinct. The person hosting the affair—typically called a “stylist”—is required to buy a starter kit (generally under $200—beware if it is much more) and receives in the neighborhood of thirty percent of what is sold at the “party.”
The promotional material for these companies emphasizes learning entrepreneurial skills and having flexible hours—two good things, especially for women who might want to balance work with family—but they seldom dwell on the secret of direct sales: that would be the selling. It’s not the dirty secret of direct sales because selling is an honorable cornerstone of the capitalist system. But some people can do it, and others find it gut wrenching (which is likely to make for scant profits).
Here is how direct sales is described in the Amazon pitch for Jessica Herrin’s book Find Your Extraordinary: Dream Bigger, Live Happier, and Achieve Success on Your Own Terms: “What if you could, with a little effort, live an extraordinary life? A life in which you felt deep passion for everything you did, and always had time for what matters most? A life in which you had the power, the daring, and the will to make your boldest dreams come true, all while you happily left feelings of inadequacy or guilt behind?”
That’s a pitch by a great saleswoman, but let’s face it: People don’t get rich or lead extraordinary lives on “a little effort.” Sales is in general not for dilettantes and I predict that the vast majority of these “stylists” will fall by the wayside—and my friend won’t have to go through life in fear of having skin cream slathered on her while imbibing Prosecco in the living room of some pushy acquaintance.