"When I tell people I'm an Avon lady, everyone always laughs," said Billy Kolber-Stuart, 37, of Los Angeles, Calif., "Until they try the product. And then they become a customer. I don't know if they laugh because of the Avon part, or the lady part. But they laugh - everybody."
Most people know Avon for its Skin-So-Soft product, or its makeup and color. But Avon's product line is much broader. The company also sells jewelry, fashions, learning and educational products, home decor, and kitchenware.
"I discovered the skin care line, which is terrific," said Kolber-Stuart. "I was ordering off the Avon site, when I clicked on a link to learn more about earning opportunities. I was already recommending the product, so why not make money too?" A district sales manager explained that Avon reps don't need to go door-to-door, buy a large inventory, or pay a large fee up front. "It involved a $25 startup commitment and a one-hour meeting with district sales manager," said Kolber-Stuart, who gladly signed on. Avon has recently signed up 4.4 million independent reps, mostly younger people, to sell their newer products.
From "Ding-Dong" to "Click Here" Many remember the "Avon lady" going door-to-door selling lipsticks to happy homemakers in decades past. But today the sound of "Ding-dong, Avon calling" is rarely heard in American homes. In its 120-year history, Avon has sold through catalogs, sales reps, beauty kiosks in malls, and over the Internet.
Customers can buy over the Internet as from any online retailer, or link their relationship to a sales representative via a special site. A rep such as Kolber-Stuart provides access to a broader range of products, advice, direct delivery, samples, and other assistance virtual agents can't offer. Customers can look up items on the site by product number, or by the page on which they appear in the printed catalog.
"The tools have shifted to favor those capable of networking with friends and colleagues electronically," Kolber-Stuart said. "Before the Web, I might have said to a customer, 'Speaking of inspirational treasures, I was looking for a ceramic angel figurine for my niece, and look what I found!' Now I can say, 'Just go to youravon.com, or right to the back page of the brochure, and you'll find Celine, exquisitely hand-painted, for $19.95'."
Avon Lady to the Stars "Lots of other part-time jobs become difficult because of restricted working hours or deadlines you have to meet," Kolber-Stuart said. "Avon is entirely on your own time. You can structure it so that you are working only at night, only on weekends, only at lunch - it's totally up to you."
Kolber-Stuart built his U.S.-based business primarily via word-of-mouth over the past four years, selling about 8 hours a week. "My inner circle is spread out," he said, "so I chose to reach them by e-mail" and through his Web site.
Already a successful entrepreneur, Kolber-Stuart is thinking about taking his Avon business to the next level by focusing on groups the company hasn't targeted. "Avon is not a status brand," he said, "but the high-end skin products deserve to be one because they're better than you can get at the beauty counter, but for a lot less money." For this reason, Kolber-Stuart sees an opportunity to sell to gay men and lesbians, professional women, and residents of affluent suburban neighborhoods. A Yale alumnus with entertainment industry connections, Kolber-Stuart already counts various celebrities among his customers.
Big Figures in Figurines Selling Avon can be a nice source of supplemental income. The top 10 percent of the reps earn for themselves 40 percent commissions - and a spot in the "President's Club." "That's a lot of lipstick," said Kolber-Stuart, a member of the club. An elite few Avon reps bring in solid six-figure incomes. Commissions climb from 10 to 50 percent with the size of the order and hit 40 percent on every order for President's Club members. Avon even pays commissions on Internet sales to customers affiliated with reps, at rates that vary depending on the size of the sale and the delivery options.
There are amusing perks too. "When you hit President's Club, you get a lovely porcelain figurine of Mrs. P.F.E. Albee, Avon's very first representative," said Kolber-Stuart. "Each year they commission a new porcelain figurine of her. I've earned three of them. They're fine collectibles."
The Pitch for Skin-So-Soft Avon reps and Skin-So-Soft fans go to great lengths to find one another. "I once had to climb 225 stairs to get to this woman's tree house at the top of some Los Angeles canyon. I haven't been back up since, but I'm sure when she runs out of the Skin-So-Soft she ordered, I'll hear from her."
"Here's what you need to know about Skin-So-Soft," Kolber-Stuart said, doing what he does best. "The original Skin-So-Soft product is a bath oil. It's remarkably popular, and people use it for all sorts of things. Most notably, hundreds of thousands of people swear it's the best mosquito repellent ever. Avon isn't allowed to sell it as that, and it's never been proven to repel insects. But the line has been expanded to include a combination sunscreen/insect repellent product called Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus. It contains an insect repellent called IR 3535, which has been used safely in Europe for 20 years. It's only available in the U.S. in this product. It's as effective as DEET, but nontoxic. It's what everyone is going to be putting on their kids this summer - and it's on sale right now!"
So if you're interested in buying or selling Avon, brush up your closing skills, apply an insect-repelling moisturizer...and dream on!