Guilt is saleswoman’s best weapon / Home sales parties target women who give in too easily

By jes. on November 28, 2018

The mail carrier pulls away from your driveway, and you head for the mailbox. Besides the bills, direct-mail advertising, catalogs and flyers, there's the occasional little gem: a handwritten card from a friend on lovely stationery, and your heart skips a beat. Not with glee, mind you, but with horror at having to attend another blasted home "sales party."

That’s right. It’s another opportunity to drag yourself to someone’s house, put on makeup, eat watery seven-bean dip and be assaulted by a fast-talking saleswoman, all for the privilege of paying for things you don’t need.

But you will. You’ll buy that air-conditioned serving tray, the wondrous paring knife, the world’s most ridiculous cheese slicer, even a cleaning product or 12, or cheap jewelry or — the scourge of home parties — the scented candle collection.

You’ll buy knockoff designer purses, imitation Italian shoes, sex toys, makeup and, lest we forget the granddaddy of the home party circuit, Tupperware. You’ll buy things you don’t want. You’ll buy things you don’t need. You’ll buy things that you would pass a thousand times in a store and never give a thought to.

Why? Guilt.

In 2004, home party sales contributed $27 billion to the U.S. economy. Who is selling these wares? Your friends, neighbors, even your co-workers. The resurgence of at-home sales has infiltrated playgroups and Weight Watchers’ meetings and PTA organizations and AARP book club dinners.

And here’s another fact: Since the basic premise of at-home sales is rooted in guilt, the target audience for trunk shows and demonstration events is women. Why? Because men and women react differently to the same stimuli, and sales tactics rooted in guilt are not as effective on men.

In a study undertaken for her book “Men, Women and Aggression” (Basic Books, $13), psychologist Anne Campbell noted gender differences in how people react to sales techniques: Women react to aggressive techniques with a temporary loss of control caused by overwhelming pressure, resulting in guilt. Men, conversely, see these sales methods as a means of exerting control, often resulting in their need to reclaim power and self-esteem. So for the “guiltware” industry to be successful, it has to focus on women.

And there does not seem to be a particular demographic of woman targeted. Although there is a swelling home-party circuit among at-home moms trying to make a buck and keep a foothold in the workforce, savvy marketers also tap into the deep pockets of working women, empty-nest mothers and senior citizens.

What’s the single biggest reason women attend these functions? So the others won’t talk about them in their absence. More guilt. Speaking on a promise of anonymity, one educated and suburban at-home mom (married and upper middle class in California) admitted: “It is sort of like a corrupt small-town church. You go out of guilt because everyone else is going, make an offering out of guilt even if you don’t necessarily believe the preacher, and smile as if you are enjoying yourself because you know if you don’t go, the ladies in the fellowship hall will be talking about you after the service. You almost don’t dare say no.”

Kathleen Gruben, professor of marketing at Georgia Southern University, agreed. “It’s a fun environment but there’s a lot of peer pressure there,” said Gruben, who runs the university’s Center for Retail Studies. “Most people when they go to these parties feel a certain sense of obligation to buy something. They feel bad saying ‘no.’ ”

It’s not just the academicians who see the absurdity of the trend. One blogger recently noted: “These parties feed off of peer pressure and the female flaw: the complete and utter inability to say ‘no’ to a friend.”

Next to the companies peddling their wares in people’s homes, the biggest winner seems to be the hostess, who will usually score a “wonderful gift basket” (read: meaningless garbage), or 8 to 30 percent of the sales, as a commission.

But are the hostesses really making any money? In a self-propelling guilt scheme, she will, in turn, feel obligated to attend the sales parties of all her guests, who probably have to host such events just to recoup their investment on things they just purchased and didn’t need. In the end, the only ones who profit are the manufacturing and distributing businesses.

Lost in the whirlwind of the home-party circuit are the legal implications. Judith Silver of Entrepreneur Magazine warns that if a guest accidentally cuts herself with an overpriced paring knife during a Pampered Chef sales party, the guest could hold the hostess liable.

“The legal duty or obligation you owe to invitees is to warn them of conditions that create a danger,” Silver says. “Err on the side of not being liable; it’s best to always warn someone of a potential danger.” Yes, in the process of bamboozling your peers, you can also be setting yourself up for a lawsuit.

Here’s the funny part. The very women who are buckling to peer pressure to host, attend and buy at these events are often the very same women who lecture their children about the pitfalls of succumbing to peer pressure at school.

The words, “If Timmy jumped off a bridge, would you?” should ring in your head as you are being browbeaten into buying another miracle eye cream in a friend’s living room.

Are home-party sales bad? No. Are they immoral? Of course not. Can you make money doing them? Sure, a few people always do.

Our free-enterprise system is rooted in the notion that it is OK to exploit certain groups as long as it is done legally. But calling the psychological exploitation of an entire gender morally acceptable is really no better than accepting the targeted exploitation of any group. And that, of course, would be wrong.

P.T. Barnum, however, who is credited with the saying “There’s a sucker born every minute,” apparently, was right.

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