For years, Jeannie Greene would stop at one of her faithful Avon customer’s houses and talk gossip at the dining room table, while the woman’s husband sat silent on the other side of the room, watching TV.
The woman reached out to her one day and said her husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His request, Greene said, was to sit with the Avon lady one more time.
“I said, ‘Me? Why?’ ” Greene, 61, said at her north Spokane home earlier this month. “She said, ‘He loves you.’ I said, ‘I’ve never even talked to him!’ ”
Since 1984, Greene has been a fixture in many homes, part of a marching army of (mostly) women who came to the door with catalogs full of perfume, makeup and lotions. But online retail has cut out that middleman for other once-lucrative sales services.
Avon, one of the last large empires of door-to-door sales, spun off into two companies several years ago. Its U.S. operations were taken over by a South Korean firm, and the international arm was bought by a Brazil-based cosmetics company for $2 billion last year.
Greene, who paid $20 to become a salesperson decades ago, said she sees the writing on the wall. Customers’ favorite products are vanishing from catalogs, $6 tubes of lipstick have been replaced by more expensive options. Managers who lived in the Inland Northwest have been replaced by call centers, first on the West Coast and then the East Coast. Greene has started paying $17 to cover shipping costs of the products she sold to her customers, an expense the company used to cover.
But when Avon told her this year they would no longer be sending her receipt books, which she’d used to track sales to housewives, working women and more for decades in Spokane, Greene decided she’d had enough.
“That was the last straw, because I need to write them up,” Greene said.
Her fears aren’t unfounded. Roberto Marques, chairman of the Brazilian company Natura & Co. that purchased the international arm of Avon, told Fortune magazine earlier this year that he intended an evolution of the classic Avon lady model.
“It’s our goal … to continue to evolve them,” Marques told the magazine, before referencing the company’s classic jingle from the 1950s and ’60s indicating a ringing doorbell. “Not just to be the ‘ding dong,’ but to actually be the ‘click click,’ in a high-touch, high-tech way.”
That won’t work for a lot of Greene’s customers, she said, many of whom have been purchasing products the old-fashioned way for years. Greene has sold to mothers and now their daughters, once setting up sales leads through the switchboard operators at the phone company. They’re now older, some of them who don’t own a computer or won’t order products online, and a lot of them live on fixed incomes, Greene said.
“I sell to lower-to-middle income, they’re the people who buy Avon,” she said. “Not the super rich.”
For 15 years, Greene has sold to northeast Spokane resident Lori Hansen. Greene was recommended by Hansen’s former Avon lady, she said, and Hansen is now trying to determine where she’ll get her beauty products after the receipt book is full.
“I don’t like the idea of buying online,” said Hansen, 70. “That’s a bunch of hooey.”
Neither will Rita Rowley, another of Greene’s customers. She’s been buying from Avon for decades and said she’s reconsidering because of how the company is treating her Avon lady.
“I think she’s kind of getting kicked to the curb, which I don’t think is right,” Rowley said.
Greene also worries about the loss of community that prompted her to join the Avon ranks in the first place. After years driving trucks for a living with her husband, the couple relocated to Spokane in the mid-1980s, and she didn’t know anyone. Inspired by her Aunt Dot (short for Dorothy, and as Greene put it, “most everybody has an Aunt Dot, or an Aunt Clara”), she signed up to sell for Avon and began pounding the pavement, knocking on doors and meeting her neighbors.
It changed her perspective on appearances – and on just how important it was to some people to look and feel good with beauty products.
“I remember seeing some real crappy houses, where I was even afraid to step on the porch, because I was like, I’m going to go through that porch,” said Greene. “But my manager told me, that lady’s priority is in buying Avon. Her priority is not in fixing up her house.”
For Rowley, who said she can’t leave home and get around like she did when she was younger, Greene became a friend, and even ran errands for her.
“If I need a letter mailed, she’s glad to do it. It’s friendship as much as it is product,” Rowley said.
Greene, who has a pair of heelers named Nipper and Chase, also made sure her pockets were full of biscuits for dogs that would await her arrival every week with a new batch of goods.
“Over the years, a lot of them have come and gone,” she said. “Dogs don’t get to live as long as us. That’s probably been my best part.”
Hansen said her Yorkie, Dexter, anxiously awaits Greene’s visits.
“The first time she came, Dexter could have taken her leg off,” Hansen said, laughing.
As Greene grew her career with Avon, she amassed sales statues awarded by the company of P.F.E. Albee, who became the company’s first saleswoman in the 1880s after being widowed. Avon started as the California Perfume Co., the brainchild of New York salesman David H. McConnell. McConnell was selling books at the time but found that his homemade perfumes were more sought after by housewives.
In the 1980s, rumors of takeovers abounded as Avon continued to build its empire. That included interest from Tiffany, Mary Kay and Amway Corp., but Avon remained independent and its business kept growing until after the 2008 recession.
That’s not to say its door-to-door model completely avoided controversy, including one that embroiled a representative in Coeur d’Alene.
In 1991, authorities in Coeur d’Alene conducted undercover stings at a home on Best Avenue, where 70-year-old Rose Christman was selling Avon products. The longtime Avon saleswoman said she’d set up a shop for her customers because her allergies and arthritis kept her from traveling door-to-door, but officials said the sales constituted commercial activity prohibited in her neighborhood. At the time, Christman said she was being targeted, as other sales ladies also “bent the rules.”
The story made national news, including an episode of popular TV tabloid “A Current Affair.” Christman continued selling products out of her home despite signing an agreement with the city not to conduct commercial activity in her home. She told the Associated Press in 1996, after another arrest, “I’m so bull-headed, I’m going to stick in there until I die. I’m not going to crawl for anybody. This is what I do. It’s what I am.”
Greene said she would have gladly continued to sell if Avon continued to provide the sales products they’ve given her for nearly four decades. She worries the company and its products will go the way of the antique ice box she keeps in her kitchen, now transformed to a storage shelf and no longer serviced by a door-to-door worker delivering ice daily.
“This is a part of society that’s going by the wayside,” Greene said. “Another little bit of thread is being pulled out.”
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