History of Direct Sales in America

From revolutionary times up until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the most significant trend in direct selling was the peddlers who plied their routes in rural America. Depending on the geography, the peddler might have a horse-drawn wagon or be on foot. Most common in the Appalachian region that had limited roads and remote populations, peddlers were an important source of products, news and even mail.

As manufacturing companies became bigger and sought to gain market share for their products, they began hiring travelling sales representatives. These individuals often focused on selling to businesses, but depending on the product, they might hold presentations wherever they could gather a crowd: a good presentation that generated demand from the local population was often enough to convince a local business to place an order. Peddlers and travelling salesmen represented the two faces of direct selling: Independent businessmen selling to individuals and company employees selling to businesses.

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As the population increased and cities grew, it became cost-effective to employ door-to-door salesmen. Bibles, brushes, notions, cosmetics and patent medicines were popular items due to their low weight and easy portability. Later items included vacuum cleaners and encyclopaedias. Today, the only significant vestige of door-to-door sales is girl scout cookies and other offerings typically sold by children to raise money for their organization.

Direct Selling by mail had its roots in the major catalogue sales companies of the 1800’s, and by the late 1950’s this form of direct selling had moved to what is known today as “junk mail.” This became known as “direct response marketing” and was characterized by well-written sales copy focusing on benefits to the customer and concluded with a strong call to action. This developed into a very sophisticated industry that could target specific demographic groups with specific sales messages and often predict the sales response very accurately.

With the advent of the internet, many companies attempted to translate the success of direct response marketing to the “free” internet, which resulted in a new use for the word “spam.” Direct response marketing techniques were then adapted to the internet in an ethical manner using a combination of static advertising on websites, free newsletters and email marketing directly to customers.

Another area of direct selling was the “family and friends” model popularized by cosmetic and household goods companies in the 1960’s. Other companies followed this lead, among them a famous manufacturer of plastic storage containers that pioneered the concept of a salesperson having a “party” at their home to showcase the products in a happy and festive atmosphere.

This model of direct selling has recently been adapted to products that customers, usually women, would not feel comfortable buying in public. The party atmosphere in the privacy of a friend’s home, well lubricated with alcohol, is used to sell items such as risque lingerie, vibrators, dildos and other sex toys. A critical part of the decision to buy is the knowledge that friends and acquaintances use and approve of such products.

As the products and culture change, so to does the nature of direct selling. This short history is by no means complete, and in the interests of brevity, we have declined to discuss entire areas of direct selling. We have no doubt that direct selling will continue to meet the needs of both producers and consumers well into the future.