Millions of Americans sell products - door to door, to friends, to family - on behalf of a company.

Those items include the time-tested, from Tupperware to skin-care creams to makeup. Also growing its audience are herbal and nutritional supplements, and not surprisingly, niche markets such as "toxin-free" toothpaste and "green" cleaning supplies.

With so much out there to be sold, the multibillion-dollar direct sales industry is benefiting from a resurgence brought on by the recession that began in late 2007.

Unemployment nationwide and in New Jersey is nearing 10 percent, and the desire - or need - to strike out on one's own becomes stronger during a teetering economy that leaves people jobless or with a reduction in salary, according to the Direct Selling Association in Washington, D.C.

Since the recession of 2001, the number of people selling has grown an estimated 26 percent to 15.1 million Americans last year, the association said.

Those newer salespeople include Jaime Long, of Galloway Township. She was introduced to a direct sales company that offers a line of eco-friendly products about a year ago, and now devotes about two to three hours per week to selling.

She likes the products but also saw it as a way to supplement her income. Some of her time also is devoted to working in real estate, an industry that remains on shaky ground. An average part-time seller in her direct sales circle can make about $2,000 per month.

"I'm not quite there, but I would be if I put in another two to three hours a week," said Long, a 32-year-old mother of two.

In the past four months, Long also has been able to recruit about a dozen more people to be sellers.

As is necessary in many of these multi-level marketing companies, sellers and their directors above them financially benefit when more products are being sold by more motivated people.

"There has been a very strong drive ... to recruit, but really recruit quality because many direct sellers during these kinds of economic times will get just quantity in, and they'll actually dumb down the sales force," Tupperware Brands Corp. CEO Rick Goings told analysts last week during a conference call, "and you pay the price later."

The industry may be paying the price now. The Direct Selling Association said sales totaled about $32 billion in 2006 but have since fallen to $29.6 billion in 2008.

Retailers with brick-and-mortar stores found themselves in the same position after consumers halted spending during the recession, which is now considered by most economists to be over.

Still, there are growth opportunities for direct sales companies, particularly as unemployment gets worse and markets outside the United States become more receptive to these businesses, analyst Douglas Lane, of Jeffries and Co., wrote in a note to clients this month.

On Wall Street, the share price of Tupperware stock is up more than 100 percent from the beginning of the year. The stock price for Avon, the cosmetics company with a U.S. sales force of about 680,000, is up 45 percent.

The strength of such companies can be used as a recruitment tool to win over sellers. Many brands have become household names, and their jobs are not going anywhere.

"One of the reasons why interest has increased is because you can't get fired, you can't get laid off and you can give yourself a pay increase any time you want to work," said Ava Holly Lewis, of Galloway Township, who has been selling Tupperware part-time for more than 13 years.

Cynthia Jennings has been a sales director with Mary Kay since September 2008. The private cosmetics company was founded in 1963 by the late Mary Kay Ash, who tried to empower her female sales force, while always reminding them that first comes God, then family, then business.

While Mary Kay is associated with the iconic pink Cadillac - given to sales directors whose team of consultants can sell about $200,000 worth of merchandise in six months - the company's foundation also donates money to domestic violence shelters and Habitat for Humanity.

Those values have kept Jennings, 48, of Galloway Township, loyal in her recruiting of consultants and clients, although she still has a full-time job as a legal secretary. She said it is not her style to pressure people to buy or join.

"There's always the stigma about the used-car salesperson," she said. "I'm a professional."

Multilevel marketing has been targeted by some people as being akin to pyramid schemes, in which sellers are paid a commission based on how many new people they sign up to join. In some cases, no actual products exchange hands.

The Direct Selling Association says it does not tolerate pyramid schemes, which are illegal, and vets its member companies.

Turnover of workers in the direct sales industry is about 56 percent annually, similar to the retail industry.

Tony Blum, of Mays Landing, has been involved with telecommunications-based direct sales companies since 1996 and says success depends on the effort made by the seller.

"Yeah, there's going to be potholes," said Blum, 52, "but at least this way you control your own destiny."

Contact Erik Ortiz:


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