Like many entrepreneurs, direct sellers embrace the spirit of independence. And like industries that are built to last, direct selling has adapted and endured over the decades by preparing generations of Americans for many of the defining moments that changed the course of our nation’s history. The resilience and independence that have been intrinsic to the business for more than a century are fundamental to who we are and where we are going.
Some of the tasks ahead, such as modernizing descriptions of our opportunity, growing the relationship with the ultimate consumer, and committing to ethical business practices and rigorous self-regulation, we will face together.
Every direct selling company has a hand in building the reputation for our way of doing business. Our companies, united with DSA, are making channel-wide efforts to ensure that our customers, sellers, potential sellers, policymakers, investors, and the public at large understand that—in today’s market, this is Direct Selling.
Direct selling is a go-to-market strategy that is an alternative channel to retail. Individual independent distributors market and sell products and services to consumers in direct selling.
Some of the world’s most storied companies and recognizable brands market today’s leading-edge products through the direct selling channel – these include jewelry, cookware, nutritionals, cosmetics, housewares, energy, insurance, and much more.
The direct selling channel differs from broader retail in how it gets great products and services into the hands of consumers. It’s an avenue where entrepreneurial-minded Americans can represent the products they love, while they work independently to build a business on their own terms.
Consultants forge strong personal relationships with prospective customers, primarily through face-to-face discussions and demonstrations. In this age of social networking, direct selling is a strategy that many marketers of consumer products find more effective than traditional channels.
Millions of Americans from every state, congressional district and community in the United States choose direct selling because they enjoy a company’s products or services and want to purchase them at a discount. Some decide to market the products they love to friends, family, and others and earn commissions from their sales. The most successful consultants may decide to expand their businesses by building a network of direct sellers.
Eighty-nine percent of direct sellers decide to work part-time, offering busy parents, caregivers, military spouses, veterans, and others flexibility and work-life balance. As advancements in technology create a new American economy whose foundation is built upon the entrepreneurial spirit and independent work, historically, direct selling has been one of the oldest ways millions of Americans have chosen to work independently—long before the advent of the Internet. Direct selling has a long history of substantially contributing to the economy and supporting the millions of Americans involved.
An Independent Salesforce
Direct selling is unique among retail channels in how it markets products and services to customers. Instead of relying on traditional retail outlets or online marketplaces, direct selling companies maintain a salesforce of millions of independent workers.
Direct selling in the United States achieved record highs in 2020: retail sales reached $40.1 billion, independent sellers numbered 7.7 million, and customers totaled over 41.6 million. Independent work adds value to the economy, society, and for those who choose to pursue it. Real estate, insurance, travel and technology companies, and well-known brands rely on independent workers to deliver products and services to consumers.
Independent direct selling consultants earn commissions on sales but work for themselves. They set their hours, create their marketing plans, determine their sales team goals and how to mentor those within it, and decide how to best serve their customers.
Millions of independent direct sellers see advantages in working for themselves, especially in having a chance to build and grow their own business and run it how they see fit. The freedom and flexibility to set their own working hours draws all types of people to direct selling, including parents with young children, students, caregivers, retirees, military spouses, and many more.
Startup costs for most direct selling companies are minimal compared with franchises and other small businesses—a few hundred dollars or less. Direct selling doesn’t rely on overhead like real estate, facilities, equipment, or traditional advertising that can add tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to the expense of running a business.
Direct Selling: A Century+ American Tradition
Leaders in the business know that direct selling has been a unifying thread in America’s cultural fabric. Generations of direct sellers—from the Yankee Peddler to the virtual social selling parties of the COVID-19 era—have adapted, endured, and innovated to survive and thrive.
After the Civil War ravaged the South, many young men, unable to afford higher education, sold bibles door-to-door to go back to school someday.
In 1910, before the start of World War I , ten companies joined together to form the Agents Credit Association—the predecessor to the Direct Selling Association—to fight for the interests of the 93,000 traveling salespeople across the United States.
The Great Depression, followed by World War II, tempered a generation of resilient individuals who would go on to found and represent the legendary direct selling companies that continue today. Direct selling was an important business opportunity during the post-war boom for American women seeking new ways to contribute to their family’s financial security.
