Making Money From Your Friends – By Guest Blogger Liz Emrich

Post Urban Culture

Although my life began in Suburbia way back in the way back machine, I am still getting used to its nuisances, mores and ways. Frankly, I find it really fucking weird. BBQ’s, Circle K, stand-alone bars and restaurants, it all seems so spread out and artificial.

Today’s guest blogger Liz Emrich, fellow New Yorker, former city dweller, expert Jewelry designer, lawyer and Mother extraordinaire, details another part of the ‘burbs long ago forgotten: Avon/Mary Kay/Amway parties. She discusses why people make money from their friends and why she went to the party described below.


Until I moved to suburbia, I was blissfully unaware of the phenomenon of selling things to your friends.  It works this way: some company with a product that has a largely female demographic (think cooking products, jewelry, clothing, candles, makeup) sets up a marketing scheme whereby women (usually stay at home moms) become “consultants” who hold parties at which the products are marketed to attendees. The more product they sell, the more money they make.  Recruit other “consultants” to the business and you make even more money, even faster.  Yes, Mary Kay and Avon are the pioneers in this business model.

Since I moved out of the city and into the ‘burbs, I have gotten more and more invitations to these types of events.  I even helped out one friend who was starting out in Mary Kay to refine her consultant recruiting pitch by agreeing to be her guinea pig.  I once agreed to host a candle party for a very good friend starting out with Partylite.  And for some reason, I still go to these things if I am in a certain mood and the right friend invites me at the right time.

I’ll confess I struggle with a certain snobbery with respect to these kinds of things.  On the one hand, the notion of milking your social circle for fun and profit hits this really raw nerve with me.  My experiences with the intersection of money and friendship have led me to the conclusion that mixing the two should only be done with the utmost caution. Sending an evite to everyone in your address book inviting them to your house to try out goods for purchase is not what I would call “caution.”  Maybe it’s my New England/Greek upbringing but it is a little too close to asking people for money, which is tantamount to begging.

And then there is the fact that the stuff that’s being sold is so insipid. None of the merchandise is bad, really, but we’re not talking luxury goods here, either.  Take Mary Kay, for example.  While it is a perfectly adequate cosmetic line, and probably is a rather good value for the money, it’s not top of the line by any stretch of the imagination.  Probably better than most drugstore lines, but nowhere near the caliber of some department store lines.  Even Partylite, one of my personal favorites because I am an inveterate candle burner, offers nice but rather ordinary candles and candle accessories.  (Yes, Virginia, one can build an entire business by marketing candle accessories….)  Nearly everything that one might buy from one of these franchised home-party businesses is middle-of-the-road.  If most of these products were being offered on a shelf in a store, I’m not entirely sure that I would favor them over other available brands, not because they are not good value for the money, but because if you are buying for quality there are much better goods available, and if you are buying for price there are goods that are far cheaper.

And the aspects of the pitch can often be downright embarassing.  At a clothing party, most consultants only have one or two sizes, meaning most guests are stripping down and trying to shove their bodies into clothes that are either way too big or too small, and trying to guess  which size would look good on them.  When the clothing line is a lingerie line, the embarrassment factor goes up exponentially.  The sex toy parties* start out rather fun, but when it’s all over there are always one or two moments where you find things out about your friends you really wish you didn’t know. The games and door prizes (all of these parties have games and door prizes) don’t make anything more fun, and honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever won a door prize that didn’t end up being junk.

And really, in the end, the pressure to buy can be overwhelming.  And it’s not because the consultants or the hosts put pressure on anyone.  To be really fair, with only a few notable exceptions, most of the consultants I know do not put on a hard sell.  But the world of suburbia trades on the concept of “nice.”  And “nice” people don’t show up at a house party sale and not buy anything, even if it’s just a tube of lipstick or a 6-pack of votives or a cheese dip mix.  We’re women, after all, and we have been socialized to punish ourselves with guilt for the smallest of things.  Some of us are better at defeating our programming than others.

That said, I still attend these things.  I willingly show up.  Last week it was a potluck party for a clothing line.  Why did I go?  I went because I wanted to see the other women in my neighborhood who were there. As I have said before, my neighborhood is full of vibrant, kind, talented women.  I don’t get near enough opportunities to hang out with them.  They were, in fact, way more interesting than the product being sold.

And while I confess to some snobbishness, the fact of the matter is that for millions of stay at home moms and other women who want extra income, these consultant gigs aren’t bad. Sure, many of the women who sign up to be a “consultant” never make more than a few hundred bucks a month.  But for those who have the energy and initiative to take it to that next level, you really can make some money.  It’s not “Wall Street Master of the Universe” money, but to a woman living in rural America whose husband works a blue collar job, and who may hold one herself, a few hundred bucks a month can be the difference between barely scraping by and having some money saved up for a rainy day.

I had one good friend whose husband passed away a few years ago.  They had a wonderful relationship and when he died she found it very difficult to adjust to life by herself.  She had been married to this man for nearly 25 years, and had loved him deeply.  He had been a government employee, so they had never been wealthy, but going from a dual-income household to a single-income household was hard too.  Being a Partylite consultant really offered her the chance not only to make some money, but to get out of the house and socialize with other women.  She was never going to become a millionaire selling candles, but selling those candles offered so much more to her than financial gain.  And there is something to be said for that.

It may seem like a crass attempt to convince suburban housewives to sell mediocre merchandise to their friends, but in the end, I can see beneath it all something that very much embodies a feminist ideal – that any woman should be able to own and run a successful business, even if she’s “only” a housewife, and that women can and should support other women.  In the end, I can’t judge the whole thing too harshly, really.

But I am so NOT buying that Mary Kay anti-aging cream next week at Judy’s place.

*  Yes, I have been, and I have bought – they are actually one of the few products I have purchased at these types of things that still get used from time to time, probably because when you have a three year old, finding your way to a sex toy shop isn’t as easy as you might think.  They are also the only parties that my husband does not complain about when I attend them.  Indeed, he wants me to buy things.

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