Americans don't throw enough parties -- not enough Tupperware parties, at least -- to satisfy the Kissimmee, Fla.-based company.
To cope with consumers' increasingly busy schedules, Tupperware North America began experimenting this month with direct sales by telephone or mail in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Potential customers can order from catalogs without attending the company's well-known demonstration parties.
Tupperware sells plastic food containers, kitchenware and other household products. Rather than selling through stores, Tupperware has sold nearly all of its products through parties.
That will not change, Tupperware officials said, but the parties needed a boost.
"This program can't replace our traditional party business," said Craig Mansfield, director for direct marketing and sales support at Tupperware North America. "It's intended to be an add-on on top of it. The traditional party process is far more powerful than any catalog could ever be in getting Tupperware out to the consumer."
If the test program proves successful in the Northeast, Tupperware would eventually expand it to the entire country over at least two years.
"A lot of people won't go to a Tupperware party. That means a lot of people don't even see the Tupperware product," said Bonita Austin, a household products analyst at Wertheim Schroder & Co., a New York brokerage.
The new program, called Tupperware Direct to You, is the latest attempt to boost sales in the United States, where revenues have lagged behind other countries. Other strategies have included an updated party format, a special catalog for door-to-door fund-raising sales and direct shipping to customers in some cities.
For several years Tupperware has had trouble recruiting new sales consultants and customers in the United States to keep pace with the population. The company says its biggest challenge is the large number of working women, which lowers the pool of potential party-throwers as well as clients.
Through all of these changes, the company has been careful not to shut out its powerful sales force, which numbers about 29,000 independent representatives in the United State.
In Direct to You, consultants supply all the names for Tupperware's mailing lists, paying the company 50 cents a name to defray part of its costs. The catalogs come with a "personal" letter from the consultant, who continues to handle all questions and service.
Consultants receive their standard commissions for orders placed by telephone or mail.
No results are available yet, but Tupperware is confident enough to plan an expansion of the test area in February. Mansfield would not say what cities will be chosen, except that they must be served by Tupperware's direct delivery service, called Tupperware Express. Tupperware Express was first projected to be complete nationwide in 1989 but that date has been postponed until 1993.
Direct to You is modeled after programs that have been successful at other companies, Mansfield said, such as Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc. in Dallas.
Like Tupperware, Mary Kay found that consultants were mailing catalogs to customers on their own. Mary Kay took over the mailings so they would be consistent and professional, and also to find out who its clients were, information it lacked before.
Before the program began in 1986, the company routinely lost clients when a sales consultant quit or moved, said James Camey, manager of direct support services at Mary Kay. Because of the direct-mail program, he estimates that more than 350,000 customers have been stopped from dropping out.
"It's been very important to the company," Camey said.
Austin said Direct to You is precisely what Tupperware needs to improve its lagging U.S. sales. The only drawback is the delay in installing Tupperware Express, she said.
"Aside from that one negative, I think the way they run the business is a lot smarter," she said.