The pandemic provided clear evidence that the name direct selling solicits a positive response from our consumers, sellers, and individual sellers everywhere. As the world shut down outside, families turned to the direct selling channel to shop local, stock their pantries and closets, and support their friends and neighbors who sell the products they need. DSA’s numbers compiled for 2020 sales and salespeople are eye-popping reminders of the value of direct selling.
Types of Direct Selling
At the same time, and even with last year’s success, some names and terms associated with direct selling raise questions about how we fit into the landscape of legitimate business. Renewed growth has brought with it renewed questions, and sometimes skepticism, about our business model.
Most, if not all, skepticism is unfounded and borne of misunderstanding.
The terms network marketing, multilevel, and even door-to-door contribute to the misunderstanding that can conjure up a less-than-flattering perception of direct selling. Even as direct selling benefits the country and the economy, the nomenclature and insider terminology associated with the business model can contribute to confusion about who we are and how we operate.
Direct Selling includes the following methods of selling:
Direct selling companies whose sellers primarily use parties to market and sell their products are called party plan companies. Parties have moved beyond the homes of hosts to include online parties. A unique attribute of party plan companies is the role of the host; their incentive to host a party typically includes free and discounted products.
Direct selling companies using this model have sellers marketing their products or services through individual, one-to-one demonstrations and other personal contact arrangements. Individuals also employ online platforms to engage in this type of direct selling.
Direct selling companies that have their sellers book appointments or knock on doors to visit their customers in their homes.
With the rise of social media platforms, direct selling companies are empowering their sellers to share their experiences with their products and services to help generate new leads and sales.
Direct selling companies that offer products and services valued at more than $500 have been called big-ticket companies. These include home appliances, vacuums, and kitchen products.
A Model for Self-Regulation
DSA’s self-regulatory program—the Direct Selling Regulatory Council (DSSRC)—was established in 2019 and is operated under the auspices of the Better Business Bureau’s National Programs. Working in tandem with the DSA Code of Ethics, DSSRC helps ensure consumers and salespeople can have the utmost confidence in the direct selling business model.
DSSRC independently monitors earnings and product claims disseminated by all members of the direct selling community, regardless of a company’s DSA membership status.
DSSRC has performed. The International Council for Advertising Self-Regulation (ICAS) honored the program in June 2021 with the Best Sectoral Initiative Award. The Council gave the honor for the program’s outcomes that met the award’s highest bar of achievement in terms of tangible results and relevance and for how the DSSRC encourages ethical and responsible marketing and advertising practices.
Today, company leaders and senior executives from across the globe are joining forces in an unprecedented effort to reinforce what those of us who participate in direct selling already know. This global channel, whatever its name, is a positive and increasingly important force for individual sellers and consumers everywhere.
“Our products are the foundation of our distributors’ businesses—Herbalife Nutrition consumers love our products. They also love the experience and community that our distributors build around the product. It’s a natural intersection that provides exposure to the business opportunity.” —Randall Popelka, Vice President, Global Government Affairs Herbalife Nutrition
“As the retail economy transforms, businesses must do better to understand their ultimate consumer. As direct sellers, we must navigate and foster the relationship between our brands and customers without doing a disservice to those most important relationships with our independent sellers.” —Danny Lee, President & CEO, 4Life Research
“Our language, a true by-product of our history, contributes to the myths and misunderstandings surrounding us. Language that is easy to understand helps all audiences—including regulators who are confused by our terminology—better understand who we are and what we do.” —Mark Statsny, Chief Sales Officer Scentsy
“Compensation plan experts joined DSA at meetings with Federal Trade Commission officials to discuss the finer points of multilevel compensation plans that often leave regulators focused on a plan’s complexities. These officials reason that if they can’t understand the plans, then a typical consumer can’t understand them. And if a typical consumer can’t understand it, the potential exists for abuse and deception.” —Joe Mariano, President and CEO, DSA
“Given today’s highly charged regulatory climate, providing distributors with resources to share accurate product and earnings claims plays a critical part in supporting a culture of compliance within your field. Social media has provided consumers and the press a stronger voice to broadcast their opinions or experiences, which has emphasized the negative impact of misleading statements.“ —Jemima Wechsler, Group Vice President, Compliance, Team Beachbody
Direct Sellers (millions)
Direct Selling in the Mainstream
Direct selling is represented by celebrities, entertainers, and athletes in endorsements, partnerships, and sponsorship of charities, sports organizations, and other beloved institutions.
