If It's Not One Pitch, It's Another††

Do Not Call List Boosts Door-to-Door Sales

BY TOM DURANTE

Long Island Press: http://www.longislandpress.com

August 19, 2004

Original URL: http://www.longislandpress.com/v02/i33040819/news_02.asp

 

You could call it a knock-knock joke on consumers. Homeowners irritated by mealtime marketing calls may have inadvertently brought back the door-to-door salesman.

 

With the National Do Not Call Registry limiting unsolicited telephone calls, some companies, especially magazine subscription peddlers, are turning back to an age-old technique. They're sending representatives to sell products personally, a practice known in the industry as direct selling.

 

"Publishers are desperate after the Do Not Call list," says Earlene Williams, director of Parent Watch, a Manhattan-based nonprofit clearinghouse for information on child and youth labor abuse in the door-to-door sales industry. "They need ad costs, as well as readership."

 

Direct sales have risen steadily, reaching $29.6 billion last year, up from $28.7 billion in 2002, according to the Direct Selling Association (DSA). The direct selling sales force is estimated to be 13.3 million people nationwide.

 

On the other hand, officials for some of the nation's best-known direct marketers, such as Cutco (cutlery) and the Kirby Company (vacuum cleaners), downplay the change.

 

"The Do Not Call list has affected our business slightly," says Robert Shumay, a spokesman for Kirby, which has been selling vacuums to people in their homes for 90 years. Both companies insist that they do not sell door-to-door; they call it selling "by referral" or "by appointment." In other words, their salespeople aren't supposed to just show up knocking on your door.

 

Direct marketers have always been a lightning rod for consumer complaints. BadBusinessBureau.com, a consumer reporting website, has a large category devoted to door-to-door selling, with complaints numbering 152 at presstime. Palmetto Marketing, Inc., a magazine-subscription solicitor, has more than 80 complaints on the Bad Business Bureau site. At the Better Business Bureau, Palmetto has an "unsatisfactory record." Complaints include failure to deliver services as promised and misrepresentation of sales practices.

 

Parent Watch is concerned that times have changed and that door-to-door selling is more dangerousóboth to consumers and sales reps. Since 1999, more criminal events have been associated with traveling sales crews than ever before, according to the Parent Watch website.

 

"Business is good, so they're hiring indiscriminately," Williams says. There are even predators who claim to be door-to-door salespersons.

 

The National Field Selling Association (NFSA) is a DSA competitor whose members include Palmetto and American Community Services (ACS), an Indiana-based magazine-subscription agency clearinghouse. In June, an ACS seller was arrested for allegedly stabbing a homeowner to death in Toms River, N.J. In 2001, another of the company's sales reps was arrested in a similar stabbing death in Knoxville, Tenn. In fact, out of 91 criminal reports listed on www.travelingsalescrews.info, ACS sales reps were allegedly responsible for 20 of them. NFSA's board of directors includes Vincent R. Pitts, president of Palmetto Marketing, as well as American Community Services president, LeVan P. Ellis. Neither of the two executives, nor the NFSA itself, could be reached for comment. Pitts is currently suing Inside Edition, a television program that aired a negative story last February based on a reporter's undercover work as a sales rep at Pitts' company.

 

The modern dangers of this old-style sales technique are not lost on some of its most famous practitioners, such as the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. They've sold cookies to eager customers this way for more than 80 years.

 

"We have built safety precautions into the Girl Scout cookie program," says Donna Rivera-Downey, marketing director for the the Girl Scouts of Nassau County, Inc. These measures include permission slips, a buddy system, adult supervision and a restriction on selling over the Internet. Pre-arranged booth sales at malls or railroad stations have become more common. "More troops are doing sales through word of mouth, families and friends," adds Rivera-Downey.

 

DSA spokesperson Amy Robinson says that many communities are offering no-solicitation requests or enacting "Do Not Knock" laws. One is Long Island's Rockville Centre. She says that although the incorporated village has had tough regulations on door-to-door activities (including charitable ones) since 1971, in 1996 an amendment to the village code provided for the creation of a list of homeowners who do not wish to be solicited at home for "any purpose." There is no charge to put one's home on the list, and it does not apply to religious groups, charity organizations, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.

 

"It's part of the village code," says village spokesman Jeff Kluewer. "Residents are given a chance to sign up every year, but they must renew every year [to stay on the list]."

 

To sell merchandise door-to-door in Rockville Centre, solicitors must apply for a license at city hall and pay $250 for six months, explains Kluewer. They are then given the list and may only call on people once a year, and only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. Solicitors are asked not to disturb homeowners with repeated rings or knocking. Violators will lose their licenses and be summoned to village court. Remarkably, only about 850 of approximately 9,000 residential addresses are signed on to the list. And only two or three businesses apply for licenses each year, adding a whopping $750 to village revenue.

 

RVC Mayor Eugene Murray informs the Press, however, that feedback from homeowners suggests a great decline of both phone and door-to-door callers.

 

There is hope for Long Islanders who wish to participate in direct selling in a safe manner. Homeowners and sales reps have turned to "party plans," whereby a company representative visits a host or hostess and friends who are interested in a product. On LI, this practice is most common with designer goods, such as handbags and sunglasses. And it's a lot more fun than dealing with strangers at your door.