When Wendy McGrady needed money for a new car and Judy Baldwin was buffeted by her daughter's college expenses, they both came up with the same solution for their financial squeeze: shopping.
Home shopping parties, that is - a multibillion-dollar retail juggernaut that combines three activities dear to the hearts of women in particular: shopping, eating, and gabbing with girlfriends. Fun for guests and potentially lucrative for salespeople, the field has exploded beyond cosmetics, baskets, and plastic food-storage containers and now includes jewelry, purses, pet supplies, tools, food, candles, lotions, toys, cookware, home decor, scrap-booking supplies, and more.
Mrs. McGrady, an Oregon mother of two young children and a full-time schoolteacher at Wynn Elementary, said her income as a consultant for Tastefully Simple gourmet foods got her that new car and more. "It allowed me to help pay for my last year and a half of college. I didn't have to take out a student loan."
And Ms. Baldwin, who ran her first party as an independent consultant for Premier Designs jewelry in August, already has recouped her relatively steep start-up costs of about $1,200 and is building college funds for her two children.
Starting her own business - on top of a full-time job - was an investment in herself, too, said the Perrysburg woman. "Doing home shows is a confidence-builder because it forces you out of your comfort zone, it brings you in contact with many wonderful people, it sharpens your public speaking skills, and it's a great motivator, because you are only as good as you make yourself be," Ms. Baldwin explained.
Women such as Mrs. McGrady and Ms. Baldwin make up the majority of people who sell through in-home product demonstrations and parties. It's called direct selling, defined by the Direct Selling Association of Washington as sales of a consumer product or service, person to person, away from a fixed retail location. Companies use various terms for their salespeople, such as distributors, representatives, or consultants. About 80 percent of the direct sales force is female, and about 85 percent spend fewer than 30 hours per week on their business.
The party format is pretty similar from one company to another. The party hostess, perhaps inspired by incentives such as gifts and product discounts, agrees to have a party in her home and invites friends, neighbors, and relatives to attend. The company salesperson brings in product samples that the guests can try on (jewelry, for example); smear on (lotions), and snack on (gourmet foods). Afterward, the consultant takes product orders as the socializing continues.
According to the Direct Selling Association's most recent figures, direct sales in the United States totaled $29.5 billion in 2003, with the home party business segment accounting for about $9 billion of that. Direct sales have grown every year for 19 consecutive years, said Amy Robinson, association spokesman, in a telephone interview from Washington.
A greater variety of products is being sold today at home parties than in the past, she said, including many from traditional retail and catalog companies that have found direct selling is a good way to reach new markets.
The sales strategy also has evolved, she said: "Companies put more focus not just on a sales pitch but also on an educational opportunity." At a party for The Pampered Chef, for example, guests might learn how to use a new kitchen gadget or cooking technique. At Creative Memories events, party-goers bring their scrapbooks and photos and work on their projects. "It's like a modern-day quilting bee almost," Ms. Robinson said.
Jennifer Jackson of West Toledo, who like Mrs. McGrady is a consultant for Tastefully Simple, says the education goes on at two levels. "There are many people who are interested in becoming part of the Tastefully Simple business, so they can see what we do," she said. Other guests are there to learn about the company's gourmet food products and how to use them for family or company.
"I do this as a way to help offset the day-care costs for my daughter," said Mrs. Jackson, who works full time at HCR Manor Care. "My income averages about $60 to $80 a party."
The basic start-up kit for consultants is $170, she said. Mrs. Jackson bought extra product samples that increased her investment, "but I paid myself back in about a month or so."
Lauren Hertel of Maumee said that when she was a consultant for Princess House (cookware, gifts, etc.), she once earned an eight-day cruise for herself and her husband. She's now a representative for Country Bunny Bath and Body (lotions, shower gels, hair care products), using those earnings and what she gets from baby-sitting to supplement the family income. "Both are great ways to stay at home with your kids and to make money at the same time," said the mother of five.
The income from parties isn't steady in the way a regular paycheck is, "but you can make it reliable by working really hard, talking to a lot of people, and making the parties fun," Mrs. Hertel said.
She said she also loves attending home shopping parties as a guest, but she acknowledged that some people don't. "Some people are party snobs. They tell me they never come. I don't know why. I think a lot of people fear they're getting ripped off."
But she added that firms that belong to the Direct Selling Association have to abide by certain rules of conduct, and she maintained that customer satisfaction is critical if such businesses want to survive. The association has about 180 active member companies.
"We like to think we party for a living, and we put a lot of emphasis on fun," said John Kiple, executive vice president of Home & Garden Party (decorative items including stoneware, candles, and framed art). The company, headquartered in Marshall, Texas, had its first home party in May, 1996, and now has about 31,000 parties nationwide each month.
Those numbers say a lot about the home shopping industry as well as the company, Mr. Kiple said in a telephone interview from Texas. "I think it's a joyful, fun shopping experience," he said, adding that the industry's trade association has been successful in shedding the stigma of the door-to-door salesman.
In terms of the number of salespeople (which the company calls "designers") and total sales volume, "Ohio is our biggest state," Mr. Kiple said. Salespeople earn a 40 percent commission; sales at an average party are $300 to $400.
It was her scrapbooking hobby, not a need for money, that launched Chris Sanderson of Perrysburg into direct sales with Creative Memories (scrapbooking albums, supplies, and services). She also works full-time managing commercial real estate.
In addition to the Creative Memories home party format - called "get-togethers" when guests bring a couple of their own photos and create a card - Mrs. Sanderson hosts workshops in her home at scheduled times. Hobbyists can drop in and work on their own projects, buying what they need from her stockpile of papers, stickers, adhesives, and other supplies.
"We have kind of a girls' night and share ideas and talk about girl stuff. And eat - you always have to eat," she joked. "It's a good excuse to get away from whatever's going on at home and have some fun."
Lisa Van Dootingh also is part entertainer, part salesperson, part teacher at the "kitchen shows" she presents as an independent sales director for The Pampered Chef. "I'm sort of goofy," she admitted, explaining that she regales party guests with tales of her own cooking failures and such observations as the aggression-releasing potential of the company's food chopper. "It's like going to the gym with a lot less effort," she tells them.
Mrs. Van Dootingh, of West Toledo, has been with the company since February, 1997, logging 824 kitchen shows, earning bonus trips every year in addition to her sales commissions, and recruiting other consultants who now pay her a percentage of their own sales.
The appeal of home shopping parties, she said, is that they give busy people an opportunity to combine socializing with shopping, for themselves and their families or for gifts.
It's multi-tasking without the frenzy. Or as direct sellers put it: shopping from your seat, not from your feet.
Contact Ann Weber at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6126.