From Doorbells to the Digital Age: The Modernization of Party Plan

Jun 5, 2021
By DSJ Staff

The internet wasn’t a thing in 1931; if it were, it’s possible that former Fuller Brush Company employees Frank Stanley Beveridge and Catherine O’Brien could have started Stanley Home Products on a platform like Etsy.

What did exist ninety years ago—and what still is “a thing” today—is the front door. Visionaries Beveridge and O’Brien, together with Norman Squires, conceptualized the front door as the basis for building one of twentieth century’s most iconic direct selling brands.

During the first few decades of the twentieth century, Fuller Brush, Electrolux, and direct selling brands like Southwestern and Avon relied on door-to-door sales for promoting and selling their products. In the late 1930s, however, salesman Squires’ frustration over door-afterdoor negative responses led to the idea of gathering together “customers in a block or neighborhood” for a product demonstration.

Squires presented the idea to Beveridge and, in 1938, Stanley Home Products changed selling forever. People became comfortable with walking through that front door and the “home party,” an adaptation of the Squires’ concept, gained traction. Product demonstrations could now be done in a home among friends and neighbors of the host. The new sales method proved a success, making millions of dollars for the company and attracting thousands of women to direct selling.

Three women who joined Stanley Home Products were Brownie Wise, Mary C. Crowley, and Mary Kay Ash, all of whom employed the home party in later direct selling ventures. Wise joined Tupperware and further popularized the model, shaping it into what we know today as party plan. Crowley founded Home Interiors & Gifts in 1957 and by the mid-1980s her company was achieving $400 million in annual sales, the equivalent of $1 billion in today’s money. And in 1963, Ash founded the eponymous Mary Kay Cosmetics—now Mary Kay Inc.—one of the largest and most successful brands in the world.

Since it was first introduced, the party plan model has been a popular sales method, and many of today’s most successful brands continue in the “home party” tradition. But modernization is underway to continue its appeal across new generations of direct sellers.

Today, people look to Etsy as an engine of person-to-person sales, but the pandemic has proven that even virtual sales are better when there is a personal touch—something that Etsy can never provide. Now, with pandemic-induced shifts in consumer behaviors and preferences, direct sellers are embracing new opportunities to empower their salesforces and reach customers in ways that strike a harmonious tone with the front door and the doorbell chimes of yore.

Norman Squires is credited with conceptualizing the party plan model.

A Mantra to Modernize

In its fifteenth year of business, Initials, Inc., a fashion and lifestyle company offering handbags  and home organization items for women, underwent a restructuring with “modernization” as its anthem. It was April 2019, and CEO Britney Vickery and her executive team went through all company policies and procedures with the intention of rejuvenating her business by rejecting anything that sounded like it was from the 1980s.

“We felt it was time to reimagine party plan and what it meant to us, what direct sales meant to us, and what our business meant to us,” Vickery says. “How do we take the core tenets that are great but modernize in a way that feels right and fresh to us? What do we do that does not feel modern? What are we doing that does not march us into the next chapter of Initials, Inc.?”

The long-standing compensation plan was at the top of the list of items to review. While the changes were internally driven, the executive team did consult with leaders in the field. The end result was a simplified plan that went from nine recognition levels to three that include these titles: representative, senior representative, and executive representative.

For Vickery, modernizing meant simplifying, and simplicity required a plan that could be explained on a piece of paper no larger than a cocktail napkin. Today, 10-15 percent of Initials’ field consists of senior representatives, 10 percent are executive representatives, and the remainder are representatives.

“Did we lose some leaders? Yes, we did,” says Vickery. “But restructuring landed us in the right place, a place of simplicity, allowing us to show up in the marketplace.”

The language of party plan was also in the process of being updated pre-pandemic to reflect a business opportunity for the current times. For instance, some field leaders believe consultant ages a party plan company, that it is not fresh and young or appealing to the newest direct sellers. In addition, many companies are no longer using the phrase hostess program. Instead, they are using customer referral program, VIP program, or Insiders’ Program.

“Last year, we changed Hostess Program to Insider Program,” says Brian Matney, Director of Sales Strategy & Analytics at fashion and home accessories company Thirty-One Gifts. “The younger group really enjoys the word insider, but some of our lifetime consultants want us to go back to using hostess. We are holding course with insider as we believe that keeps us relevant and lays the foundation for dabbling with the affiliate program as well.”

