Not Your Mother's Tupperware Parties

You groan as another dreaded invitation arrives in your e-mail inbox. A good friend has agreed to throw a party to sell kitchen gear. Lucky you, you've landed on her invite list.

Like many of you out there, I have a love/hate relationship with these types of parties to sell a certain product. There's the promise of some socializing, a glass of wine, some cheese and crackers, a break from the family. All good things, right? But then there's the silent pressure to buy. I know my friends won't renounce our friendship if I walk out of their house without plunking down a single dollar. But everyone else is buying and I'm not going to be the chump who doesn't.

The truth of the matter is these types of home-based, direct-selling parties are all the rage these days. They've been going on since the 1970s when I can remember my mother going to a Tupperware party here and there. Today home selling parties, known as "party plans" in the sales world, represent nearly 70 percent of all face-to-face sales, according to the Direct Selling Association.

But these aren't your mother's Tupperware parties anymore. Small entrepreneurs have steadily tapped into this type of selling to get their products out to the masses and to avoid the overhead cost of opening a retail shop.

Michelle Woods, co-inventor of Petal Beauty products, generates 75 percent of her sales from "Petal Parties," where her make-up and beauty line is laid out on a dining room table for party goers to buy. What helps is her prices are reasonable and she tries to make sure there's no pressure to buy. Woods, who makes much of her merchandise in her home along with her New York-based business partner, stands out of the way, ready to demonstrate the product if asked. She says these types of parities have worked for her business because party goers can buy a small $10 lip gloss or shell out as much as $20 for a body polish.

"I really just want people to come and check out our stuff," Woods says. "Sure, it's fun to sell it but I do like the fact that it just gets our name out there."

Melissa Emerick's Bella Designs jewelry has had similar success, with 40 percent of her sales coming from what she calls "trunk shows." Like Woods, she also stays in the background, casually mingling with attendees rather than pitching a hard sell. Her success has also come from offering reasonably priced jewelry that's unique. Pieces range from $8 for a pair of earrings to $125 for a necklace.

"I really think that the personal contact that people feel when they come to a trunk show in person connects them with that piece of jewelry," Emerick told me. "Versus walking into a Nordstrom."

I've felt good about buying from both of these women because, well, what woman doesn't need some new make-up and jewelry from time to time? But also because I feel good about supporting small, women-owned businesses. And Emerick often uses some of the proceeds from the party to make a charitable donation, another way to make party goers feel good about their purchase.

So how do you decide which parties to go to, especially knowing there's a good chance you'll be pulling out your checkbook? Here's some advice from my own experience, as well as friends' experiences:

-- Only go to parties where you know the host and a few friends. It just makes it a more enjoyable socializing experience.

-- Know a little about what's going to be sold. Most businesses and small entrepreneurs have Web sites where you can check out some of the merchandise beforehand. Only go to parties where you know they're selling something you need or want.

-- If you don't think you need something for yourself, think about gifts. I did a big chunk of my Christmas shopping at both the Bella Designs and Petal parties in early December. The receipients liked the fact that the gifts came from local women and they were unique.

-- Keep an open mind. Friends have told me they were pleasantly surprised by the quality of what they purchased even though it was a little more expensive than what you could find in a retail store.

-- If you really don't want to spend money, then don't go. As much as the host and the entrepreneur don't want you to feel that pressure to buy, it's still there. And if you're a weakling like me, you'll succumb to the pressure.

Some favorites:

Pampered Chef: The kitchen tools company sends a representative to your house to demonstrate the products. Party goers can buy a knife for as little as 99 cents.

Kate & Libby and Just Ducky: Two custom-designed children's clothing lines with parties going on throughout the country.

Southern Living at Home: The monthly magazine started selling many of the products seen on its pages seven years ago through independent consultants throughout the country.

So what are your favorite sales parties? What are some good tips for going to these parties? Post a comment and tell me about it.