The Magic of Fragrance Meets the Magic of Disney
Imagine trying to create fragrances that capture Mickey Mouse’s charm, the friendly forest that makes up Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, or the inquisitive and open-minded bravery that is Belle—Scentsy, the international fragrance and home décor company, is doing just that. Scentsy is launching a variety of fragrance products and scented plush toys featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Hundred Acre Wood, Disney Princess, and Disney–Pixar Finding Nemo.
“We’ve worked very closely with the Disney product design team to deliver an incredible lineup of characters with signature fragrances that fit within the imaginative storytelling of the Disney brand,” said Heidi Thompson, Scentsy Co-founder and Co-Owner. “We couldn’t be more excited for Scentsy to align with Disney, one of the world’s best, family-oriented brands. We know Scentsy Consultants and customers around the world will be thrilled.”
The collaboration with Disney allows more than 100,000 Independent Scentsy Consultants across eleven countries to sell the Disney Collection. The collaboration was unveiled in Anaheim at Scentsy Family Reunion, the company’s annual convention.
“We couldn’t find a brand that better matches our aspirations and values. Family-friendly, industry leading, creative, artistic, warm, enliven, and inspire are words from Scentsy’s mission statement, but these words could be used to describe the standards Disney has set for the world,” said Scentsy Co-owner, Orville Thompson “Where Disney creates powerful memories through parks and entertainment, our products will help people remember and re-live those experiences through fragrance.”
Category Retail Sales ($ billions)
The Miss USA organization has a new partner: SeneGence
In July 2021, at the SeneGence annual event held in Frisco, Texas, SeneGence Founder and CEO Joni Rogers-Kante was joined onstage by 2008 Miss USA and National Director for the Miss USA organization Crystle Stewart to announce the partnership. “Many years ago, I participated in a Miss USA event selling LipSense to their attendees,” said Rogers-Kante. “At that time, I never would have believed that SeneGence would be a sponsor of the iconic Miss USA pageant.” The SeneGence and the Miss USA organization partnership campaign includes exclusivity for cosmetics, television coverage (i.e., SeneGence commercials, backstage LipSense® lounge, SeneGence cosmetics used on contestants and talent), a Miss USA and Miss Teen USA custom LipSense collection, giveaways, and more. The Miss USA organization is committed to bringing pageants into the everyday lives of young women across America. Their Pageantry Reimagined® presents a new generation of women of influence whom the world has yet to meet. “Miss USA and SeneGence are two organizations that are deeply aligned with the advancement and empowerment of women, and we are delighted with this partnership,” said Rogers-Kante. The 2021 70th edition of Miss USA and Miss Teen USA awards were broadcast live from the Paradise Cove Theater of River Spirit Casino Resort in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Tastefully Simple products appear in new feature film, As They Made Us
The Minnesota-based company was approached by the movie’s production company that felt Tastefully Simple would be the best product partner for the modern heroine and her family featured in the film. The movie, written by Mayim Bialik of The Big Bang Theory and hosting Jeopardy fame, stars Dianna Agron, Candace Bergen, and the twice honored, Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman. It opened in theaters April 2022.
Global Direct Selling
Tamuna Gabilaia, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations (WFDSA), says that while many people are familiar with direct selling’s quality products, “They don’t necessarily associate those products with the industry.“ That is troubling, and Gabilaia acknowledges that the industry must do a much better job of spreading the knowledge about itself to better educate consumers.
“Views of the industry are directly related to people’s familiarity with the industry and their firsthand experiences,” she says. “However, when they associate the products with direct selling—coupled with positive, personalized experiences—they become our best advocates.”
Gabilaia points out that although exaggerated earnings and product claims can negatively affect the industry’s image, WFDSA’s statistical data shows increasing popularity for the industry in recent years. Worldwide, retail sales have increased every year in all regions around the globe.
“Our industry is resilient and grows despite the global upward or downward economic trends,” Gabilaia says. “The African continent and MENA (Middle East, North Africa) regions represent huge, untapped potential for the industry. We are working with direct selling associations in those regions to explore opportunities.”
Prior to joining WFDSA, Gabilaia was familiar with some direct selling products but had little knowledge of the diverse, inclusive, and empowering industry that is direct selling.
“I feel immense joy and satisfaction waking up knowing that I work with brilliant, caring, dedicated, humble, and positive colleagues and friends who make a meaningful difference every day in every type of economy and political system,” she says.
