While children make Christmas wish lists of the presents Santa might bring, I have a lengthening list of things I don’t plan to buy this year.
It includes candles, mascara that makes your eyelashes lengthen with fake fibers, kitchen utensils, lingerie, freeze-dried food, fancy wraps for my fingernails, jewelry, and accessories for my photos.
The common denominator for all of these items is the social minefield in which they’re sold: direct sales.
This is where I bite back the urge to apologize. I hate offending people, though it’s a well-known job hazard for columnists.
Direct sales are an age-old tradition that harkens back to peddlers demonstrating their wares door-to-door. The modern version is home parties and social media marketing that attempts to personalize the peddler’s model by capitalizing on relationships.
It’s hard to say “no” to a friend, after all.
This is the genius behind companies that profit from direct sales. No matter how sincere the seller, guilt is a strong motivator.
And that’s where things get tricky. Where is the line between friend and customer, and when does the blurring between the two cause hurt feelings? Is it when I don’t host or attend a party, when I don’t buy a product or when I write about keeping my checkbook closed?
Recently I tested the waters of this topic on Facebook. Over the course of this year I’ve had numerous friends and acquaintances dive into direct sales, many of them launching their home-based businesses via social media by creating sales groups to which I’m added, no permission necessary. That’s followed by an onslaught of marketing messages, chatter and notifications, also known as social media spam.
Unlike game requests and event invites, I have no way to block these group adds in advance. After I’d removed myself over and over again, I decided it might be wise to wave a flag to tell everyone I’m opting out.
After wishing everyone well in their endeavors I explained that when it comes to direct sales, I’m not buying. I should have said that this is a personal policy I made years ago based on our budget, lifestyle and a longing to keep my relationships unencumbered by sales expectations. But I wanted to keep the status shorter than a column.
“It’s totally OK if you stop inviting me and adding me to sales groups,” I wrote. “I hope you don’t take it personally when I delete myself or ignore that sales party invitation.”
“If you want to get together over a cup of coffee, tea, margarita, martini or water, I’d love to hear about your life. If you need help moving I’ll lend a hand. If you want to talk on the phone or text or chat online, I’m in. I like you and I hope you’ll still like me if I don’t want to buy your stuff.”
For the most part, the response was positive. One friend offered to meet for margaritas. Another said she’s had the same policy for years.
Beyond the inevitable likes, friends and family commented, private messaged, texted and talked face-to-face about how they felt the same way. Most of them wanted relationships that aren’t undermined by monthly sales goals for products they don’t want or need.
“If any of my Facebook friends ever needed a hand – financially or emotionally – I would be first in line to help,” wrote one friend. “But sometimes I feel like the ‘bad guy’ for not buying whatever product my friends are direct-selling. I want to be a good friend and NOT feel bad for not purchasing a product I wouldn’t use (even if it’s awesome).”
Several sellers were also sympathetic.
“These posts are in no way meant to cause guilt or ill feelings. I would NEVER want anyone I know to feel obligated to make a purchase,” replied one friend who sells kitchen products.
Another wrote, “I have never forced anyone to support my direct sales business and I even stated feel free to leave my group. However, I do know that I have made monetary donations in the past to help friends out in need, for fundraisers, or to just support their business (whether it’s in a physical location or a direct sales) … and it feels nice to help out my friends when I can.”
She’s right. It does feel nice to help a friend, whether it’s taking a meal to someone who’s sick, referring a job seeker to an open position or purchasing a product from a friend. Most of us have benefitted from the networking power of our family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Every time someone sends me a story tip, for example, I appreciate it.
The quagmire comes when those acts of good will are expected as an inherent obligation of the relationship. When that happens, feelings get hurt. Relationships survive best on the safe shores of acceptance, not in a guilt-laden land of minefields. That’s why I don’t do direct sales. Thankfully, my friends understand.
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