Is Avon still calling? – BBC News

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Avon is moving its headquarters to the UK as part of an effort to reorganise its global business. Its model, based on door-to-door sales and social connections, seems to hark back to a bygone era.

Avon is synonymous with housewives and stay-at-home mothers selling cosmetics and perfumes directly to their friends and neighbours. It started life in the US but it now moving to Britain.

The well-known “Ding dong, Avon Calling” TV advert, used from 1954 to 1967, was one of the longest and most successful advertising campaigns in history and embedded the brand in the public consciousness. In 1990, Tim Burton used the wholesome image to contrast with his gothic hero in Edward Scissorhands. Scissorhands is adopted by an Avon lady who wears a pillarbox hat and describes herself to be as “harmless as cherry pie.”

The firm has provided work opportunities for women since it was founded in the US in 1886. It was set up by David H McConnell, a bookseller turned entrepreneur, who realised women provided an untapped workforce. Today it brands itself as the ‘company for women’ and has projects supporting the fights against breast cancer and domestic violence.

The first Avon lady was a widowed mother-of-two – a Mrs P Albee. The company first sold rose-scented perfume but over time expanded its range to soap, bath products and cosmetics, employing thousands of women to do door-to-door sales. It changed its name from the California Perfume Company to Avon in 1939. McConnell had named a beauty line Avon a decade before after a visit to Shakespeare’s birthplace in England.

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Avon UK opened in 1959 and today there are around 160,000 Avon representatives in Britain. Direct selling is still an attractive option for many people looking after children or otherwise needing to work around commitments. Most sales reps are women, but around five per cent are men.

“Now I’m a SAHM [stay-at-home-mother] with two young kids, I just do it around the people I see all the time – mums/childminders at my kids schools and playgroups and my friends, neighbours and family,” one Avon lady wrote on a forum on Netmums.

The start-up costs are relatively low. To become an Avon representative, you need to pay a 16 start-up fee and receive 20 brochures and order slips. Reps then buy further Avon brochures on a sliding scale – costing from around 3 for five to 8 for 50. Sale reps take home 20% commission for orders over 78 and 25% for orders over 145. They can then build their own team of sales reps and become a sales leader – earning commission which increases as the team grows.

It is possible to become rich from Avon. Debbie Davis from Sunderland became the first in the UK to earn over 1m with Avon in 2010. A case like this grabs the headlines and encourages more women to sign-up but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Retail consultant Catherine Shuttleworth, from getsavvy.com, guesses that many Avon reps go into it expecting only to make a little extra income rather than as a main job.

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And some former Avon ladies have complained that continually dropping off and picking up catalogues is a hassle, while others say they lost money on the venture.

One woman pointed out that she wouldn’t earn commission until she reached a certain amount of sales. “You have to pay for books, order forms, paper bags and other stationary so yes it can actually work out instead of making money you lose it,” she posted on Netmums.

Avon is also facing competition for reps from a whole range of direct-selling companies, from Neal’s Yard which offers organic skincare, to Betterware with its range of household products. In 2009 they launched a recruitment campaign – dubbed “Project Grad-preneurs” to encourage cash-strapped graduates to have a go.

In recent years, Avon has struggled in a digital beauty world. The 2014 relaunch of avon.com was the first overhaul of the website in 10 years. But social media plays a big part in how its reps now work. “Avon has always been about the social aspect as much as the business side and social networking allows more opportunities for creating connections. They can tap in to local online networks,” says Shuttleworth.

While door-to-door will continue to be how people think of Avon, the company is increasingly going online. Debbie, who lives near Oldbury in the West Midlands, is a mother-of-two. She has just started up as an Avon saleswoman and uses Facebook to generate interest.

“I’m friends with a lot of authors online so I made contact with them first and they helped me spread the word about an Avon product called Unique. On my first week I generated sales of 150. Going online also helped because my Avon team leader lives two doors down, so my area was already covered for door-to-door sales.”

Debbie hopes to generate a decent income from Avon and become a sales leader in the future.

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