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Beyond Tupperware Women entrepreneurs find a niche in home-party retailing

Sally Avery sits in the quiet of her Lewiston home, selecting colorful, imported beads and crafting them into bracelets, earrings and necklaces.

"I could sit right here and do this forever," Avery said. "It doesn't seem like work."

Except it is.

Later, she'll pack up her velvet-lined cases of jewelry and head for a client's home. The house will be filled with friends, wine and trays of delicate hors d'oeuvres -- and Avery will make a killing.

For many Western New York women, this is the new face of entrepreneurship.

Made famous by Tupperware in the 1950s, the "hostess home party plan" remains a dynamic direct sales model. Local entrepreneurs' adaptation of the party plan is driving small-business growth, especially for businesswomen and female artisans.

Rather than selling goods for a percentage of sales through established companies such as Tupperware or PartyLite Candles, people like Avery are starting their own businesses with products they make themselves and using the home party method to take sales to the next level.

"It is so expensive to get your product on a shelf in a retail store. Most small entrepreneurs can't do it," said Amy Robinson, spokeswoman for the Direct Selling Association. "Direct sales and home parties are a great opportunity for small companies to grow their business."

In fact, The Pampered Chef began in the basement of a woman named Doris Christopher outside Chicago in 1980. Today, the home-party based kitchen tool and food company is a $900 million empire and has been acquired by multibillion-dollar powerhouse Berkshire Hathaway, which also owns The Buffalo News.

For Christopher, low overhead costs are an attractive benefit for those just starting out. Because private homes replace the sales floor, and hostesses provide the customers through private invitations, money that would go toward rent and advertising instead goes toward commission and profit.

Here's how it usually works. A "host" books a sales party with the incentive of receiving a percentage of the party's sales in merchandise credit. That person invites friends, family and co-workers to a get-together, providing snacks and drinks.

The crafts person -- or in the case of The Pampered Chef, a sales representative -- either delivers a sales pitch, gives a demonstration of what is being sold, or simply displays the wares while customers browse and chit-chat. Often, hosts hike the festive factor with games, tutorials, prizes and free samples.

The more the friends buy, the more the host receives in free or discounted merchandise. Incentives are often given for party guests to book a party of their own.

And it's no mistake that the bulk of direct sellers and direct sales customers are women -- more than 87 percent of them, Robinson said.

"Women are the more social sex," she said.

For decades, Tupperware parties were one of the only recognized venues for women to fraternize and empower themselves by earning independent income, according to Alison J. Clarke in "Tupperware: the promise of plastic in 1950s America."

For busy moms, the flexible scheduling of home parties is a particular advantage. It gives women like Avery the opportunity to be home with her kids, shuttling them to lacrosse practice and social events, and still have a career of her own.

The creative control it affords is a plus, too.

>Artisans sell at own parties

Some area women, such as Nancy Kensy of Tonawanda, have put a new twist on the home party plan.

This November, she and a handful of artist friends will pool their wares -- jewelry, stationery, paintings, natural soap, wine jelly and scarves -- throw a party and put them on sale for family, friends and neighbors.

"We're all selling something from the heart," Kensy said. "It's a way to share our talents and -- in this economy -- make some extra money."

Six years ago, Debra Stachura and Linda Day did the same thing. That private party, which still takes place at Day's Ashland Avenue home, has grown by word of mouth into an annual Christmas shopping event with more than 10 vendors and guests arriving by the hundreds.

"It's such a fun, congenial atmosphere, people keep coming back and it just keeps growing," said Stachura. "It's so much nicer than going to the mall."

In fact, the success and intimacy of the home party method has some established traditional shop owners getting in on the action.

Karen Dentinger, owner of Dkd. Studio on Main Street in Clarence, has begun hosting home party-type events at her boutique after hours.

Customers book a time slot, then show up with friends to eat, drink and shop, getting a percentage of sales in merchandise.

"It's a great excuse for a girls' night out," Dentinger said. "You know how it is after you have kids. Women never get enough time to see their friends."

In addition to the boost in sales, Dentinger gets exposure for her off-the-beaten path location.

"I rely very much on word of mouth," she said. "It's not like I'm on Main Street in Williamsville."

>Guests obliged to buy?

Still, some credit guests' feeling of obligation to buy merchandise at home parties with its great sales success.

Most women agree it is difficult -- nearly taboo -- to attend a party without purchasing something. After all, the theory goes, it is the least they can do after their friend has fed, hosted and entertained them. This translates into guaranteed sales for both the hostess and the party representative.

But Robinson disagrees.

"I'm not sure I buy the guilt thing too much," she said. "People shouldn't feel any more pressure walking out of a party without buying something than they would at any retail store."

If anything, entrepreneurs suggest, the guest's connection to the hostess gives consumers an excuse to spend as freely as they would like, knowing their purchases will benefit a friend.

"They feel more justified buying three necklaces instead of just one, buying a couple for gifts," Avery said.

e-mail: schristmann@buffnews.com

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