No job crisis in direct marketing

September 07, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Direct marketing -- the selling of products or services in person, usually in a customer's home -- is a job opportunity that looks more appetizing in a depressed labor market.

In a $12 billion industry in the United States, 5 million people work in direct marketing for nearly 700 companies nationwide.

According to the Direct Selling Association, nearly half of direct marketers sell home products or family-care products. All together, they make 50,000 sales calls daily.

But direct marketing is not always a job seeker's first choice. Often, you must pay for your training, work on a commission with no salary and few or no benefits, make unsolicited telephone calls and go to people's homes to try to make a sale.

Another drawback for many job seekers is that most direct marketers who sell are independent contractors, not employees.

In the best of all possible times, experts tell job seekers never to pay for a job, not even for training; to become full-time employees for a company that offers a straight salary with paid vacations and health and pension benefits; and to work in an office or factory rather than calling on people in their homes.

But this is not the best of all possible times. And, whatever the unpleasantness of direct marketing, there is one undeniable virtue: Jobs are always available. They offer the chance to make a living, to earn sales incentives, like automobiles and free trips and, possibly, to move into management.

Turnover in direct sales is high. But those who are energetic and resourceful, good communicators, willing to work long hours and believable in their presentations can do well -- even in a recession.

Myra Thompson, a direct marketer in Los Angeles for World Book Educational Products, has no complaints about her profession.

"I was a teacher for 10 years," said Ms. Thompson, who went to work for World Book when she was a divorced single parent. "I was a good teacher, but I was paid less than some terrible teachers and worked twice as hard. When I left teaching in 1977, I was making $15,000 a year. Within one year of selling for World Book, I made $18,000 and became a full-time sales representative with health benefits, profit-sharing and a company car."

In 1990, her top year, she made $96,000. "This year, I'll make in the $60,000 range," Ms. Thompson said. "If you have the capacity to work hard, there should be no ceiling on what you can earn. But there's no way to increase a set salary."

World Book Inc., in Elk Grove Village, Ill., publishes encyclopedias and other education products. It has 100 field offices, 500 employees and a 35,000-member sales force.

Like other direct marketing firms, World Book is always looking for more salespeople -- as many as 50,000 more right now, it says.

Part-time employees who work 10 to 15 hours a week for World Book generally earn $10,000 to $15,000 a year in commissions. Full-time workers earn $30,000 to $100,000 a year. Trainees get a supplemental income, and management comes from the sales ranks.

"We never have enough people to sell our products," said Jan M. Gilmore, group president of World Book's eastern division. "The only investment our new people make is in a sales kit that costs $35, which is reimbursed after they make five sales. We give them a chance to come in and learn the business as fast as they want. We teach them how to sell, and within two weeks they can be selling."

Gilmore, whose division generates $150 million in sales annually, says that training is free and that experienced salespeople work with new hires. Leads come from referrals, schools and presentations. After 12 months, salespeople are qualified for management training.

"When times are tight, as they are now, I would want to have skills that always are in demand," Mr. Gilmore said. "If you can sell, there always will be a job."

"Direct marketing is a wonderful entry-level job that doesn't require an education," said Robert L. Grimes, who has been with World Book in Anniston, Ala., since 1975. He has a bachelor's degree in marketing and has done graduate work.

He makes $50,000 a year and says "it's a joy to help other people succeed by using your product. It's fun, you're your own boss and work your own hours."

Annette Shelstad, a branch manager in the Chicago area for the direct marketer, made $91,000 in commissions last year. But it's not just the money that elates her.

"I went to a science fair recently and bumped into a family I had sold a set of encyclopedias to," said Ms. Shelstad, who made her first sale after three days of training in 1984. "Their daughter, age 8, had won first prize for a science project. Her parents said she wouldn't have won without World Book."

The little girl was beaming with pride, Ms. Shelstad said. "And so was I."

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