Don't ask, don't sell

My parents' experience as network marketers soured me for the new wave of home parties.

Published March 2, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Right before she started selling Shaklee vitamins in 1977, my 34-year-old mother announced that she "needed an outlet." I was 8 and my brother was 6. After almost a decade as what was then known as a housewife, my mom wanted a job.

She had been a schoolteacher, but taking care of 25 children in addition to her own kids was not what she had in mind. The women's movement was in full swing at that point and it had gotten to her.

Her good friend Jerri, who put her daughters on the school bus with "ERA YES!" buttons on their jackets, was one of many people who encouraged Mom to want more. Another friend bought an ice business and enlisted my mother to help haul and deliver ice to local restaurants and grocery stores.

When she learned that she did not find manual labor charming, my mom took a job as a receptionist for a psychologist friend of my father's. Menial, she found, was only a small improvement over manual.

As her attempts at employment were failing, my mom was developing an interest in vitamins and natural foods that blossomed into a fairly major lifestyle change for our family. Our kitchen had never been stocked with sweets, but by 1977, it was free of refined sugar and the other villains of the day, those ubiquitous, insidious, vaguely named "preservatives." These evils were replaced with the usual health-food store suspects: carob, honey, whole-grain bread, wheat germ and gargantuan vitamin supplements.

While I was proud to be the only 8-year-old I knew who could swallow a fistful of vitamins with one swig of juice, I did resent the absence of normal food in our kitchen. At school I could never get anyone to trade their potato chips or Ding-Dongs for my bag of dried fruit, and I found my only solace in slipping over to my grandmother's house for contraband cookies and candy.

Despite my protests and rebellions, my mom stood firm in her convictions, and when she met another mother at my grade school who happened to sell Shaklee vitamins, which, based on my mom's research, were the top of the line, she became interested not only in buying them, but in selling them, too. This other mother, Kaye, sent my mom home with motivational tapes about how wonderful Shaklee products were and about how very wealthy one could become selling them.

The people speaking on the tapes claimed to have become wealthy selling Shaklee, and when my parents listened to them describe how simple it was to make loads of money selling and recruiting, they could not say no. Not only would they enjoy financial security, my parents imagined, but they would do so as they sold products that made people's lives better. Their only reservation was that this seemed a lot like pyramid schemes they had heard of, but Kaye quickly assured them that Shaklee was different, and while my mom accepted this assurance, she cannot recall the rationale behind it.

Shaklee became for my parents, as network marketing ventures do for so many, a spiritual, religious experience. They went out to spread the gospel of their new home business, and for a time, they had a large group of friends who had signed on to sell Shaklee for them.

My mom says they were always up front with people about the fact that they would be recruiting, that they never lured them to meetings with the vague pitches I hear these days such as "Could I come to your house and show you how to cook healthier food?" I do remember an exchange my parents had with a couple from church who politely but firmly declined an invitation to a meeting. The words "pyramid scheme" were mentioned and my parents drove home shaking their heads about how that couple just didn't get it, about how it was their loss. They had rejected the gospel and would now, sadly, have to live with the consequences.

Most of their other friends and acquaintances, though, were receptive. I remember many evenings lying on the living room floor with my brother, Tony, listening to tapes and KTEL records that he had insisted my parents order after he saw commercials for them on TV. We had to amuse ourselves with Herb Alpert, Crystal Gayle, love songs of the '70s and the soundtrack to "The Jazz Singer" because the TV was in the family room, which was crowded with people who had come to hear the pitch.

After a few months, though, the crowds got too big for the family room, and my parents began having meetings at our church and in a conference room at the Holiday Inn. I attended some of these meetings, and felt a surge of pride as I listened to my father speak confidently about the advantages of selling Shaklee and saw people fall under his spell.

For her part, my mother wrote and sent out a monthly newsletter for all the people, about 100 of them, who either worked for her and my dad or bought products from them. As my parents moved up the chain of command from lowly "distributors" to power-wielding "supervisors," I believed that the wealth they talked about was just around the corner.

They did indeed turn a corner, but it was not the one they hoped for or expected. Living in a fairly rural part of Illinois, they realized that all their friends and friends of friends had already heard the pitch, and that almost everyone in the 50-mile radius who was going to sell Shaklee already was. This discovery not only turned my parents' religious fervor into dejection, but dampened the spirits of their distributors as well.

A key assumption on the motivational tapes was that the well of recruits would never run dry. After less than two years in the business, my parents recognized this and other flaws in the gospel of Shaklee and stopped leading the meetings and writing the newsletters. They were demoted to distributors and stayed at that level only long enough to sell off the inventory they had been forced to buy in order to achieve supervisor status.

