Ding Dong: New Sales Reps Answer Avon's Call

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Avon was the perfect job for many of America's homemakers back in the bucolic '50s. Now, a new generation of women hopes Avon, as well as Mary Kay Cosmetics, will offer some financial stability in this hard-hit economy. During a downturn, customers still spend money on personal care items.


Now to a business that appears to be doing well in this recession: direct sales of beauty products.

Cosmetic companies like Avon and Mary Kay say for many women, the opportunity to be their own boss in difficult times has a strong appeal. Here's Gloria Hillard.

GLORIA HILLARD: The evidence of Linda Klein's(ph) success is sitting in the front driveway of her home in a suburb of Los Angeles.

Ms. LINDA KLEIN (Sales Representative, Mary Kay): And this is a brand- new, pink, Cadillac SUV I just....

HILLARD: And on the rear window of her 12th new pink Cadillac is the familiar sticker...

Ms. KLEIN: Mary Kay, enriching women's lives. And that's really our official sticker. That's our - philosophy of our company is to enrich women's lives.

HILLARD: In August, the company reported a more than 40 percent increase in new Mary Kay sales reps, compared to the same month last year. Income is based on commissions, so earnings vary, but Klein says a new rep working full time can expect to earn close to 50,000 in a year. Getting that pink Cadillac, she says, takes building a sales team. And in the last six months, Klein and her team have signed on 60 new beauty consultants.

Ms. KLEIN: Mostly because they've been downsized or let go, or their whole companies have folded, actually. And we're really seeing women of all ages.

(Soundbite of Mary Kay training session)

Ms. KLEIN: Hey, Tammy(ph)! Hi! So? Look at your...

HILLARD: Klein is hosting her weekly training session and soon, her home is filled with energetic women who, well, sparkled.

Ms. LORRAINE RICHARDSON(ph) (Sales Representative, Mary Kay): We love pins.

HILLARD: Lorraine Richardson is wearing a heavy, bejeweled, red blazer. She calls it Mary Kay bling. Think rhinestone merit badges. She's 68 and after seeing her retirement savings take a dive, signed up with Mary Kay.

Ms. RICHARDSON: I would have had to go out and work, and who's going to hire somebody my age and make the money that I do? Nobody.

HILLARD: The Dallas-based Mary Kay is not the only direct-selling company in town.

(Soundbite of Avon TV ad)

(Soundbite of doorbell ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Avon calling.

HILLARD: These days, you may not see Avon ladies decked out in hat and gloves on your doorstep like those iconic TV ads, but the company remains the largest direct seller of cosmetics in this country as well as worldwide.

Ms. ANDREA JUNG (CEO, Avon): I believe the number of lipsticks sold is four lipsticks per second, every second of the day.

HILLARD: Avon CEO Andrea Jung says beauty and personal-care products are some of the last things consumers give up in recessionary times. And, as with Mary Kay, today's economy is creating an uptick in Avon's sales force.

Ms. DAPHNE COLEMAN(ph) (Sales Representative, Avon): You are your own boss - your terms, your time, flexible. You can't get laid off. You are in control of your own destiny and your own career. So I think it has a lot of resonance right now.

HILLARD: After losing her job in the mortgage business, 46-year-old Daphne Coleman signed up with Avon. She's making a house call today. In her hand are tiny lipstick samples.

(Soundbite of house call)

Ms. COLEMAN: Here you go. Take one of those. That's a new lipstick.

HILLARD: And Coleman's set on her new career as an Avon representative. She says she won't go back to the mortgage business even when things turn around.

Ms. COLEMAN: Avon's been around since the 1880s. It's made it through the first Depression. I mean, we're in a recession, so come on. And it's products that we need.

(Soundbite of Mary Kay training session)

HILLARD: Meanwhile, back at the Mary Kay weekly training session, in appreciation of growing sales, Linda Klein had elaborately wrapped gifts for the women on the kitchen counter. Dinner was in the oven. And Klein led the ladies in a resounding chorus of positive thinking.

(Soundbite of Mary Kay training session)

Ms. KLEIN: My enthusiasm makes getting lots of leads and lots of bookings easy for me.

Avon Representatives: My enthusiasm makes getting lots of leads and lots of bookings easy for me.

HILLARD: Women turning the word recession on its heels.

Avon Representatives: I'm increasing my sales every week.

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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