I moved to metro Detroit in the mid-1990s and, looking to make friends, I took my toddler to play group at the nearby YWCA.
There I met a perky woman named Jennie. All smiles, she beelined right over. “I’d love to invite you to a party,” she said. Wow, I thought, people are so nice here.
Just call me naïve.
The “party” turned out to be a kitchen-table lecture where I learned that modern farming techniques robbed my family of good nutrition, and we were doomed to crippling illness without expensive Shaklee supplements.
Jennie never wanted to be my friend. At best, she wanted to be my “consultant.” At an absolute minimum, she wanted to make a sale.
Yeah, it hurt a little bit.
I’m no stranger to multilevel marketing. As a kid, I spotted the occasional pink Mary Kay Cadillac in suburban traffic, and, in high school, my best friend’s parents were deep into Amway, hooked by the promise of big money with little effort.
We’d pull up next to a graying man in a Corvette, and my friend’s mother would tsk-tsk, “It’s too bad he had to get so old before he could afford that car.” Faulty logic aside, she was convinced her payout would come. I’m certain it never did.
The industry has changed, but the premise is the same: Turn your friends into customers. Home parties are way more fun now, but the transactional overtone still hangs heavy in the room. We all know why we’re there. Where wine flows, so does cash, and, with some exceptions, there’s even decent product quality … with a price tag to match.
Still, with the right mix of personalities, a Cabi or Scentsy or even Pampered Chef party can make for a fun, if staggeringly expensive, night out.
But the concept of selling stuff to friends – of reframing your friends as potential sales prospects – doesn’t sit well with me. Is every play date or coffee date less about time shared with a friend and more about penetrating targets for a downline?
When your friends sell Thirty-One or Young Living, the pressure to host a party is always lurking. And when you do agree to open your living room, you become a willing party to the process. The stress of assembling a guest list can be overwhelming. Who do you know that won’t look back and consider you to be a Jennie?
While some entrepreneurs are good at drawing the line between Girls’ Night Out and Good For Business, others verge on damaging friendships.
My friend became an Arbonne distributor, and she loved the products. Her outgoing personality made her a pro at working the room wherever she went.
I never felt outward pressure to buy from her or to join her sales force, but she did palm samples into my hand, asking for “my opinion” on one moisturizer versus another – a request so inauthentic, it must have come from “tips and tricks for hooking sales.”
She didn’t necessarily want my opinion. She wanted to test her sales technique.
Hey, I’m all for capitalism, especially where it creates opportunities for flexible work and additional income.
Long before we could even vote, women have been shilling Avon to make extra cash – and, in some cases, a decent living – while raising their kids. And when friendships can blossom from a sales transaction among consenting adults, it’s a beautiful thing.
Just make sure it’s not the other way around. Business is business, but friendship is golden.
Metro Detroit mom Jennifer Lovy has no problem with mom sales pitches. Read her thoughts here.
This post was originally published in 2017 and is updated regularly.