No cosmetic operation

An Avon lady never rests

Most days, around 9.00am, Eileen Gilliatt climbs into her car, puts the key into the ignition, and drives. Her current vehicle is a red Vauxhall Astra: she’s been running it for less than two years, but already covered 47,000 miles – that’s more than 500 miles a week – in a diamond-shaped territory between Ely, Huntingdon, Peterborough and Wisbech.

To call Eileen, 49, a travelling salesman would be a mistake. She’s a travelling sales manager , overseeing a mighty force of individual representatives. Additionally, some might argue, it would be wrong to call her a sales man , because she’s a woman. But politically correct terminology is hardly the point, because the term by which Eileen is known, professionally, is equally outdated. She’s an Avon lady.

Eileen and Avon go way back. She first bought Avon products when she was 17, and worked as a rep when her two children were young. After that, she was employed by a range of companies as personal assistant to the managing director, and she ran a community care agency. But she returned to Avon three years ago, and since then she’s thrived. In conversation, she frequently describes herself as “an achiever”, and she’s right to do so. She’s one of Avon’s 50 most successful managers and, as such, will shortly enjoy a ten-day holiday in Australia, courtesy of the company.

What makes her so good? Simply this: she has built – and sustains – a large group of representatives (470, at the lastest count), and she motivates them to sell lots of products. When reps tell Eileen they’re giving up, she usually persuades them to recommend a replacement, and also to carry on selling Avon to their friends and family. And even without anybody quitting, Eileen scouts constantly for fresh talent: she knocks on doors, hands out leaflets, and follows any other leads.

Over three years, she’s seen inside a huge variety of homes, not all of them at the cutting edge of interior design, nor even clean. But she doesn’t mind that. “You have to adapt to all sorts of people,” she says. “You have to think that even if someone may not be very clean, they still deserve the opportunity. They’re still a person that should be allowed a job. And anyway, some people who are not clean at home are spotless when they go out. And people can look, er, not wonderful but they can be a great personality. The main thing is friendliness. I still think the Avon smile is important. I often tell people when they smile, ‘Oh, you’ll be alright!’”

This afternoon, Eileen has an appointment to see a woman recommended by the outgoing rep. Carole Palmer turns out to be a promising candidate: full of energy, and infectious laughter. In her kitchen, surrounded by evidence of baking, and with the noise of a telly issuing from another room, she listens attentively to Eileen’s presentation.

“You get the first batch of brochures free. And a starter pack with fifty order bags, and £28 of products to use as samples…

Every three weeks, you take the order to your local drop-off point. The order is processed in Corby, and then it’s sent to you to deliver it… Never let people have the goods until they pay for them. If they try, say something like, ‘It’s alright, I’ll hold onto the goods until you can come and collect them.’ We don’t take cheques.”

Then she explains the commission structure, and incentive schemes. “If you sell £52 pounds of products or more in a campaign, you get 20 per cent. If you sell £100 or more, you get 25 per cent.”

“Right…” says Carole.

“Do you like winning prizes? Even when you start, you can win things with Avon. This pin is the first thing you can win. That’s for selling £52 or more in your first three campaigns… And this is such a good offer I must tell you about it. These are new lipsticks that stay on longer – and I’m very pleased about that because I’m always licking my lips and drinking tea and coffe. By ordering seven of those lipsticks you get this watch.” She points to a timepiece in the catalogue, then stretches out her hand to show the real thing, on her wrist. “Would you like to own a watch like that?” Carole leans forward for a closer look: “Wow!”

Suddenly an alarm sounds, so Carole rises to remove a cheese scone from the oven. Then the telephone rings: answering, she tells the caller she’ll ring back.

Which specific territory is she to cover? Well, says Eileen, how far away is Eastwood Avenue? Carole, underwhelmed, sits back in her chair: “I thought this when we were on the telephone. I thought, I bet she gives me Eastwood. It’s not a nice area…”

“But it’s a good selling area. Council houses spend a lot. We’ve got a good customer list from the lady who is giving up. The history tells us there have been 40 customers out of 112 homes. Eastwood Avenue would be good sales for you.”

Carole pauses to think. “OK, I’ll try it.”

