The easiest way to find a Fuller Brush man or a Tupperware party these days may be on the Web, as direct sellers rush to open the door of online commerce. Two-career couples and a booming economy have combined to make it harder for multilevel marketers to find people to be independent sales reps or, for that matter, anyone home for them to approach. The Web, however, offers a door into homes they hope won't get slammed shut.
In the past year, direct-selling stalwarts such as Avon Products, Fuller Brush Co., Nu Skin Enterprises and Tupperware Corp. have either opened or substantially upgraded Web sites. And the Michigan families that own the biggest multilevel marketing operation of them all--Amway Corp.--earlier this month launched a new Web-based venture, Quixtar. In multilevel marketing, distributors make money not only by selling product but also by signing up new distributors, gaining a percentage of their sales.
RECONNECTING WITH CUSTOMERS
The migration to the Web gives some venerable brands a chance to reconnect with consumers, said William Steele, analyst with Bank of America Securities.
"Avon in particular has done a tremendous job of improving the quality and packaging of the product, but the consumer doesn't know, because a lot of us don't have access to Avon products," Mr. Steele said. "So to put them on the Web is really an opportunity to get to know Avon again. And the same is true for Tupperware."
None of the marketers is abandoning direct selling, and all have tried to avoid alienating their independent distributors, in many cases cutting them in on the Web action. But the move to Web-based commerce clearly signals a shift in strategy that could ultimately turn the direct sellers into bigger consumer advertisers, too.
"The thing I find fascinating is the speed with which this is all taking place," said Ken Harris, consultant with Cannondale Associates, a consumer package goods consultancy. "I think [direct sellers' move to the Web] is happening faster than most people would have suspected."
HOLIDAY SALES AFFECT FUTURE SPENDING
Whether direct sellers move more of their attention to the Web could ultimately depend on the results of the upcoming holiday season.
"Among people ages 40 and up, 80% recognize our name," said Larry Gray, VP-consumer sales and marketing for Fuller Brush, which launched its own Web site (www.fullerbrush.com) last year and recently joined as a partner store on Amway's Quixtar site. "Our name is well enough known that people look us up on the Internet."
Fuller Brush's challenge is to reach people under 40, most of which have had little exposure to the company's brand or cleaning products launched by Alfred Fuller hawking brushes in 1906.
A key reason to try e-commerce is that recruiting door-to-door sales reps "remains a challenge," said Wendy Clay, VP-administration of CPAC, a marketer primarily of specialty chemicals that bought Fuller Brush in 1994.
"With the decline of the Fuller Brush people and the fact that Fuller-brand products are not available at Wal-Mart or Kmart, for us to again try to revitalize the brand over the Internet is a fantastic opportunity," Ms. Clay said.
The move to the Web by Fuller Brush has included some small forays into consumer advertising, including in-house created TV advertising on regional college football games this year, in addition to pop-up ads on America Online.
Tupperware launched its site in August as part of an "integrated direct access" plan, which also includes selling via the Home Shopping Network and mall kiosks staffed by independent reps, said a spokeswoman.
"We think the Web site will allow us to reach customers who we haven't been able to reach," the spokeswoman said.
"Use of the Web likely will lead to more advertising ultimately," she added. To date, Tupperware's only media advertising has been direct-response infomercials.
Of the direct sellers with Web presence, Avon is the biggest advertiser with $22 million in spending last year, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Plans to boost ad spending this year have been scaled back, as Avon pulled its creative account in-house from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, and reduced print advertising.
One of the biggest moves by multilevel marketers to the Web, Quixtar, plans no advertising at all, though sister company Amway does spend about $10 million a year on ads, according to CMR. Ogilvy & Mather, New York, is Amway's agency.
BREAKING THE MOLD
"We break the mold in the Web space in that our advertising is hundreds of thousands of people out there who either are interested in becoming independent business owners, or who already are and have relationships with people and are talking about [the site]," said Claire Zevalkink, director of marketing for Quixtar.
So far, Quixtar's distributors, many of them also Amway distributors, appear to be generating plenty of traffic. Quixtar was getting 10 million hits a day during its first two weeks, enough to prevent many would-be users from logging on and keep others from registering as customers as the site launched.
With global sales of $5.7 billion, Amway already is bigger than package-goods players such as Clorox Co. or S.C. Johnson & Son. But Mr. Steele doubts package-goods players have much to worry about, noting that Quixtar sells a wide range of products besides Amway, including IBM and Apple computers.
"Will [Avon] take some share from the Revlons and Maybellines? I think so," Mr. Steele said. "But I don't think Amway is going to be taking any detergent share away from Procter anytime soon."
For its part, Procter & Gamble Co., maker of Cover Girl and Max Factor cosmetics, is also stepping onto Avon's direct-selling turf via the Web with Reflect.com, which will sell a new brand of custom-formulated cosmetics starting this fall. While no agency has been assigned for Reflect.com yet, the site is expected to use broadcast, print and Internet advertising.
Holiday sales could determine whether direct sellers make a bigger commitment to the Web, said Cannondale's Mr. Harris.
"People are going to look at this [season] as an indication of whether the Internet is having a profound impact on consumer purchasing behavior or not."
Copyright September 1999, Crain Communications Inc.