Once again, it’s 7pm on a Saturday night and I am sitting on the sofa with my laptop. But this time I’m not mindlessly scrolling through social media; I’m about to join a virtual shopping party.
I click a link on Facebook and my screen is filled by live video footage of a brunette woman waving a blue, plastic Tupperware container in her hand.
‘These will come in so handy for leftovers, and everything is dishwasher and microwave-safe,’ she says, smiling at me from her Cambridgeshire kitchen 100 miles away.
Nostalgic: A Tupperware party in the 1960s where the hostess invited guests to her home
The woman is Hannah Townsend, a 37-year-old mother of one who has joined the thousands of people signing up to become online direct sellers during the pandemic.
Traditionally, direct sellers hosted parties at people’s homes or came to the doorstep, peddling everything from homeware to skincare products.
But, as with all things this year, they’ve had to switch to running events via video calls and on social media.
The move has boosted the direct-selling industry, which already brings £2.7 billion to the UK economy each year.
During the first lockdown, the Direct Selling Association (DSA) saw an average 30 per cent increase in sales across the 54 brands it represents, which include Avon and Neal’s Yard Remedies, as well as smaller companies.
The Body Shop At Home reported a 65 per cent increase in direct selling income in April compared with in 2019.
Sellers are signing up partly because they need extra cash after losing jobs or having their hours reduced, says Susannah Schofield, director general of the DSA.
She predicts sales will remain higher than pre-Covid levels as more people turn to direct selling to supplement their incomes.
Shoppers appear to be embracing it, too, with many preferring to buy online from a real person rather than a faceless website.
‘The personal touch is very important; you have to make extra effort to come across well when people can’t see you in person,’ Hannah tells me.
She first started direct selling last year as a The Body Shop At Home party host, to make extra money on top of her full-time job in customer services.
The Direct Selling Association saw an average 30 per cent increase in sales during the first national lockdown across the 54 brands it represents
When the lockdown began in March, she set up a Facebook group with the aim of selling to people who had previously attended her parties.
About 563,000 people in the UK are direct sellers, according to the DSA, but two-thirds of them do it in addition to another job, making an average of £372 per month from it.
For most, it’s a way of earning extra cash around other commitments — nine out of ten sellers are women and the vast majority have children — but a few turn it into a full-time job.
When Hannah was furloughed earlier this year, she made £1,200 in a month selling The Body Shop At Home products. How much you make depends on the number of hours you put into it, as well as the popularity of the brand you are selling and how much commission it takes.
Typically, sellers pay an average of £100 for a set of example products when they start, although some companies let sellers join for free and then take a commission of between 10 per cent and 25 per cent on each product sold.
In the past, sellers had to buy stock in advance and store it at home, but this has changed so companies now rapidly ship products to order instead.
Recently, questions have been raised about the multi-level marketing structure of some direct-selling brands.
A Mail investigation found that some sellers ended up losing money or earning only a few hundred pounds despite spending many hours selling over several months.
Others reported falling out with friends as they desperately tried to flog their products on social media or felt pressured to recruit new sellers, who had to pay a fee to join even though their chances of making it back were slim.
But for thousands, including Hannah, the business model is still attractive.
Shoppers appear to be embracing the revival of direct selling, with many preferring to buy online from an individual rather than a faceless website
Brands have seen a spike in sign-ups since lockdown began, with Usborne Books At Home reporting a 104 per cent year-on-year increase in March and April, and hair and skincare brand MONAT seeing a 300 per cent increase.
‘It is clear that consumers are looking to alternative channels of retail following the closure of more traditional outlets,’ says Susannah Schofield, describing virtual selling parties as ‘an online personal shopping experience and a bit of light-hearted fun’.
Hannah was inspired to switch from The Body Shop At Home to Tupperware by her mother, who still uses containers she bought at a party more than 30 years ago.
The brand, founded in the U.S. in 1946, was popular in the UK for decades — with even the Queen reportedly using its tubs to store her cornflakes — but interest died out in the 1990s.
Officially, Tupperware has not been sold directly in the UK since 2003, but a handful of sellers import it from Ireland – including the one Hannah works with. However, as it is not a UK-based brand, typically sellers are not members of the DSA and so are not held to its code of conduct.
Demand for the brand has soared recently from younger generations who are shunning single-use plastic pots in favour of more eco-friendly reusable food containers, as well as being inspired by the super-organised homes of social media stars such as Mrs Hinch and Marie Kondo.
I notice Hannah doesn’t mention prices as she demonstrates her products. Tupperware is not cheap: the small, blue tub she is brandishing costs £22.50.
But, she promises, her mother’s experience shows that the products ‘do last forever’.
When I catch up with her a few days later, she’s already had another 100 people ask to join her next virtual event.
‘I’ve had so much interest, you wouldn’t believe how crazy people go for Tupperware,’ she says.
- You can search online to find sellers hosting virtual parties near you. Visit dsa.org.uk for information on how to become a direct seller.
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