If you are good with people and are confident about making a sale, then direct selling could be a way to boost your existing income or build a successful new career. Moneywise finds out how it works and highlights the pros and cons.
Mention direct selling and most people think of Tupperware parties or the dulcet tones of a bright and breezy sales rep saying “Avon calling”, but it is a vast sector. More than 425,000 people in the UK work in direct sales, according to trade body The Direct Selling Association (DSA). In a £2 billion home-based industry, they sell anything from cookware to jewellery, clothing, spa products and books, to a third of the population.
Stay-at-home mums or those with caring commitments particularly welcome the flexibility direct selling offers, although men now make up nearly a quarter of the workforce.
With direct selling you are your own boss. You are not an employee of a company but an independent contractor who markets and sells products or services in return for commission. You can do this online in your home, door to door, or even hold some great parties.
If you are not an extrovert who can comfortably market to friends and family and be something of a self-starter, then this job is not for you. But if you are good with people and want a job with hours to suit you, there are many possibilities.
First, be sure to find a product that you love. It can be soul-destroying selling something that you think is poor value for money or you don’t believe in. There is plenty of choice: the DSA has 53 member companies with interests ranging from health and beauty to children’s books. Its website (Dsa.org.uk) is a useful resource for anybody interested in becoming a direct seller.
Most direct selling companies insist that you buy a business kit and a range of sample products, but these rarely exceed £100 initially. The law governing direct selling does not allow an investment of more than £200 in the first seven days. It is not normally necessary to buy goods before you make any sales to consumers.
Direct selling is a £2 billion home-based industry
A word of warning, though – check that your home insurance covers your stock. It would be a disaster if a fire or flood damaged your livelihood.
Some sales consultants can earn commission, not only for sales of products and services they generate, but also from a percentage of the sales of other people who they have recruited into the business.
While for most people direct selling can be a useful top-up, perhaps to save few extra pounds for Christmas, a tiny few have struck it rich – Avon’s first millionaire, Debbie Davis, became an Avon lady after being made redundant from a printing factory in 2004. After just a week, she had recruited her partner, Dave Carter, to join her team as a representative and during a three-week selling bonanza they racked up sales of more than £18,800.
They went on to build an 8,000-strong team and earn more than £1.4 million from the company.
More recently, Leanna Biagioni from Ongar, Essex, turned over an impressive £161,000 in her first year with Avon, joining in January 2017. The 36-year-old now sells exclusively online, earning £1,500 to £2,000 a month.
“I was actively looking for the right opportunity,” says Leanna. “Both my children have special needs, so I needed something to work around my responsibilities as a mum. I’d been struggling to find a local Avon rep and I loved the products, so thought I would start my own Avon business to earn and enjoy the incentives that came with it.”
As well as selling products herself, she manages her own team of representatives. “You could say it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
I can now afford music tuition, sports lessons, birthday parties and Christmas presents for my children, which makes a huge difference to our lives.”
“For some it might mean extra money for ballet lessons”
But Leanna’s not stopping here – she’s an ambitious, driven businesswoman whose next goal is for her husband to be able to give up his job as an operations manager for a construction company and join her in running her business.
More commonly, according to the DSA, around 60% of those doing direct selling have another job and more than half (51%) work less than 10 hours a week on their business.
One publisher that hires direct sales people to work from home is Usborne Books. I spoke to one of its organisers, Marina Roberts, based in south-east England, who has been working for the company for five years.
She says: “For some, it might be extra money to pay for swimming lessons or ballet classes. For others, it would be finding themselves again, making new friends and enjoying simply being called by their first name, not just ‘Mummy’. And for those with bigger plans, it could be a great successful business, full-time income and new career.”
All new joiners buy a starter kit from Usborne costing £38, which contains books worth £150. Basic commission is 24% of the cover price of the book.
PartyLite, which specialises in fragrances and candles, offers three deals to its prospective sales reps: no initial investment, which offers 10% profit, then once sales reach £60 you get 20%; a £39.95 kit, on which 20% commission is paid; and an £84.95 kit, on which 20% commission is paid.
Never be tempted to buy more stock than you are certain to sell, and find out whether you can get a refund for unsold goods if you decide direct selling is not for you. For example, at Mary Kay cosmetics, a starter kit costs £99, with commission of “up to 40%” on offer. The company will buy back certain unused products at 90% of the original net cost if you change your mind.
Finally, beware of rogue traders: steer clear of any companies that are not members of the DSA and those that ask you to commit large amounts of money to get started.
‘Direct selling teaches you the ability to bounce back’
Sarah Beeny (pictured, above), presenter of Channel 4’s Four Rooms, Double Your House for Half the Money and How to Live Mortgage Free has been an advocate of household appliance firm Vorwerk for over two decades, since first working there as a sales adviser.
The 46-year-old broadcaster and property developer credits the skills she gained while working at Vorwerk as having a real impact on her career. “I was 19 when I started working as a sales adviser with Vorwerk, selling vacuum cleaners via home demonstrations,” she explains.
“I was more confident leaving Vorwerk, compared to when I first started. I think, in life, confidence is important, but the ability to bounce back when things don’t quite go your way is almost a greater skill. In fact, that is what direct selling really teaches you.
“I sold my first vacuum to my parents and, shortly after that, I ended up demonstrating to the Duchess of Wellington in a big stately home. There I was, in this long gallery doing my demonstration, thinking, ‘Wow, this is a bit strange!’
“Luckily for me, the duchess was really nice and said, ‘I’d like two, please.’”
Stephanie Hawthorne is a freelance personal finance writer for publications including The Times, Financial Times, Independent, Sunday Telegraph and Mail on Sunday