Door-to-door: hard grind with sparse benefits

May 14, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Sun Staff Writer

Door-to-door selling isn't what it used to be, even for the companies that still do it.

Peter Black, director of sales and marketing for Electrolux, acknowledges the decline in door-to-door business but says Electrolux will stay on the street because that's still what works best.

Even so, the Electrolux door-to-door sales force has dropped from 40,000 at its peak in the 1940s to about 10,000 today.

"Times and people change," he said. "They don't want the hard work and the discipline. People can't handle the strain on their ego."

Fuller Brush, whose door-to-door salesmen once swarmed the country, now has about 18,000 "independent contractors" selling its home cleaning and personal care products from their homes. "Independent" is a euphemism for no benefits.

All but a few salesmen in the industry get no health or pension benefits, paid vacation time or sick leave. Electrolux does

contribute up to 4 percent to a salesman's 401K retirement plan after he's been on the street for a year, and some with long tenure, such as Big Mike McCarthy, get health insurance.

The Kirby Co. of Cleveland, Electrolux's main competitor on the street, still has thousands of salesmen and furnishes the main competition for Electrolux on the street.

"We're still out there," said Jim Salk, director of sales and marketing, of the 15,000 door-to-door sales people Kirby has in 40 countries. Kirby sells about a half-million units a year at an average of $1,300.

And the Avon Lady is still calling, although the number going door to door is declining rapidly.

"We do a lot of telemarketing and we sell through our brochures and in the workplace," said Nancy Glaser, an Avon spokeswoman at company headquarters in New York City. "I don't know how many are still going door to door, but it's relatively few."

Avon has more than 1.7 million sales people in 119 countries -- including 415,000 in the U.S. -- and grosses about $4 billion a year.

It's the largest direct-marketing company in the world, and has traveled far from the day in 1886 when Mrs. P. F. E. Albee of Winchester, N.H., pioneered the door-to-door Avon method.

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