Only two years past my rather late discovery of the true identity of Santa Claus (my little brother broke the news), I was still an extremely impressionable child and had believed with my whole heart that Shaklee would change our lives. When it did not, I, along with my parents, lost a part of my innocence that many people still have fully intact well into their 30s -- the part that still believes that yes, Virginia, there is a way to get rich without doing much work or spending much money. And while I remain to this day completely gullible in many areas of life, I am cynical and hardhearted when it comes to inspirational stories about the easy acquisition of filthy lucre.

But it was not until I made the transition from childless professional to full-time mother that I ever had to respond with any regularity to such stories. About a year ago, I started getting the postcards. "Join us for a basket party!" "Come discover what our toys can teach your child!" In recent months, I have been recruited to buy and/or sell pots, pans, utensils, baskets, toys, books, make-up, wall hangings, knickknacks, containers, lotion, vitamins, picture albums and the latest craze, magnets -- the kind that I am supposed to stick on myself instead of the refrigerator.

Once I figured out that the nice women I was meeting at play group and church could be sizing me up in terms of my profit potential, my inner sociologist began to analyze the phenomenon. And I remembered my mother. She used Shaklee as a way to move beyond housewifery, to find the sort of work outside the home that the women's movement encouraged her toward.

But the women inviting me to parties today seem to have a very different agenda. They have inverted the feminist message of the '60s and '70s, resolving to stay in the home, even when they realize that their ideal, one-income families are crumbling under the pressure of mounting debt. For them, these home businesses are often a last-ditch effort to avoid work-force participation and preserve their identity as full-time mothers. They are a self-captivated audience for these network marketing groups, and since they see that I am a stay-at-home mother too, they must assume that I am part of that audience as well.

I never know how to break it to the hostesses and saleswomen giving these parties that I am not part of that audience. I usually beg off with an excuse about not being able to make the party. I ask for a catalog, and if I need to, I make it clear that while I might consider buying something, I am definitely not interested in being recruited. I do not, as that couple did with my parents years ago, engage these women in a discussion of the inherent flaws of pyramid schemes. I don't tell them about my parents' dashed hopes, and about how seldom anyone really succeeds at these things.

They are no more open to my message than I am to theirs. We continue the friendship, each of us feeling that she is the Cassandra, each wishing in vain that the other could understand.

As I continue to navigate this politically difficult, almost entirely female, network marketing phenomenon, I have to ask, "What happened to the men?" Twenty-three years ago, my parents recruited other couples. These days, all the party invitations we get are addressed to me, and I am instructed to RSVP to the woman of the house.

As I talk to my father, a marriage counselor, about this, I am surprised to learn how often these home businesses play a central role in couples' conflicts. As men work longer hours -- to pay bills, to get ahead, to escape -- they have little time for or interest in these businesses. They may encourage their wives to participate, or perhaps they express no opinion at all, but they resist mightily when asked to pitch in, and, not surprisingly, they end up in my dad's office.

When I listen to my father describe the distance and hostility between so many of these marriage partners, I begin to understand that the recruitment parties serve yet another purpose; they are meetings for members of a sorority of loneliness, who sell and recruit as a means of connecting with other souls, who gather to create a shared fantasy of collaboratively achieved health and wealth.

Soon after she stopped selling Shaklee, my mom found a part-time job teaching adult basic education at the local community college, and she has had that job ever since. She found her place outside the home, a mommy-tracked place, no question, but a place that has allowed her to use her gifts, contribute financially to the household and, above all, be happy.

She still uses Shaklee products and speaks fondly of her experience selling them, acknowledging that she and my dad were naive to think they could get rich, but emphasizing that she enjoyed working closely with him and with other friends. And her attitude toward the women who are involved in these home businesses today is kind, empathetic and even open-minded. She goes to the parties, buys a few things, usually gifts for weddings, birthdays and other upcoming occasions, and reports to me that she does know of a woman or two who have made a living wage selling home decorations or make-up.

Perhaps it is the fact that she has found the contentment and balance that I still seek that makes her more charitable and less suspicious about these and other matters than I. In fact, maybe I cannot blame the childhood wounds wrought by Shaklee for my cynical tendencies. After all, as compared with what I observe today, my parents' tale of home-business misadventures is as sweet as it is cautionary.

By Kerry Ose

Kerry Ose is a freelance writer in Columbia, Md. She also writes regularly for Publishers Weekly.


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