Other rewording across party plan companies includes changing direct sales to affiliate marketing; recruiting to sponsoring; and party to event. Not even the word business is a popular choice.

“I don’t know of anyone who says, ‘I want a business’ any longer,” says Vickery. “They want a ‘side gig,’ a ‘side hustle,’ or ‘vacation money.’ They have a nineto-five job; they want something that is going to be fun, easy, and rewarding.”

The Pandemic Impact

In June 2020, just a few months after the first surge in the US, Jesse Stamm, formerly of Pampered Chef, noted that the year had one common theme— adaptation. Party plan companies were having to continually adapt to new circumstances and new challenges coming from both external and internal sources such as consumer demand shifts.

“The reality of what is happening can be described with one word: unprecedented,” Stamm says. “None of us can say we have ever done this before.”

Coming into 2020, about 90 percent of Traveling Vineyard’s business took place at in-home tasting events. Founder and Chief Grape Stomper Rick Libby says the impact of the pandemic was immediately felt at his business, which sells wines and wine accessories. His company’s consultants, called Wine Guides, had to learn to market online through Zoom, Personal Shopping, Facebook events, and email. “When the pandemic took root, we immediately pivoted the business to make it easier for our consultants to conduct virtual events and operate solely online,” says Libby.

The first thing Traveling Vineyard did to help consultants was to offer free shipping on select purchases, which Libby says immediately energized consultants and resulted in a large spike in sales. The company then focused on business tools, creating special training for those who were not natively using platforms like Facebook and Zoom, and developing a set of timely and informative digital marketing assets to help consultants utilize Facebook events for Sip and Shops and texting to customers.

Keeping morale high during the pandemic was a priority, and the company worked to make things easy and provide a positive space. It offered the Digital Success Kit, which included everything needed to launch a Traveling Vineyard business online. The kit came with a lower price ($59 compared with $99 and $179 Success Kits), and all those who started as “digital” consultants were provided a path to upgrade and receive more materials for in-person tastings.

Sisters-in-law Mary C. Crowley, founder of Home Interiors & Gifts, and Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, both used the party plan model in their businesses.

“Our business thrives on the connections made at in-person events, whether that is simply nurturing repeat wine customers or growing teams.” Libby says. “In fact, most of our recruiting happens from in-person tasting events. We have steadily grown our consultant base, but we know that the return of in-person events will re-energize recruiting.”

Traveling Vineyard is currently implementing a hybrid approach based on each state’s regulations and the comfort level of the consultant and their party host. It has communicated suggested safety measures to its field, including a preference for outdoor events with limited capacity and spacing.

“They are so ready for connection and communication now,” Libby says. “They are burned out on Facebook events and are ready to be back in-person sharing wine with the world, and spending time with their teams.”

Like Traveling Vineyard, the loss of the in-person connection was initially a challenge for Usborne Books & More. But as Chief Sales & Marketing Officer Heather Cobb explains, the salesforce did not experience the downtime other companies did because the shift to online began prior to COVID19. The company was prepared for this unprecedented moment because of investments into IT and warehouse infrastructure, which allowed it to meet customer demand and provide the best customer service.

We have steadily grown our consultant base, but we know that the return of in-person events will re-energize recruiting."

—Rick Libby, Founder, Traveling Vineyard

Tupperware legend Brownie Wise popularized the home party in the 1950s.

However, while the company made the change to several successful virtual events, Cobb says leaders have realized over the past year how much energy being together brings to the field and to the home office.

“While it is not ideal, nor our first choice for our large events, we have made every effort to make our virtual options exciting and rich in content to continue to provide the vision casting, motivation, encouragement, idea sharing, and recognition that is so valuable,” says Cobb.

According to Heidi Leist, Founder and CEO of Lemongrass Spa, her company’s challenges included supply chain shortages and delays, but the overall impact from the pandemic was positive. Sales consultants who were not doing their businesses virtually when the pandemic hit were able to successfully adapt to online marketing with the help of the corporate office, which offered training to support virtual selling. Currently, the company’s sales consultants are mostly doing Facebook, Zoom, or What’s App parties, and some texting, with a small number of consultants doing in-home events.

“We provided more digital assets to share with customers, we offered a weekly training call focused on what customers were interested in during the pandemic, and we tied in a giving back initiative to encourage community involvement,” says Leist.

