For people who regard shopping as sport, a trip to the mall can be an event to anticipate, even if it means trolling for parking and fighting the crowds. Sure, they often could just log on at home and purchase what they need with just a few clicks, but it's not the same. You can't finger the merchandise, and there's no human contact.
There's been a middle road for better than half a century, of course, paved in plastic by Tupperware, but home shopping parties today offer plenty more, and they're rising in popularity.
According to the Direct Selling Association, annual sales figures for party plan companies increased from 1998 to 2003 by more than $2 billion, to nearly $8.5 billion. Amy Robinson of the DSA expects these numbers to soar in the next few years, reporting that 90 percent of new applicant organizations in 2004 were party plan companies -- not those pursuing other forms of direct selling.
Most parties follow the same model: An independent representative visits the hostess's home (or, occasionally, the host's) and promotes products to the hostess and guests, who then make purchases from a catalog. Guests get their purchases, hostesses get credits toward free products, and the representative earns commissions.
More than just for shopping, these get-togethers are an opportunity for friends to see each other outside their day-to-day lives. The atmosphere at a recent Southern Living at Home party in Wakefield was festive but relaxed. Scented candles -- in holders from the catalog -- burned in the living room from the side tables to the fireplace mantle. The lights were low.
The food, most prepared by hostess Arlene Yasi, was served on dishes she'd bought through Southern Living at Home. A butter-colored pie plate was filled with artichoke dip and sat on the top rung of a wrought-iron stand above a pie plate dotted with floating tea lights. The dip was Yasi's favorite, and the recipe happened to be from Southern Living magazine, the home retailer's parent. Most of the women, dressed in comfortable attire with wine glasses in hand, had gathered in the living room to chat.
Most of the 10 attendees, in their 30s and 40s, are stay-at-home moms of elementary-school children. Many are veterans -- some may say junkies -- of the home shopping party, having already attended not only one of independent representative Kimberly D'Alelio's parties but some for other products as well. Marie Rudzinsky recommended her favorite Body Shop At Home consultant to the crowd gathered around the food. Marcy McCauley was attending her fifth Southern Living at Home party.
D'Alelio, 39, knew many of the women by name. In the middle of the product introductions she asked, ''Sandy, what are you doing with your tiny bubbles bowl these days?" Sandy Czarnota replied that her small glass bowl (with air bubbles embedded in the glass) was filled with candies. A woman chimed in from the other couch that hers was filled with lemons and limes. Someone else mentioned cranberries. For a moment it seemed like everyone had one. Yasi does too -- on that Wednesday evening in November, hers was on the kitchen island, filled with bruschetta.
After D'Alelio's welcoming speech, the guests resumed conversations among themselves. Now, though, the chatter was interspersed with shopping tips for each other. For those who have never seen it, ''figure 15 girls with a Pottery Barn catalog and wine," says D'Alelio. Around the kitchen island, over an open catalog, someone said, pointing to the page, ''I have that, it's good. Try it in your kitchen."
And home shoppers are not just window shopping. Jon Warren, 24, who conducts home shopping parties for Aerosoles, a shoe retailer, contrasted the atmosphere at home with the retail store where he also works. He said he finds that party guests are more relaxed and comfortable to try on shoes and make purchases outside of the more pressured sales environment of a store -- indeed, most if not all party guests at each kind of party did buy.
Like in more public shopping scenes, not all shoppers bought only what they needed. Though she conceded she needed nothing, JoEllen Solano, a first-grade teacher attending her third Southern Living at Home party, did buy, saying ''No one ever has to twist my arm to shop."
No one twisted D'Alelio's arm to begin conducting such parties, either, even though in the car on the way home after the party she confessed to having an uneven relationship with commerce. She said she has problems selling chocolate bars for her kids' school fund-raisers, for example, and in general, ''I don't like to sell." But she said she is passionate about her Southern Living at Home wares, and she seems to be good at it. After her opening pitch, in which she combined product descriptions with tips for using them, Kim Corso declared, ''I want her to come to my house and just [gesturing with her outstretched arms] decorate it."
One major draw for the representatives is the incredible scheduling flexibility; they can work once a month, every day, or somewhere in between. D'Alelio started with Southern Living at Home two years ago, seeking success outside the home after eight years as a stay-at-home mom with three boys. ''Every time I go to work, I end up at a party," D'Alelio said. She does end up working evenings -- when her clients are free -- but reserves weekends for her family.
Sellers get perks as well, although one of Warren's isn't as attractive as it might have been once: He gets a free pair of shoes for every party he does; unfortunately, Aerosoles no longer makes shoes for men. So, he either raffles the pair to start off an evening, or he brings home yet another addition to his wife's closet.
Bare feet are common at parties put on by The Body
Brenna Jennings, 31, of Brighton decided to try running a party herself after attending one of Franklin's, and did so in December. The atmosphere was decidedly casual. As she says, ''When you have a roomful of women who have to take their socks off -- it invites conversation." Not a scene you would expect to find in the mall.
By the end of such parties, most everyone has gotten what they came for: hors d'oeuvres and chitchat, a little bit of shopping, and, in some cases, instant gratification: Warren brings along 200-300 pairs of shoes, in varying styles, colors, and sizes, every time out, and his customers often get to leave with their purchases. For the others, when the lotions and gels, home decorations, or shoes arrive on the hostess's doorstep, they will bring with them an excuse for a reunion, and perhaps a good old-fashioned, non-shopping party.