Everyone in the direct sales industry will tell you this. Last week, Mary Kay’s Vice President of Compliance, Laura Beitler told me on NPR’s On Point. Then Joseph Mariano, head of the Direct Selling Association said it. And then Mary Kay’s Vice President for Corporate Social Responsibility, Crayton Webb said it again, on KERA’s Think.
The direct sales industry clings hard to this line that women join Mary Kay and other MLMs “just to make a little extra money.” Maybe it’s the holidays. Or “they want to send their kid to summer camp.” The DSA has even attempted to collect data to back this up; their 2011 Industry survey revealed that 88.8 percent of direct sellers only work their businesses part-time.
There are a couple of problems with this argument.
For starters, it’s a little too convenient for me. Mary Kay promises a “lucrative full-time opportunity,” (see that claim right there in a screenshot from their website, above, red circle mine). It puts out press releases billing itself as a job creator and the answer to our unemployment woes. In fact, it’s currently pursuing recent college grads, advertising its career potential to twenty-somethings saddled with student loans and facing down a tepid job market. But as soon as we start asking how much money you can really earn in Mary Kay, the tune changes. Now it’s oh don’t worry, most of these women aren’t relying on us for their income anyway. Really? In this terrible job market that you just told us about, with all their debt and unemployment issues?
Next, there’s the issue of what the statistic doesn’t tell us. Okay, almost 90 percent of direct sellers only work their business part-time — but is that because they really just want a little extra pin money, or is that because they can’t book a full slate of parties to generate full-time work? It’s unclear.
And last, there’s the fact that almost everybody I interviewed told me that initially, they “just wanted to make a little extra money…” but once their recruiter started outlining all of the income potential before them, they wanted in, in a big way. Lynne thought it would be just a sideline — until her recruiter convinced her that she could replace her full-time income. Mary Kay knows women are coming in with this idea — but it wants to convert as many as possible to the career path, because those are the folks who buy the most product. Lane, writing over on Jezebel yesterday, was similarly skeptical until she heard her recruiter’s pitch:
I bought into the lure of easy money hook, line, and sinker. She told my coworker and me her own rags to riches tale, which included how she had kept her family afloat during her husband’s layoff. She talked about financial freedom, economic success, and then showed us her newly earned pink Cadillac. I was sold, and I was going to sell Mary Kay cosmetics to all my Goth and Grunge friends, and I was going to make a killing.
In fact, even if you make it clear that this is just going to be a hobby for you, a successful Mary Kay sales director will find ways to increase your inventory purchase. One woman I interviewed emphasized to me over and over again that her Mary Kay business was “just for fun” — she felt very strongly that she’d gotten what she wanted out of the experience and didn’t want to say a bad word against the brand. When I asked her how much inventory she bought during her orientation, she said: “$2500. That felt reasonable for me as a part-timer.” She never turned a profit.
All that aside, I think the “people join for all different reasons” defense is completely genius. It sounds so vast and grand, so overarching. When there are so many different reasons, how could we ever expect these companies to keep track of how successful their sellers really are? Who is to even say how we can define success? It gets pretty existential.
It also provides a reassuring cover for people who are struggling to make a go of their business. Rather than admitting the business is failing, they can just say “oh it’s fine! It was never going to be full-time anyway.” The company gives them an out — and nobody looks too closely at what really went wrong.
But what bugs me the most is the patronizing tone that undercuts the whole notion of women as successful business owners. What started out as powerful message about women achieving economic independence gets stripped down to silly housewives wanting some extra pin money to frivol away on… more makeup, of course! When Mary Kay wants you to buy inventory, the rhetoric is all about how you’re investing in your business, because you’re serious about your career and charging your way up their Ladder of Success. When things don’t work out, well, what did you expect? You were just shopping.