Magazine

Is Avon still calling?

  • 15 March 2016
  • From the section Magazine
Avon advert from 1960s Image copyright PA

Avon is moving its headquarters to the UK as part of an effort to reorganise its global business. Its model, based on door-to-door sales and social connections, seems to hark back to a bygone era.

Avon is synonymous with housewives and stay-at-home mothers selling cosmetics and perfumes directly to their friends and neighbours. It started life in the US but it is now shifting its HQ to Britain.

The well-known "Ding dong, Avon Calling" TV advert, used from 1954 to 1967, was one of the longest and most successful advertising campaigns in history and embedded the brand in American and British culture. In 1990, director Tim Burton used the wholesome image of the Avon lady to contrast with his gothic hero in his film Edward Scissorhands. The character, wearing a twinset and pillbox hat, tells Scissorhands she is "harmless as cherry pie".

Image copyright Alamy

Avon UK opened in 1959 and today there are about 160,000 reps in Britain, the company says. It brands itself as the "company for women" and supports projects fighting breast cancer and domestic violence.

Direct selling is still a popular option for many people looking after children or otherwise needing to work around commitments. Most sales reps are women, but about 5% are men.

"Now I'm a SAHM [stay-at-home-mother] with two young kids, I just do it around the people I see all the time - mums/childminders at my kids' schools and playgroups and my friends, neighbours and family," one Avon lady wrote on a forum on Netmums.

To become an Avon representative, you need to pay a £16 start-up fee and receive 20 brochures and order slips. Reps then buy further Avon brochures on a sliding scale - costing from about £3 for five to £8 for 50. Sales reps take home 20% commission for orders over £78 and 25% for orders over £145. They can then build their own team of sales reps and become a sales leader - earning commission that increases as the team grows. Avon now sells clothes and accessories and other brands such as Hello Kitty and Lipsy alongside its own lines.

It is possible to become rich from Avon. Debbie Davis from Sunderland became the first in the UK to earn over £1m with Avon in 2010. She signed up after being made redundant and built up an 8,000-strong team. A case like this grabs the headlines and encourages more women to sign up but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Retail consultant Catherine Shuttleworth, from getsavvy.com, guesses that many Avon reps go into it expecting only to make a little extra income rather than as a main job.

Image copyright Alamy

And some former Avon ladies have complained that continually dropping off and picking up catalogues is a hassle, while others say they lost money on the venture.

One woman pointed out that she wouldn't earn commission until she reached a certain amount of sales. "You have to pay for books, order forms, paper bags and other stationery so yes it can actually work out instead of making money you lose it," she posted on Netmums.

Avon is also facing competition for reps from a whole range of direct-selling companies, from Neal's Yard, which offers organic skincare, to Betterware with its range of household products. In 2014, Amway took over from Avon as the number one global direct sales company. Avon is attempting to fight back, launching a recruitment campaign - dubbed Project Grad-preneurs to encourage cash-strapped graduates to become the next generation of sales reps.

Avon has boasted of providing work opportunities for women since it was founded in the US in 1886. It was set up by David H McConnell, a bookseller turned entrepreneur, who realised women in the home provided an untapped workforce. The first Avon lady was a widowed mother of two - a Mrs P Albee. Thousands signed up after her in pursuit of financial independence.

The company first sold rose-scented perfume but over time expanded its range to soap, bath products and cosmetics, employing thousands of women to do door-to-door sales. It changed its name from the California Perfume Company to Avon in 1939. McConnell had named a beauty line Avon a decade before after a visit to Shakespeare's birthplace in England.

In recent years, Avon has struggled as the beauty world has gone digital. The 2014 relaunch of avon.com was the first overhaul of the website in 10 years. But social media plays a big part in how its reps now work. "Avon has always been about the social aspect as much as the business side and social networking allows more opportunities for creating connections. They can tap into local online networks," says Shuttleworth.

While door-to-door will continue to be how people think of Avon, the company is increasingly going online. Debbie, who lives near Oldbury in the West Midlands, is a mother of three. She has just started up as an Avon saleswoman and uses Twitter to generate interest.

"I'm friends with a lot of authors online so I made contact with them first and they helped me spread the word about Avon products. On my first week I generated sales of £150. Going online also helped because my Avon team leader lives two doors down, so my area was already covered for door-to-door sales."

Debbie hopes to generate a decent income from Avon and become a sales leader in the future.

Follow Claire Bates on Twitter @batesybates

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.