By Tania Anderson |  January 24, 2008; 3:00 AM ET General Interest
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I confess, I own a LOT of pampered chef products, and am going to a party soon to buy more. Plus, I can take my kids! Over the last ten years, I have purchased plenty of kitchen equipment, and I have liked what I got from pc best. I am not a chef, but just a mom trying to get dinner on the table. I use 60 percent of the stuff every day and the rest either weekly (baking stone for pizza one night a week) or every couple of weeks (cheese grater). I bought one thing that just sits on my self and never gets used -- the chopper. I cut up everything by hand. Maybe I should haul it out and try it again. I have gone to a few skin care parties, but at the last one I finally found the products that work for me and haven't gone back to the make-up counter since!

Posted by: jane | January 24, 2008 11:02 AM

Not all Direct Sales arrangements are structured the same. While most are aimed to reward the hostess, others a geared strictly toward providing the buyer with exceptional quality and service that she/he may not be able to find in traditional retail outlets. High end designer women's clothing, for example, can be found through ellusive sales clerks at upscale department stores or through a local Wardrobe Consulant who is trained in fit and fabrication of the garments. Knoweldge that your average shop girl just doesn't have. I've shopped this way for years (and in the interest of full disclosure, now sell this way) and wouldn't have it any other way. Great fabrics, tremendous quality and, imcomperable value!

Posted by: Vicki | January 24, 2008 11:26 AM

I have yet to attend an at-home "party plan" because friends have sponsored things that I rarely buy. I've turned down one friend's invitations twice, and frankly, I feel like a chump for not going. There's a pressure to buy that emits from the Evite too, and that's really not fair to do to your friends.

Posted by: Dunno | January 24, 2008 11:28 AM

One of the most interesting, fun and most popular parties have/is the proverbial 'sex toy party' for women. Hush-hush 20 or 30 years back, it is one of the most often held parties of the day. This news story doesn't touch upon them, perhaps by choice or simply because of the vast majority of genres out there...I can understand that.

However, more importantly, it is interesting that the DSA (Direct Selling Association), an intregal part of the direct selling/party plan world, has chosen to ignore a very significant and economic factor in the market: sexual health and sexual well being parties. As the founder and President of one (Fantasia Home Parties, USA, 24 years now), we have helped eliminate the stereotypical barriers for women to enhance their personal lives, as well their financial well being. In fact, this part of the industry has paved the way for the retail giants (i.e. drugstores, Amazon) to cash in on our pioneering efforts because they are established 'mainstreamers' FIRST, while we are still ignored/snubbed by the DSA, paid internet search engines, advertising mediums and the like. This ignorance is hurting the very people and businesses that are now making these giants even bigger.

Posted by: Rina Valan | January 25, 2008 12:14 PM

I have to agree with a post from Rina. I wish these parties were available to me many years ago when I had so many questions.

Personally, I sat through my last burping bowl and powder puff party way to many years ago. I enjoy the fun, excitement and something that I can't buy at Wal-mart or the local drug store.

As the owner and founder of Slumber Parties, I am shocked that an organization who boldly promotes direct marketing, isn't even recognizing the largest industry today. These parties are open to women to learn the things your mother didn't teach you and all done tastefully. We aren't asking women to take time away from their family to learn how to cook, apply make-up, decorate your home, etc. Instead, we are laughing, giggling and discussing ways to spice up their relationships.

Oh well, I'm sitting here at the opening of the SAG Awards (Screen Actors Guild), in which we were personally invited to give OUR gifts to the stars. What a shame, not one other Direct Selling company was there but US! Slumber Parties is rocking in Hollywood.

Posted by: Kim | January 25, 2008 10:33 PM

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Posted by: Euro Tailors | January 28, 2008 6:26 AM

I've been to one of the Petal parties and they are great. Best cheek stain, eyeshadow, and lip gloss around!

Posted by: SEF | January 29, 2008 9:36 AM

Pet's reign supreme at Shure Pets parties. No pressure to buy for yourself, but isn't it about time your pets had a say in the choice of their toys, beauty products and treats? Well they do at a Shure Pets party! They are even invited to attend!
New! Innovative and a barking good time!

Posted by: Carol | January 29, 2008 4:30 PM

Is this section for comments or advertising?

Posted by: ?? | January 29, 2008 6:26 PM

A few years ago I got suckered into a candle party. It was one of the worst times I've ever had, and I vowed to never put myself or any of my friends through that again!

Posted by: Sixy | February 5, 2008 4:10 PM

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