Avon cosmetics saleswoman Ada Dasher has reversed her company's famed door-to-door approach. She doesn't call on her customers: They call on her.
Two years ago, the 84-year-old Ellicott City resident -- who has been selling Avon products for 41 years and is the oldest of 313 representatives in her district -- stopped driving because of her arthritis.
Rather than switch their allegiance to another Avon representative, Mrs. Dasher's clients -- 30 of them, most of whom have been with her for more than 20 years -- started picking up their own orders.
"Everybody has always been so nice to me," said Mrs. Dasher, who has two daughters, two grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. "I have heard other Avon representatives say that some people were nasty. I never had a customer who was unkind."
Susan Thompson, the sales manager for Mrs. Dasher's district, has nothing but praise for "one of the sweetest ladies" she knows.
"We wish we had a hundred more people like her," said Ms. Thompson. "She is never late with her order, and she always sends the money on time. It would be hard to fill her shoes."
Mrs. Dasher became familiar with the business side of Avon when she delivered orders for her daughter, who was a representative in 1953. "My daughter had moved in with me; she was pregnant and sick, and I helped her with the Avon deliveries," Mrs. Dasher said.
Eventually, her daughter -- who was unable to continue selling for Avon -- suggested that her mother, who had recently become widowed, take over the Ellicott City area. She had 25 customers at the time.
Mrs. Dasher took her advice, venturing into the courthouse, the drugstores and "all the business places in Ellicott City." In addition, she got permission to expand her service into the Gwynn Acres development, thereby increasing her client list.
Dorothy Burgess, 55, moved to Gwynn Acres in 1963 and, after hearing about Mrs. Dasher from a neighbor, started placing orders with her the following year.
Through the years, the two women have shared "bits and pieces" about friends and family, and Mrs. Burgess says they have become good friends -- though they have never indulged in lengthy conversations.
"A lot of people would offer me coffee, but I didn't want to take too much of their time," said Mrs. Dasher.
"Other people wanted to take over the area, but she has been such a faithful Avon lady," said Mrs. Burgess. "Once she had broken her wrist. And another time, she had fallen on the ice when leaving her house. She was in a cast for a while, and she still delivered the orders. It's unbelievable.
"She has never made a math error in all of the years I have known her. And some of my orders are sometimes two or three pages long."
Such dependability and determination enabled Mrs. Dasher to increase her clientele, at one point, to 135 customers.
"I would leave the [Avon] books, and people would pick them up," Mrs. Dasher said. "After they got used to my routine, they started placing orders. . . . It more or less sold itself."
Earning points for certain amounts of sales each year, Mrs. Dasher has been awarded certificates of merit by Avon and prizes, including vacuum cleaners, room fans, silver sets, dishes and a punch bowl.
Among Mrs. Dasher's prized possessions are 16 old-fashioned, porcelain figurines that she has on display in her home. To receive a figurine, Ms. Thompson said, a representative must sell $8,500 worth of merchandise. Mrs. Dasher earned her last doll three years ago.
Her most recent award is a certificate for "the 1994-1995 President's Recognition Program," acknowledging that she had reached $4,500 in sales during that period -- which isn't even halfway over.
During the Christmas season -- when her sales peak -- Mrs. Dasher's kitchen table is cluttered with bags of Avon merchandise that she carefully inspects.
When asked what she enjoys most about selling for Avon, she replied without hesitation, "Meeting people." But she also likes her products.
"I can see all of these pretty things that come in," said Mrs. Dasher. "I can open them and look at everything. . . . I can hardly wait till the next book comes out."