If you’re not an Avon customer, it might come as a surprise that the company even exists. After all, decades have passed since the celebrated “Ding Dong!” TV campaign fixed Avon in the public consciousness, and unlike its retailing competitors, Avon enjoys no visible presence on the high street.

In retail – or internet – sales, customers must actively go looking for products; but with direct sales, products find customers. At Avon, the key to this process is the brochure, delivered to customers by reps. Some 600m are printed each year, in 12 languages. Britain accounts for 56m, used to support 18 separate selling campaigns (one every three weeks). The current issue, Brochure 3, has a Valentine’s theme. On the cover, a woman sits cross-legged in lilac bra and knickers, grinning beneath a shower of rose petals; the first category on the contents page is “Valentine’s treats”, which include Skin-So-Soft shaving products (to help you be “a super smoothie” on Valentine’s Day). If you wonder what these smell like, just rub your wrist over the “fragranced” page. Immediately following this seasonal offering, in Brochure 3, the categories are fragrance, haircare, toiletries, skincare, make-up, lingerie, jewellery and accessories, and “family” (soft toys, videos, pencil cases). And directly below the contents appears Avon’s promise, in bold type, to replace or refund any purchase. “No quibbles, no hassle. Why not order today?”

Avon’s British headquarters are in Northampton, on the banks of the river Nene. There are two buildings. One, on the riverbank, holds offices. The other, looming monstrously behind it, is the factory where workers dressed in overalls and white hats breathe a heady aroma of sweetly scented chemicals and feed a constant supply of raw materials into heavy industrial machinery. Ingredients with a total value of £25m a year are mixed in enormous vats, upstairs, then run into pipes through the floor onto the production lines. To the left, robots hammer coloured powder into compacts. To the right, they press rollerballs into the tight mouths of deodorant bottles. And at far end, they fill tiny bottles with 1ml of perfume – at a rate of 40m bottles a year – seal them in blister packs of five, and dispatch them to reps for handing out as samplers.

In the lobby of the offices next door, visitors are immediately confronted by a sign, on the wall facing the door. This is Avon’s “vision statement”, which addresses the company specifically to the needs of women . Upstairs, the office of the president is decorated in a style that can only be described as feminine: the sofas are pink, the curtains flouncy. Jerry McDonald, in the sober suit and tie of a trained accountant, looks a teeny bit out of place – but then, he only took over as president last month, following the retirement of his female predecessor. He’s had little time to redecorate – or perhaps he believes to do so would be against the spirit of Avon’s vision statement.

The first thing I ask Jerry – it’s not only the ladies who go by first names at Avon – is about branding. Sophisticates flicking through Avon’s catalogue for the first time, tend to gasp because the prices are so low. That’s not to say they will buy Avon products, because some people actually prefer luxury goods to be expensive. (That’s why cosmetics enjoy some of the highest margins in the retail sector.) Presumably aware of the chilling indifference of these snobs, Avon announces every so often that it intends to take the product upmarket; but in this project it is hampered by the need to retain the customers it already has. Jerry stoutly defends the brand: “It’s not cheap and cheerful. We invest heavily in research and development. People buy from us because of value and quality.”

One mechanism for keeping abreast of customer’s views is the Presidents Council, drawn from the sizeable pool of representatives whose sales record qualifies them for membership of the Presidents Club, and various incentive schemes which that entails. Members of the council decide on all sorts of things, from product design and incentive schemes for reps. “The council keeps us informed, telling us if free gifts will appeal to people. It’s all about keeping in touch with the customers: we have to see what they think – and also whether the reps are motivated.” Being self-employed, the reps can’t be pushed around; and to a company which relies on achieving vast numbers of sales the importance of keeping them happy is impossible to overstate. Jerry seems delighted that just barely half of all his Avon ladies manage to deliver new orders with each campaign – but that’s because half of 160,000 is still a substantial number.

“Much of my time is spent motivating people. I’ve just been in contact with our top 50 representatives, talking to them myself. And to hear their unbridled glee and satisfaction is incredible. We’re all in need of recognition – you, me, everybody.

Back in Peterborough, I hear much the same from Eileen Eileen, whose next appointment, this afternoon, is with an existing representative whose recent sales record has nudged her into the Presidents Club. “Congratulations, Wendy” she says. “You’re number 26 on my list of nearly 500 ladies. Thanks for all your hard work and support. I really appreciate it, and so does Avon. But we want to help you to develop further. So tell me, how have you managed to do so well?

