NASHVILLE — Armies of new Avon ladies, Mary Kay reps and Tupperware sellers are advancing on living rooms across the country, their ranks full of professionals forced to take a new job amid the recession.
Becke Alexander, sales manager for New York-based Avon Products Inc., hears each week from laid-off bankers and stay-at-home moms, but also employed people worried how long they'll stay that way. All of them are willing to knock on doors, host parties or do whatever else it takes to peddle some makeup.
" 'I need money.' That's what I've been hearing since about November," Alexander said. "There are no hobby seekers coming here. It's people with a legitimate need."
Job cuts, shrinking bonuses and scaled-back hours have pushed more people than ever to become direct sales representatives, a phenomenon industry experts say they've seen before.
In the 1990-1991 recession, the number of direct sellers increased 8 percent to 5.1 million Americans. In the 2001 recession, the work force increased to 12.2 million.
And while 2008 figures are not available, in 2007 an estimated 15 million people nationwide were in direct sales. Some 58 percent became reps as a second job, according to the Direct Selling Association, a trade group that represents 200 U.S. companies.
When money began getting tight in Nicole Robinson's household in Garland, Texas, the full-time pharmaceutical sales rep signed up to host Mary Kay parties and give facials, working just six hours to make about $600 a week.
"Costs aren't going down, and opportunities are tightening up. Raises and bonuses aren't as big. And I didn't want to ever be in a situation where we were in jeopardy," said Robinson, who joined Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc. in September.
The sales force for the Addison, Texas-based company grew 22 percent from January to March, compared with the same period last year. The privately owned company wouldn't say whether its profits also increased.
Orlando, Fla.-based Tupperware Brands said globally it's making more money and has more people selling its products, spokeswoman Nora Alonso said.
During stronger economies, people usually take on direct sales jobs so they can have money for leisure spending, said Larry Chonko, business ethics professor at The University of Texas at Arlington.
"Times are tough, as we know, and there is an absolute need for extra income," Chonko said. "Direct sales is not recession-proof, but it is the kind of business that even in a recession you can make success of it. And if you create a solid foundation now, then just wait until the economy comes out of the down cycle and goes into an up cycle."