5 On Your Side

Some see direct selling as answer to economic woes

Posted April 10, 2009 6:29 p.m. EDT
Updated April 10, 2009 7:24 p.m. EDT

— What do recessions and rhinestones have in common? What do layoffs have to do with lipstick?

Businesses like Avon, Amway or Mary Kay report growth when the economy shrinks. More and more people are turning to direct selling as a means to supplement their income.  The Direct Selling Association of American reported sales of $30.8 billion in 2007 by 15 million independent direct sellers. A spokeswoman said Friday that a recent survey showed an uptick in 2008, but official numbers are not yet available.

Monica Brown began pitching jewelry for Premier Designs when her husband lost his job last year.

“We needed money to feed our kids,” she said. As a Premier sales representative, she said, “I don't have to worry about being fired or getting laid off.

“I have a show tonight, one tomorrow, three next weekend," Brown said Friday.

Brown is booked for the rest of the month trying to help women accessorize with jewelry that runs about $31 a piece. In a recession, when a $1,000, 14-karat diamond ring is out of the question, Brown finds it is easier to get customers who will instead splurge on a $30 necklace.

“I really got into Premier for the financial reason,” she said, “but I love helping people.”

Companies like Avon and Tupperware report increased interest as the unemployment rate rises. Like Brown, many women dive into direct selling to help support the family.

Leah Wright, a first-grade teacher, has been selling Premier products part-time for 13 years. She invested $399 plus tax to become a Premier salesperson. She said she earns about $200 each time she hosts a show.

"Some ladies say ‘I want to replace a car payment.’ That might be one or two shows,” Wright said. “There may be other ladies who say, ‘My husband was just laid off, I need to replace my mortgage.’”

Lou Carroll has been selling for 14 years. She started part-time, but quit her office manager job after four months. Carroll relishes being her own boss.

"I have an office set up. I have a wonderful tax advantage because I run that business out of my home and I can stay in my pajamas until noon if I want,” she said. “I just love that!"

The ease of being your own boss is countered by the effort it takes to host parties, find new customers and drum up sales.

Interested people should do some homework before choosing direct sales as a career. Ask how much of an investment is required up front, and if you will have to recruit other people to make a profit.