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Posted: Sunday, March 4, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:52 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Rebecca Rose

Killeen Daily Herald

"Ding-dong. Avon lady calling!"

The line, from an iconic 1962 commercial, is one of America's most recognizable brands. And, the ubiquitous Avon lady is equal with the high-grossing producers' signature pink Cadillacs for that other door-to-door cosmetic giant, Mary Kay.

Both companies share their heydays in the 1960s and 1970s, when cosmetic options between high-end department stores and low-quality drugstore were limited.

As big-box stores and chain drugstores captured the retail landscape in the 1980s and 1990s, the popularity of direct-sales cosmetic products started to decline and now the recession has consumers tightening their purse strings even more.

In February, Avon posted a fourth-quarter loss as sales slumped and costs skyrocketed. The beauty products company blamed its misfortune on a weak economy and doesn't expect its profit margins to improve this year.

Despite Avon's bleak financial reports, some local residents still find the direct-sales company and its privately held rival, Mary Kay, attractive sources of income.

Building a business

Killeen resident Darlene Beckett is a district sales director for Mary Kay, with several unit members on her teams. While she's not their boss, she's in charge of mentoring, training and helping them to succeed.

Beckett began selling Mary Kay products in 2005, when she was an Army captain at Fort Hood. At first she relied on networking with co-workers and their spouses, handing out fliers and gift baskets and offering free makeovers and facials.

She hosted weekend parties in her home, encouraged clients to reach out to their friends and family members, and her business grew, but Beckett didn't stop there.

"I would give out business cards to cashiers, waitresses, anyone who serviced me," said the wife and mother of two children.

With the small business thriving, Beckett and her family decided to stay in Killeen when she left military service. "I got out of the Army in July of 2007," she said. "Ten months later, I was a director."

Beckett said her Mary Kay income is comparable to what she earned in the Army. "I got out as a captain," she said. "In order to maintain my lifestyle, I knew I had to be a director."

So far, she's earned three cars, but not the most famous one. "People only think about the pink Cadillac," she said. "But consultants earn Chevy Malibus. Directors can choose from Equinox and Toyota Camry."

Mary Kay consultants are not allowed to discuss specifics about percentages for their sales commissions, but Beckett said the company pays her commissions directly, instead of getting a cut off the top of her sales members' earnings. "Their profit is their profit," she said of the consultants she trains.

Other benefits

Besides working independently, Beckett said another benefit to having a home-based business is the myriad of tax deductions. "There's a formula (my tax adviser) uses based on the square footage of my home," she said.

In addition, a portion of her home's Internet, mortgage, water and utilities are categorized as tax-deductible business expenses, as are parts of her cellphone bills, mileage, gas and baby-sitting fees when she's with clients. "Anything for the business is deductible," she said. "It's just amazing."

With large store chains offering premium, mid-priced cosmetics, Beckett said personalized service and in-home demonstrations are how she competes with big distributors.

"We have 'try before you buy'," she said. Personal consultations at house parties generate a large portion of her income and new referrals, and Mary Kay's skin care products, not cosmetics, account for the bulk of her business.

"A client uses that (skincare) product morning and night," said Beckett. "It's a consumable product, so it's a residual income."

Ways to sell

Peggy Davidson, vice president with Mary Kay, has worked with the company for 22 years and often thinks about its founder and the technology changes in the business world.

"(Founder) Mary Kay Ash was a woman ahead of her time in 1963," she said. "I feel like we are still ahead of our time."

The company's still focused on building relationships with its customers. While today's customers are tech-savvy and highly mobile, Davidson said the company works to strike a balance between its founder's personalized service principles and the demands of the virtual consumer.

"Sales are about building relationships," she said. "Fifty years ago, it was done face-to-face or through the phone."

Today, Mary Kay sales representatives have personalized websites, updated and maintained by the company. "It allows every single independent beauty consultant to have their own website," said Davidson.

Consultants can feature different products on their websites, and customers can order directly through them. Mary Kay also has mobile apps whereby customers can order products, and consultants can interact with their exclusive community.

Mary Kay's Facebook page has 771,000 fans, so far. Oftentimes instead of issuing a news release, company announcements are posted on the social media site.

But one area has retained its historical roots. The company still features the one-on-one personalized sales force that made it famous. Mary Kay has resisted pressures to eliminate this direct-sales strategy, said Davidson, because the company relies on its consultants to remain a top player in the cosmetic industry.

"Our independent beauty consultants are our best asset," she said. "They're our biggest brand lovers. They're passionate out in field. Without them, we wouldn't have the strong brand we have."

As for how Ash, who died in 2001, would feel about the role technology now plays in the company, Davidson said the founder would have embraced it all. "She would be blogging and tweeting all the time," said Davidson.

Second generation

With limited employment options in 1886, the direct-selling of Avon products allowed women to earn their own money, and the personalized approach struck a chord. By 1920, sales topped $1 million, reaching $10 billion in 2008.

Like the Mary Kay consultant, the Avon lady has evolved from a door-to-door sales agent to a tech-savvy networker.

Last April, Connie Jones moved to Killeen from Casper, Wyo., in search of a better life. The married mother started selling Avon in November because the business would allow her to earn money and stay at home with her daughter.

"I like the products," said Jones. "But it's different now. I'm used to be on the other side, buying rather than selling."

Besides using the company's products, Jones was familiar with Avon for another reason. Her mother, a homemaker, sold Avon products for 20 years to earn extra cash for the family.

The second-generation Avon lady started her home-based business by buying the company's $10 starter kit, which contains brochures and sample products.

"I personally haven't made a whole lot, but I'm starting to learn the area, learn more about people."

Promoting the startup business through the women's group at her church and reaching out to new members of the congregation, Jones said: "I'm getting some word-of-mouth going now."

Like most of today's Avon representatives, Jones has her own dedicated website. Her clients can access Avon's online store with purchases credited to her.

Customers can have purchased shipped to their Avon representative or directly to their homes, which means sales agents, such as Jones, are no longer confined to knocking on a few neighborhood doors.

"Anyone in the country can use my website, and the sales still gets credited to me," she said, adding that Avon offers online training, sales techniques and suggestions on how to respond to dismissive potential customers.

Although it's challenging to get a new business off the ground, Jones said she plans to stick with the business a long time. "It's basically your own thing," said Jones. "It's up to you how you grow it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Rebecca Rose at rebeccar@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7548.

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