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You've probably been invited to one. You may have even hosted one. Home parties thrown by friends and family can be hard to escape -- especially with the bank account intact.

For the participants, the friendly get-togethers -- made famous by Tupperware parties -- are part social event, part shopping trip. For the companies behind the events, they're all business.

Home parties account for about $3.8 billion in sales each year, according to the Direct Selling Association. It's a business model several local companies have found very successful.

The owner of Simply Charming first had a store in Buffalo. Then, Cathy Plavisch sold her hand-made jewelry at mall kiosks and at craft shows. She then decided to publish a catalog to increase her sales of pins and charms and other accessories.

"A woman called up and said the catalog was great but asked if we did home parties," Plavisch recalled. "I said, um, sure."

And for the last seven years, that's how Simply Charming has sold most of its jewelry. Plavisch makes the jewelry and runs the company from her Amherst home. She has about a dozen people who make presentations at home parties.

As a business owner, she would never go back to having a store, although she does still attend craft shows.

"Home parties are totally flexible," she said. "Having a store in the mall, you're committed to certain hours."

And it's neither expensive nor risky for a small company
to experiment to see if home parties would work for them, said Plavisch, who teaches an evening course at Maryvale High School called "How to Turn Your Craft into Cash."

"They can get a group of people together in someone's home and put it out there and see what happens," she said.

While Plavisch was able to easily start selling her jewelry through home parties, for larger companies, launching home parties is a more daunting -- and expensive -- undertaking.

Northern Lights Candles in Wellsville makes most of its money by selling its candles to big stores such as Pier One and Bed Bath and Beyond. It also has a few retail locations in malls. In 1998, it decided to try selling its candles at home parties. It took six months to develop the catalog and marketing and requires a completely different accounting and payroll system.

The company now has people throwing home parties in 24 states.

"In the past two years, it's been the fastest growing division of Northern Lights Candles," said Deanna Davison, corporate director of Northern Lights at Home, which saw sales grow 25 percent last year and 36 percent so far this year. "The job of the presenter is to make the customers feel pampered. That hands-on customers service is really lost in today's world."

Linen World, another home-grown business, has used home parties since it started 21 years ago. Linen World has been so successful that the owners, Jo Ellen and Al Chavanne, are moving out of Buffalo into a larger warehouse in Orchard Park.

The company sells a variety of towels, table cloths, bed spreads, blankets and other goods. Mary Lynn Barnhard started doing home parties for Linen World in 1981 and is now their national sales manager, overseeing representatives selling their goods at home parties in about 15 states.

"I happened to get invited to one of these home parties and went out of obligation to a friend," she said. "I sat there and watched this woman do her job and I thought I could do this."

Barnhard made it look easy at a recent home party in Clarence Center. With a fan circulating the hot air in Elizabeth Knuth's kitchen, Barnhard showed off lace tablecloths, flannel blankets and woven rugs. Her goods were stored in several plastic containers stacked up around her in the room.

"I know of a lot of you would like to buy everything, but either the wallet or husband won't let you," Barnhard joked as she passed the items around the circle of Knuth's friends and relatives. Knuth hosted the party after her sister-in-law Terri Piasecki had a Linen World presentation in her home.

Barnhard's results that night: the dozen women gathered there bought about $550 worth of merchandise, Al Chavanne said. Barnhard will keep roughly a third of that.

Presenters usually make between $50 and $100 for the two or three hours they spend at a home party, according to executives at all three companies.

Joann Page, who does home parties for Northern Lights Candles, chooses to work two nights a week. And she's booked with parties through August. With five children ranging from 6 to 24, Page enjoys being home for her kids and earning some extra cash. As their top sales person, she normally makes $75 to $80 an hour.

"If I want to make more money, I can book more appointments that week or that month," she said. "I'm really in control."

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