Thousands of people, including TV chef Jamie Oliver, are rushing to join the boom in direct home selling parties
Shopping parties used to be the preserve of Tupperware containers and risqué lingerie, but they are making a comeback as a new breed of upmarket retailers target the lucrative home-selling market.
From Jamie Oliver’s antipasti platters to Stella & Dot beads and trendy Swedish clothing brand Me&I, thousands of parties are going on around the country every night of the week. The Direct Selling Association (DSA) says “party” sales have surged 120% in the past two years and now generate annual sales of £400m as they strike a chord with recession-weary Britons.
“The rise in popularity of party-based selling is connected to the current economic climate,” says DSA director general Paul Southworth, who says 20,000 people have joined the industry’s sales force in that time. “Whereas people might have gone out for dinner or drinks before the recession, direct-selling parties are a cheaper night in socialising with friends and family.”
Direct selling is often associated with a nostalgia trip back to the 1950s and 60s, when the sound of “ding dong, Avon calling” was portrayed as a highlight of a housewife’s week. But Alison Clarke, an academic who wrote Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, argues that the parties offered women an alternative route to commercial success. “The actual networks of Tupperware parties were about women helping other women,” she told the BBC. “It was the antithesis of male corporate culture; it was the opposite of Mad Men.”
Not everyone is happy about the party boom, however. A recent debate on Mumsnet saw one member write: “AWFUL, AWFUL, AWFUL. They are designed for people like me who feel so awkward when you are being sold to and no one is buying stuff that you give in and buy something because you feel ‘sorry’ for them.” Another member wrote: “I have yet to see a single thing at a party plan evening that cannot be bought the same/cheaper/better elsewhere. Emperor’s new clothes syndrome every single time.”
But faced with a tough job climate, nearly 400,000 people – including a growing number of over 50s and men – are trying to make a living out of direct selling with the £1.4bn sector the country’s biggest part-time employer.
Although Avon, with global sales of more than £7bn, is still the biggest direct seller, other established catalogue firms such as Kleeneze have started party arms. There is also a plethora of new brands including the Pampered Chef, US jewellery brand Silpada, Best in Glass, which specialises in wines, cocktails and glassware, and Barefoot Books.
Claire Burnett, who is one of Silpada’s most successful UK sellers, shifting £60,000 of jewellery in the past year, said when she started in direct sales she felt “embarrassed”, but that had changed: “People do it because either they love the jewellery, they really need the money, or are a bit lonely and want to meet people. My friends really respect what I do and see me as a success, and that I’m paying school fees for my daughter.”
Even TV chef Jamie Oliver has got in on the act, establishing his own party selling empire Jamie at Home. Oliver’s army of sellers offer an upmarket take on the Tupperware parties of old. Partygoers are invited to coo over ceramic rice steamers and olive oil drizzlers while watching a DVD of the Naked Chef in action. They are billed as the “perfect excuse for a night in with friends”.
The marketing shows how the genre has been reinvented said Jeremy Baker, retail analyst and affiliate professor at ESCP Europe Business School. It used to be associated with the kind of people who “watch daytime TV” he said, but had broadened its appeal, with shoppers seeing it as a change from the impersonal experience of supermarkets and the faux friendship of websites such as Amazon which fill your inbox with personalized emails.
“The reason people liked village shops was because of the friendship, the chatting and gossiping,” said Baker. “Modern retail has become so efficient that it’s quite nice going back to the village shop idea where everyone is sitting around being friendly to each other and using shopping as an excuse.”