“Well, the product sells itself, really. You just go out there and give them the catalogue. Bubble bath and shower gel, I can sell buckets and buckets of the stuff. And bras: a lot of ladies with large boobs buy from me.”

Slightly more difficult, with an elderly client base, is selling make-up. But Wendy Fox has a cunning strategy. “With make-up, my daughter comes along with her face made up, and a lot of ladies buy what she’s wearing, for their grandchildren or neices.”

Eileen is impressed, but all the same she offers Wendy advice on increasing sales still further. For example, if customers look uncertain about a new product, Wendy should try the egg-cup test. “You ask the customer ‘Have you got an egg cup?’ Then you leave them a sample so they can try it.”

What’s more, Wendy should keep trying to find new customers. Some may seem sceptical at first, but that can be overcome, Eileen insists. “People sometimes think, ‘Oh, Avon, that’s what other people have, not me.’ So I say to them, ‘Well, you wash your hair, don’t you? You have a bath?’

“And remember, people change. If you haven’t been to a house for some months, try again. Say, ‘You haven’t had a look at the brochure for a while…’ Because someone that used to go out to work and buy expensive products – after she’s had a baby, she might want to buy a quality product at a better price. If they say, ‘I’ve already told you I don’t want you to call, then fair enough.”

“I’ve had one lady tear the catalogue in half!” says Wendy, clearly amazed that anybody could do such a thing.

Eileen, equally amazed but conscious of the presence of a reporter, swiftly changes tack. “Another idea would be to hold parties.”

“Yes,” says Wendy. “I was hoping to do that – now that the living room is tidy. I will give it a damn good try.”

A day in the life of an Avon lady

In the mornings, Jeanette Campkin works as IT assistant at a local school. But in afternoons, and at weekends, she says, “I do Avon.” Like many others, Jeanette started “doing Avon” because, having moved home – from Shropshire to Northampton – she wanted to build a new circle of friends. Having accomplished that, she progressed to membership of the President’s Club, winning numerous prizes in recognition of her achievements, including a vast selection of crystalware in the dresser that dominates her sitting room.

Most of Jeanette’s customers are located on the smart estate where she lives with her husband and two children. (But not all of them. She once had a customer on the far side of Newport Pagnell: they met at the motorway service station to exchange cosmetics for cash.) Today’s first delivery is to Melanie, who works at home as a hairdresser. In the lobby, standing on the doormat, Jeanette hands over a white paper bag of Avon products, and Melanie pays her. Then Jeanette offers Melanie a spray of some new perfume. “Hmm, nice,” says Melanie, waving her wrist by her nose. But she slightly degrades this praise by adding: “I like anything… I’ll always have a sniff.”

But each customer is different. With the next one, Jeanette does not make the mistake of offering a sample. She knows that Cindy prefers to make up her own mind from reading the brochure closely. But Cindy – unlike Melanie – invites Jeanette inside, offering a seat in the living room and demonstrating the electronic song-and-dance routine of a pair of teddy bears perched on her sofa. The sale, worth £7, is completed in seconds, but sometimes Jeanette chats with Cindy for half an hour, even if her children are waiting in the car outside. “I don’t think of my ladies as ‘customers’. I think of them as friends.” (Cindy, who “did Avon” in 1968, greets this observation with a smile of approval.)

Finishing at Cindy’s, Jeanette drives to another street on the smart estate to collect orders from the doorsteps. At the first house, there’s no brochure, so she rings the bell and waits, to no avail. Taking from her pocket a printed sheet listing all her customers, she draws a line beneath this one: a reminder that she must return. At the next house, the brochure lies secure from rain inside a plastic sleeve. (“I always give it a shake, because I don’t like spiders.”) But the customer has ordered nothing this time. Next: an order for sun lotion and foundation, worth £7.99. After that, an order for eyeshadow (£2.50). At the fifth house, again, there’s no brochure. Altogether this street has taken ten minutes, and earned Avon £10.49. “Not bad!” she says. “That’s a pound a minute!”

2580 words. First published 10 February 01. © FT Magazine