Janet Piper still feels like a newbie when it comes to trunk shows – that's what San Francisco-based company Stella & Dot calls the home parties where its reps sell boutique-style jewellery.
So on a rainy Sunday afternoon, Ms. Piper, a 43-year-old who works full-time at a publishing company, invited her team leader Claudia Li-Gordon to the two-hour party she booked in an east Toronto home.
While Ms. Piper offers help and advice to the dozen women who have come to check out the jewellery, Ms. Li-Gordon demonstrates some of the more intricate pieces, such as how the $54 silver Bardot Spiral Bangle winds around the wrist, assuring everyone it gets faster with practice.
Over rosé wine and mini-cupcakes – courtesy of the homeowner – and the typical chatter of work problems, man problems and the definition of a cocktail ring, the party-goers try on the many necklaces, bracelets and knuckle dusters.
While the atmosphere is casual, there's nothing lax about this business. When it's all over, Ms. Piper will pocket 25 to 30 per cent of the sales, which average $1,000 a show. Ms. Li-Gordon, who also runs her own trunk shows, will get a cut of Ms. Piper's sales as she does with the 42 other women under her. As for the person who hosts the show? She gets free jewellery, typically $250 worth.
"Are you still planning to renovate your home?" Ms. Piper asks. Ms. Li-Gordon replies: "If I keep working Stella & Dot."
For decades, direct sales have attracted women looking to earn money with a flexible work schedule. That desire helped build the empires of Avon and Mary Kay. But the idea of selling the same eye shadow and night cream their mothers wear is proving unattractive for women today. Instead, jewellery companies offering hip merchandise that's worn by celebrities, heavily marketed using social media and sold through casual home parties is snagging women interested in direct sales, and converting those who didn't picture themselves the type.
In Calgary, Dee Dee Rebitt sells Lia Sophia jewellery, which costs from $20 to more than $100 a piece. Ms. Rebitt joined in 2009, the year the company entered the Canadian market, to augment her income from her home daycare business. She had dabbled in direct sales before, but the self-avowed jewellery addict found her stride with Lia Sophia, booking clients she met at her parties and eventually recruiting 47 women to her team. That's how the real money gets made.
Like Ms. Li-Gordon, Ms. Rebitt, who works two to three hours a day for Lia Sophia, earns top commission at her own parties while receiving cuts from new recruits and additional cuts from their new recruits. "There's a lot of women pulling in a full-time salary working part-time hours," Ms. Rebitt says. "I'd like to retire from daycare and concentrate on expanding my Lia Sophia business across Canada."
That the jewellery party business is growing in this economy has caught the attention of the industry – last year, Avon, in a bid to reinvigorate its languishing sales, bought Silpada Designs, another popular jewellery direct seller that specializes in high-quality sterling silver. While it can be lucrative, a direct sale business is not a licence to print money.
Launching a home business entails the cost of the start-up kit (often less than $200), investments in merchandise for the shows along with catalogues and accessories, such as table mirrors and jewellery cases. While the shows can more than pay for the operating costs – on average direct sellers net between $350 and $700 a month – successful networking is key to finding a steady stream of people willing to host shows in their home and to recruit saleswomen to your team, which provides access to additional revenue pools.
"This is like a business in a box, the women are supported very well by the companies," says Ross Creber, president of the Direct Sellers Association of Canada. "But you can't just sit by the phone and wait for it to ring. It can be as much or as little as you want it to be." Many look for that so-called sweet spot in-between.
Scarlett Ballantyne of Vancouver, 40, used to work 55 hours a week and spend 60 per cent of her time travelling when she worked in the corporate world. As a mother of two, for her, it was less than ideal.
"Life is too short, I wanted to be more present in my daughters' lives," she says, though she didn't want to give up work altogether. In 2008, she was lured into direct sales after meeting Stella & Dot's founder, entrepreneurial wunderkind Jessica Herrin.
Applying her business skills, Ms. Ballantyne, who also works as a freelance makeup artist, has built a team of 67 women, and works 15 to 20 hours a week. She markets her enterprise on Facebook, her personal website and blog, as well as Twitter; altogether she's earning between $2,500 and $5,000 on any given month – and she's able to take her girls to their dance classes after school.
"I've got it down to a science," Ms. Ballantyne says. "I'm at the point where people are coming to me to put on shows." Though she's found her own work-life balance, she cautions it's not for everybody. "It's another way to make money – you still have to be good at what you do."
Special to The Globe and Mail