Under the Influence

How a billion dollar cosmetics company started off by selling books

One door-to-door book salesman in the 1800s enticed housewives to buy his books by offering them a free vial of perfume. And the rest is cosmetics history.

From encyclopaedias, to make-up, to vacuum cleaners, many corporations were built on the shoe leather of door-to-door sales. It was a tough way to make a living. But the best salespeople never met a door they couldn't open.

Many famous names in Hollywood even started out as door-to-door salespeople. The list may surprise you…

Ding Dong, Avon Calling

Back in 1886, David H. McConnell was a door-to-door book salesman.

He would travel from town to town in a horse and buggy and knock on doors.

To entice housewives to open those doors, he would give them a free vial of rose-scented perfume, which he blended at home at night.

Soon McConnell realized women were much more interested in his perfume than his books.

So he dropped the books and concentrated on the perfume.

He created the California Perfume Company. His book-selling experience taught him two things: That many women were struggling to make ends meet, and that the door-to-door approach was ideal for a cosmetics company, especially in rural towns, where women had little access to cosmetic stores.

Even though it was practically unheard of for a woman to run her own business in the late 1800s, McConnell recruited some of his best customers as salespeople.

Women welcomed the opportunity to earn extra income, they were passionate about the products, and because women knew the other women in their towns, they had an ability to network.

By 1887, McConnell had twelve female representatives.

Thirteen years later, there were over 5,000.

The name of the company was changed to Avon in 1937 – and by 1954, sales had jumped to $55 million. That year, the company launched its first television campaign celebrating its door-to-door saleswomen:

Today, Avon has over 6 million representatives who generate over $10 billion in annual sales.

Knock Knock

There was a time when "encyclopedia salesman" was a familiar punch line because they were such a ubiquitous presence in our lives.

The Encyclopedia Britannica was probably the most famous brand to be marketed in North America.

It began here in 1903 and was an extremely profitable business. It cost about $250 to produce a full set, and they sold for between $500 a set to over $2,000 for a leather-bound edition.

Then in 1923, Sears Roebuck purchased Britannica and began to assemble a highly polished sales force of over 2,000 people and trained them to sell the books door-to-door.

See, Britannica had a very interesting marketing theory:  They believed encyclopedias were sold – not bought.

Therefore, a persuasive door-to-door sales force was critical.

The main target audience for encyclopedias was lower income families.

Britannica salesmen capitalized on the aspirations parents had for their kids. They weren't selling books, they were selling dreams. The encyclopedias were positioned as a ticket to the middle class.

Payment plans were offered.

In 1943, Britannica was purchased by advertising executive William Benton, co-founder of the powerful Benton & Bowles advertising agency.

A savvy marketer, Benton widened the target audience by appealing to the middle class, convincing them that

having a full set of Encyclopedia Britannica on display in a living room was a sign of success.

Britannica's door-to-door sales force prospered until the 1970s – when suddenly there was no one home to answer the door – as women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers.

So Britannica stopped selling door-to-door and instead gave their sales people leads generated from advertising and 1-800 numbers. Salespeople still did all the selling in the home, but now they were invited.

Encyclopedia Britannica sales peaked in 1990. A few years later, Microsoft offered to buy the company, but Britannica turned the software giant down.

You can guess what happened next. The Internet disrupted the encyclopedia business, forcing Britannica to announce the end of its printed books. The 32-volume 2010 edition would be its last.

But the Encyclopedia Britannica – built on the power of its door-to-door salespeople – has survived and exists online today by charging a subscription fee to access its pages.

Celebrity Salespeople

There have been a lot of successful people who started their careers selling door-to-door.

John Paul DeJoria, who created the Paul Mitchell line of professional hair products, began his career selling encyclopedias.

Sara Blakely, who invented Spanx, sold fax machines door to door.

Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, sold word processors to companies door to door.

Advertising great David Ogilvy, who founded ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, sold Aga stoves door to door in England long before his Mad Man career.

The Reverend Billy Graham, television personality Dick Clark, baseball hall-of-famer Joe DiMaggio, actor Dennis Quad and businessman Ed Mirvish were all Fuller Brush men.

Who knew.

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Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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