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Going Door to Door With Palazzo Pants

September 8, 1995

Ding dong, Avon calling, bringing not just powder and lipstick but also palazzo pants and paisley blouses.

In Nutley, N.J., Linda Tomas is buying a few things from her Avon representative, Joan Pascucci. After going over a catalog with Ms. Pascucci, Ms. Tomas orders some eye cream, an eyeglass case and a turquoise cotton romper with lace sleeves.

Ms. Pascucci will get the purchases in the mail and deliver them to Ms. Tomas’s home when they arrive. She’ll also bring the latest Avon catalog, with its mix of lacy lingerie, long skirts and skin lotion. Avon is aiming at the low end of apparel sales, offering a Diane Von Furstenberg collection that includes a blouse and pants set for less than $60.

Avon Products Inc.’s expansion into apparel may seem risky at a time when women can buy from mail-order catalogs, TV home-shopping networks and even an on-line service that sells L’eggs pantyhose. Indeed, a handful of direct-sales companies sold apparel through home parties during the 1970s, but most failed as the home-party fad faded. The start-up companies had made their clothes too expensive in an effort to increase apparel’s slim profit margins. The few companies that survived carved out distinct niches. Dallas-based Cameo Coutures Inc., for example, a $50 million lingerie marketer, specializes in ``custom-fit″ bras that come in 200 different sizes.

Avon’s main rivals, direct sellers Mary Kay Corp. and Nu Skin International, won’t sell apparel because, they say, it’s harder to create a distinct brand image for clothes than for skin cream. ``We don’t know how unique and different pajamas are,″ says Jason Chaffetz, chief of marketing and product development at Nu Skin.

Avon insists it can sell clothes by offering customers both the convenience and low prices of catalog shopping and the attention of a personal shopper. Its 440,000 U.S. salespeople have developed an extensive network of intimate relationships with customers, the company adds.

Avon started selling clothes in March 1994. At first, at least, it looked as if the line was going to be very successful. Apparel accounted for $120 million, or 8 percent, of Avon’s 1994 U.S. sales. But domestic apparel sales dropped 20 percent in this year’s second quarter. Avon blames the fall on inventory shortages. Diana Temple, an analyst for Salomon Brothers Inc., estimates the company’s U.S. apparel sales will rise to between $160 million and $180 million this year. (More than half of Avon’s sales come from overseas, and in some countries, apparel now accounts for 20 percent of its business.)

About 35 percent of Avon’s sales are in women’s sizes 16 to 30. ``We’re offering more products for people who may have difficulty finding their size″ in catalogs or stores, says Andrea Jung, Avon’s marketing chief who was hired from retail chain Neiman-Marcus Group Inc. last year.

Some Avon representatives were initially skeptical about the new merchandise, especially after Avon cut commissions on apparel, which has lower profit margins than cosmetics. Salespeople get about 25 percent of clothing revenue, compared with as much as 40 percent on cosmetics. (In a brief, disastrous attempt to sell lingerie in 1987, Avon didn’t lower commissions but skimped on quality. The business quietly folded three years later.)

But salespeople say apparel has brought them higher sales. It has boosted Ms. Pascucci’s business 30 percent during some two-week periods, she says. And with Avon expanding its clothing offerings with the Diane Von Furstenberg line, she expects her sales to reach $50,000 this year, up from $39,000 in 1994.

Ms. Pascucci, a seven-year Avon veteran, visits most of her 200 steady customers at least once every two weeks, bringing Avon brochures or delivering purchases. Typically starting her day at 9 a.m., she visits as many as 20 customers a day at home, work or even at church.

Ms. Pascucci says she takes a low-key approach to selling, stressing that she needs to win her customers’ trust. She makes a point of knowing her clients’ tastes. When she spotted a V-neck sweater in an Avon brochure, she bought it with Ms. Tomas in mind and brought it along on her next sales call. ``She thought I might like it, and I did,″ says Ms. Tomas. She bought the sweater on the spot for about $30.

Rosemarie Simmons, another customer on Ms. Pascucci’s rounds, considers buying a jacket from the brochure but insists that Ms. Pascucci bring her a sample jacket first _ something she couldn’t do with catalogs or television shopping shows. She doesn’t like the Home Shopping Network, where she says people make impulse buys. ``I feel sorry for people who can’t control themselves and spend hundreds of dollars. It’s so sad,″ she says.

If the size of an item ordered from the catalog turns out to be wrong, Ms. Pascucci will pick it up and reorder it. Easy returns are a big selling point, Avon says. While it won’t disclose specifics, Avon says its return rate is about half that of catalogs; in 1994, the rate for apparel catalogs was about 15 percent, according to Bruce, Dean & Co. of San Francisco, a catalog consultant.

Ms. Pascucci has become much more than a makeup consultant to her customers. They shower her with questions about the durability of a polyester jacket or the right color for a blouse. On one call, she praises a client’s bed of pansies and reminds her to water the dry lawn. ``I’m almost like an adviser to them for everything,″ she says.

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