Pandemic Surprises

As sometimes happens in life, when one door closes, another opens. And that was the case for several direct selling companies. In the first few months of the pandemic, when health experts put restrictions on in-person meetings, party plan leaders wondered how their businesses were going to survive if they lost the physical connection with customers. However, the mandate for the public to stay indoors led to more home cooking, and that led to an increased interest in recipes and cookware. Companies such as Pampered Chef and Tastefully Simple benefitted from a surge in families gathering for meals.

Leist says the growth Lemongrass Spa experienced during 2020 because of the shift to an online business has opened up opportunities never expected, allowing the company to impact even more lives by offering a supplemental income stream for families and a way to keep connected to like-minded people.

One change brought on by the pandemic that Libby believes will move Traveling Vineyard forward was forcing the field to become more comfortable with running their businesses online. “It’s been exciting because now we can add back into the party plan model this new avenue of virtual parties,” he says. “So essentially, these past sixteen months has forced us to discover a new avenue that should continue to pay off.”

Seeing the good in what has transpired because of—and in spite of—the pandemic is a sentiment shared by Cobb. For her, what it mostly brought was opportunity. The educational children’s books the company sells was a market sought after and deemed essential, which provided opportunities for Usborne to meet needs at every turn. In addition, the salesforce grew significantly during the pandemic, both in size and in strength.

“The heightened need for our product has provided an open door for us to share with more and more people—not only our product but our business opportunity as well,” Cobb says. “We believe that the literacy mission we support each and every day will be one that will continue beyond the pandemic and we want, and need, even more people to help spread awareness of that through our platform.”

We have an amazing opportunity to meet the customer where they are, provide the insight and information they are seeking about our products, and follow up with them after the purchase to ensure their satisfaction with their items."

—Heather Cobb, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Usborne Books

Vickery believes all that has happened in the last sixteen months has impacted her company for the better. It forced leaders to think creatively, boldly, uniquely, and highly collaboratively about every step taken. They jumped in to help the salesforce, fully supporting representatives with a complete virtual toolbox, a new digital VIP Group Power Plan, and templates to use for getting started online.

In March 2021, Initials’ ratio for engaging with customers was 90 percent via Facebook and 10 percent through in-person meetings. While the physical connection was temporarily lost, the enthusiasm is still there. Vickery has seen the energy with Initials’ new representatives increase to the point that they are completing their 40-Day Smart Start Program in just fourteen days. So while the pandemic gave rise to new challenges, it has also helped bring about a renewed can-do spirit within the company.

“It has brought overall excitement about trying new things and discovering new ways of working your business,” Vickery says. “Oftentimes, unless you are forced to try something new, most will not. This has forced our hand a bit and proven to be wildly successful.”

The Future of Party Plan

There have been lessons learned and insights gleaned over the last few years that will only serve to move party plan confidently into the future. Simplification of the comp plan and staying more attuned to the desires of younger generations will help keep a strong connection between corporate, the salesforce, and customers. The ability to meet challenges head on and shift, sometimes drastically, has proven the viability of the model for the long term.

Party plan is defined by its personal connection with customers, whether that is in a physical setting or through virtual meetings that can welcome even more people from around the globe. However, that in-person connection will always remain the heart of the model.

“We see a wonderful resurgence as people begin to safely gather in small groups,” says Libby. “Our tasting events are known for bringing people together in a fun, engaging atmosphere, and so we believe that our consultants will see a bookings boon as a result of a universal interest in reconnecting with others and getting social.”

Leist believes that the party plan model is especially strong now that it involves a hybrid approach, noting that during quarantine people learned ways to adapt quickly by using digital tools and social media to expand their reach and communicate with their customers. She believes many will be excited to go back to presentations in the home, but digital marketing will continue to be a part of an overall winning strategy.

Vickery does not see a return to pre-pandemic days at all. For her, the ratio of virtual to in-person events might never reach 50/50, but she sees that as a positive. “This means that we can reach more people, have more presence, and, hopefully, more impact. That is the goal!” she says.

Even if new sales methods, innovative technologies, or another pandemic occurs, what will always remain unchanged is the continued focus on customer attention and care. Those are, to Cobb, the backbone of party plan. The platforms may change—online versus in-person—but the foundation remains the same.

“We have an amazing opportunity to meet the customer where they are, provide the insight and information they are seeking about our products, and follow up with them after the purchase to ensure their satisfaction with their items,” Cobb says. “Other retail outlets may be able to manage one or two of those key factors well, but our party plan focuses its attention on all three. I believe this is key for continued success and the future of the industry.”

  • Features
  • June 2021