The invitation from a friend arrives in the mail.
Panic sets in.
You've got no desire to be locked in a room with a sales person trying to convince you that you need food storage containers.
If you go, there's no way you're leaving that party empty-handed.
And if you don't go, you know your friend's going to be disappointed.
In-home sales parties are a ubiquitous part of women's lives. While the booming direct selling industry has shaken its pyramid scheme image, the party pressure remains.
"I think it compromises our friendships," said Kim Dempsey of Eagle, a Longaberger representative for more than a decade.
Women feel obligated to go to the parties and even more obligated to make a purchase, she said.
"Yeah, I think there's pressure," said Teresa Zittlow of Janesville, a Mary Kay consultant.
Direct selling plays on the "natural market"—family, friends, co-workers, neighbors. After all, people trust the recommendations of people they know.
That's one of the upsides to the industry, said Direct Selling Association spokeswoman Amy Robinson.
But it's also one of the drawbacks.
Women are afraid it might break a link in the friendship chain. For many, their attendance at a friend's party means their friend's attendance at theirs.
"I always try to go ... because I want to be treated the same way," said Lorillee Castiglioni of Edgerton, a Silpada Designs representative. "What goes around comes around."
But Heather Chojnacki of Beloit, a Tastefully Simple consultant, said the pressure is unavoidable.
"I would say we shouldn't have to feel guilty, but we do," she said. "It's human nature."
So what's a woman to do when she's invited to a party and she just doesn't want to go?
"I personally like it when they're honest," Castiglioni said. "You can tell when they're making excuses."
If you have a prior engagement, say so. If you're just not interested, say so.
Often a hostess puts a lot of time and effort into the party, cleaning the house and preparing food and drinks.
"They want you to come over because they like you," Castiglioni said. "So if you say you're gonna go, go."
So what's a woman to do if she goes to a party but doesn't want to buy anything?
"You're better off just to be honest," Dempsey said.
If you can't afford to, say so. If you're just not interested, say so.
Partygoers, however, are expected to be kind to the sales representative; she's probably just trying to pay her bills like everyone else.
Tell her you'll think about it and take a catalog.
Robinson said she often hears the complaint about feeling obligated, whether to go to a party or to make a purchase. But she doesn't buy it.
"Who's making that obligation?" she asked.
To relieve some of the pressure, women should look at the parties as a different way to shop, Robinson said.
"It's just a little twist on a traditional retail experience," she said. "If people go into it realizing that ... and they're open to having some fun while they're at it, that makes it a very enjoyable experience for everyone involved."
But Dempsey said it's not women who need to change, it's the companies.
"The companies themselves need to recognize people are partied out," she said. "People are sick of it. People are too busy."
Many companies have taken advantage of the Internet, offering sales representatives a Web site through which their customers shop. It was a natural development for the industry, Robinson said.
"This is a very personal, a customer service-oriented way to buy and sell products, so it makes sense that it naturally adjusts to the way people prefer to shop," she said.
Some women might go to a party and reorder online, she said, and others choose to order online from the start.
"Either way, the thing that distinguishes direct selling from other forms of retailing is the personal service from a knowledgeable representative who can answer your questions and will help you with your shopping experience," Robinson said.
Direct sales has options for buyers and sellers
As the face of shopping changes from people strolling through brick-and-mortar retail stores to people surfing the Internet in the comfort of home, more and more consumers are seeking a personalized experience.
Direct sales fulfill that desire, said Direct Selling Association spokeswoman Amy Robinson.
Simply, direct selling is a way to sell products or services directly to customers away from a retail location.
"It's a personalized way to shop," Robinson said.
She offered this example:
If a woman went to a jewelry store interested in buying a necklace and a bracelet, she could try on the items and look at herself in a mirror, but she probably couldn't walk too far from the counter without a sales person trailing her.
But if a woman went to a home jewelry party and was interested in buying a necklace and a bracelet, she could try on the items and wear them during the party, casually considering whether to buy them or not.
"It's a leisurely way to purchase," Robinson said.
So if that's what's in it for consumers, then what's in it for sales representatives?
Robinson said for most sellers, it's about making a little extra cash, whether to supplement a full-time job or to fulfill a temporary financial need, such as buying Christmas presents.
"In a lot of cases, people come into it for one reason and stay in it for another," she said.
Some sellers really enjoy the flexibility of setting their own hours and working from home, while others simply like the social interaction with their customers.
Incentives are given to those who host the parties, too, such as free or discounted merchandise (often based on party sales) as well as a "hostess gift."
Robinson said direct selling is an industry that offers an alternative to the everyday shopping experience.
"It's just another way to sell and purchase products," she said.
WHAT'S FOR SALE?
Here's a sampling of some of the most recognized companies and what they sell:
Avon—cosmetics, perfume, jewelry, clothing
Creative Memories—scrapbooking supplies
Fuller Brush—cleaning products
Herbalife—personal care and nutritional products
Longaberger—baskets, pottery, home décor
Pampered Chef—kitchen tools, cookware
Passion Parties—lingerie, sensual products
Medifast—weight loss products
Silpada Designs—sterling silver jewelry
Tastefully Simple—gourmet foods
Tupperware—food storage containers
DIRECT SELLING HISTORY
18th and 19th centuries: Salesmen are a large part of commerce in the United States.
Early 20th century: Traveling salesmen are a familiar image in America. The direct selling industry expands and becomes more organized. Small businesses, such as the Fuller Brush Company, go national. Door-to-door salespeople are mostly men, and those buying the products are mostly women.
1931: Frank Stanley Beveridge, a successful Fuller Brush salesman, opens his own cleaning supplies company. He follows in his predecessors’ footsteps until he learns that one of his salesmen is making record-breaking sales by demonstrating the products in the living rooms of women “hostesses,” who opened their homes and invited friends.
1940: Stanley Home Products is strictly a home party sales company. The business is attractive to women, who learn they could make extra money through flexible jobs with the company.
Late 1940s: Brownie Wise discovers she could make a good living selling Stanley products. She becomes a unit manager in the Detroit area within a year.
1951: Earl Tupper establishes Tupperware Home Parties. He hires Wise was as vice president and general manager. She models the business after Stanley Home Products with many improvements.
1954: The Tupperware Homecoming Jubilee is born. Six hundred top salespeople come to company headquarters for classes, prizes and promotional events.
1960s: Most of the people in home party sales are women.
Source: "American Experience," PBS