Gabilaia highlights the increased use of digital tools among the many advances that accelerated during the pandemic. “These tools are instrumental in helping direct selling companies grow by empowering their representatives to adapt and respond to the many challenges of the volatile economic environment,” Gabilaia says. “They are key drivers of increased sales and representative growth.”
Gabilaia points out that direct selling has a competitive advantage over other industries in dealing with customers off line and in person. Retailers are trying to replicate the personalized relationships that characterize the direct selling business. Direct selling has and always will evolve to stay ahead of the curve. The challenge is to tell our great story while dispelling the misperceptions about the industry.
To do all that, WFDSA has set forth its initiatives for the next few years. As Shaklee CEO Roger Barnett stated when he became WFDSA Chairman, the industry has tremendous opportunity to
Reimagine what direct selling means in the digital world, and to provide even greater connection and support to millions around the world.
Reinvent who is a direct seller and how we compensate them, so we can expand the number of people we impact in the future and be even more inclusive than today.
Redefine the image of direct selling by quantifying our impact on creating a diverse, powerful, inclusive economy for all.
“We have set an ambitious agenda for enhancing the reputation of the industry and moving beyond compliance,” says Gabilaia. “The critical initiatives of reputation enhancement and ethics, and global legal and regulatory, are moving along and will enter next phases shortly.”
Direct Selling Myths and Facts
Myth: Most people lose money in direct selling.
Fact: Minimal startup investment provides a low-cost path to starting a flexible, part-time, direct sales business.
Because of the low cost of entry—startup costs are well below $200 in general—and minimal risk of financial loss upon exiting, direct sales is a low-risk business opportunity.
The channel has a safety net in place for sellers who decide to close their business but have unsold inventory: the 90 percent buyback guarantee from DSA member companies for products purchased within the last twelve months.
About 90 percent of people who join direct selling companies do so to earn supplemental income. Each direct seller sets individual goals. Many reach their short-term goals and then take a break, and some set higher goals and become full-time direct sellers.
Myth: All direct sellers keep inventory.
Fact: If sellers choose to hold a small amount of inventory for immediate delivery to customers or for other reasons, they are supported by DSA member companies with the 90 percent buyback guarantee.
Increasingly, direct selling companies embrace e-commerce: customers order from a seller’s personal website, distributors place orders online, and products are shipped directly from the direct selling company to customers.
Myth: All direct selling companies are pyramid schemes.
Fact: There are legitimate direct selling companies, and there are pyramid schemes. Pyramid schemes are illegal.
Pyramid schemes often masquerade as direct selling companies, but there is an important and meaningful distinction. Pyramid schemes compensate members primarily for recruiting new participants, not for sales of real products or services.
In a legitimate direct selling company, product sales are the main source of a direct seller’s compensation. Meaningful compensation is not based on how many people are in your business if there are no sales by those individuals.
DSA agrees with regulators and law enforcement that pyramid schemes should be fully prosecuted.
Myth: Direct selling companies are not regulated. They don’t protect consumers.
Fact: Direct selling companies operating in the United States are subject to local, state, and federal laws, as are other businesses, and depending on the product or service, by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Laws prohibiting inaccurate earnings, income, and product claims are enforced.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates the industry as part of its consumer protection mission. State Attorney Generals typically enforce state consumer protection laws where a direct selling company has salespeople.
All US direct selling companies are monitored and regulated by the Better Business Bureau National Programs Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council (DSSRC), whether they are DSA members or not. The DSSRC provides impartial monitoring, enforcement, and dispute resolution regarding product claims or income representations by all US direct selling companies and their sales force members.
As a condition of membership, DSA companies must adhere to DSA’s Code of Ethics, a stringent set of consumer protections, including prohibition of inventory loading and the 90 percent buyback guarantee. Independent direct sellers who represent member companies are responsible for upholding these same high standards of business ethics that companies pledge to maintain.
Myth: There is nowhere to turn if I need to report a problem with a direct selling company.
Fact: Consumers can start by reporting business practice issues directly to the direct selling company. They can also contact the independent DSA Code Administrator and the Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council.
The BBB National Programs Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council (DSSRC) monitors and manages concerns about the accuracy of earnings claims, income claims, or product claims made by any direct selling company, whether the company is a DSA member or not.
Consumers may report issues of inventory loading, terms of sale, warranties, and product guarantees, for example, by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or with their State Attorney General.