The hazards of door-to-door sales

Solicitors are often young people working in unfamiliar places.

By Dwayne Campbell and Amie Parnes

Inquirer Staff Writers

Posted on Mon, Jun. 30, 2003  

philly.com: http://www.philly.com

Original Article URL: http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/6200253.htm

 

They are young and innocent, mostly, and they ring doorbells at nice homes, making a fervent pitch.

 

Some of them say they are college students trying to earn tuition money. Some seek to win homeowners' sympathy by saying they are trying to climb out of poverty. They offer books, household cleaning products and, most often, magazines.

 

Many are not college students. Some are estranged from their families. Some are drifters or runaways with troubled pasts and perhaps criminal records, said Bucks County police, who recently arrested 10 people on charges of selling without a license.

 

Each summer, thousands of young people across the country sell door to door. Many are employed by established companies and work under good conditions. Critics say that some work long hours without meal or rest breaks and that they are lured by brochures and ads that promise travel, fine hotels, gold watches, and other flashy gifts, and a chance to pocket up to $2,000 a week.

 

The door-to-door magazine business, which rings up less than 1 percent of annual subscriptions, brings in $50 million to $100 million, according to trade-group estimates.

 

The young solicitors, frequently 18- to-20-year-olds, are drilled in making captivating sales pitches and working past dark. They sleep in budget hotels and eat meals that are charged against their earnings.

 

"We often call this industry the sweatshop of the streets," said Darlene Adkins, vice president of Washington's National Consumers League, which for five years has rated door-to-door sales as one of the "five worst teen jobs."

 

"Very often, they are not making the equivalent of minimum wage," Adkins said. "They are working in hazardous conditions, many times they go for hours without food. They are transported across state lines to neighborhoods where they don't know anybody."

 

District attorneys in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties around it said they were not aware of solicitors operating in their jurisdictions. Any violations would be summary offenses disposed of at the district justice level through fines, they said.

 

Sales crews customarily are taken to neighborhoods in vans and left to go door to door until the van returns at night. The crews move on after an area is canvassed or when residents complain to police, as they did recently in Bucks County.

 

On June 9, Upper Makefield police arrested and fined six salespeople who said they worked for Strictly Business Inc., of Missouri City, Texas.

 

Later that day the six were arrested again in Lower Makefield and charged with soliciting without a permit, police said. Five were between 19 and 21 years old; one was 32.

 

The next day, acting on residents' complaints, Upper Makefield police arrested four people who said they were selling subscriptions for two Michigan companies they identified as World Wide Commerce and Precision Marketing Group.

 

No records of addresses, phones or Web sites could be found for Strictly Business, World Wide Commerce or Precision Marketing Group.

 

At All Star Promotions, the Pilot Point, Texas, company that some salespeople told Lower Makefield police was one of their employers, a woman who identified herself as Jennifer Ware, a company manager, declined to comment.

 

Dan Smith, general counsel for the National Field Selling Association, said the Philadelphia group had adopted a code of ethics and made it available to members. He said the association expected sales companies "to be nice guys." For prospective sales staff, the code calls for "no deceptive advertising," Smith said.

 

The organization cannot police sales companies, Smith said, because it does not have the ability to investigate complaints. "

 

"You can't believe everything you hear," he said of treatment alleged by former sales staff. "We have no way of knowing.

 

"We certainly push hard for background checks," Smith said, "but it's not a requirement." He said sales crews work as independent contractors.

 

"There's a certain vulnerability that you have to have to be sucked in and brainwashed," said Marla Trudine, who left her home in Sugar Grove, Ohio, earlier this month to sell magazines in Austin, Texas, but who quit after three days. "If you just sell the minimum [eight to 10 subscriptions daily], you still risk being verbally abused. The kids, by the end of the day, are really scared and nervous."

 

Trudine said that at 25 she was older than most of the sales crew members she worked with through Youth Incentive Promotions of America Inc. in San Antonio.

 

When she demanded her promised bus ticket home, Trudine said, she was thrown out and told that police would be called if she returned.

 

Cindy Gonzalez, a manager at the company, declined a request to be interviewed and said questions had to be submitted via fax. She said the owner, whom she did not identify, would have to reply and that he traveled extensively.

 

Salespeople have been fined for tardiness and low performance, Trudine said.

 

They also are charged for fines paid and bail posted by the company if they are arrested for violating local ordinances.

 

Advocates for better working conditions for door-to-door sales staff say magazine publishers, clearinghouses and sales companies have been slow to respond.

 

Publishing companies sell magazines to clearinghouses, which contract with sales companies, which hire door-to-door crews.

 

Michael Pashby, executive vice president and general manager of the Magazine Publishers of America in New York, said in a statement:

 

"The MPA does not condone any sale of magazine subscriptions conducted in a manner that violates any applicable federal, state or local law. We support enforcement actions against those who violate such laws." Magazine Publishers of America, which represents more than 240 U.S. companies that publish more than 1,400 titles, has not been approached about door-to-door sales practices since 1999, a spokeswoman said.

 

In 1999, seven young people were killed near Janesville, Wis., when the van they were riding in crashed on Interstate 90. The driver, a 20-year-old man, had a suspended license, police said.

 

That brought congressional attention. Sen. Herb Kohl (D., Wis.) introduced the Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act last year, which would bar anyone younger than 18 from working with crews away from home more than 24 hours.

 

It passed in the Senate, but has not passed in the House. Proponents say the proposal does not go far enough. They said it should call for background checks of potential salespeople.

 

Jamison Lee Spencer, 19, of Bakersfield, Calif., said he was unemployed and disgruntled with his parents when he learned of 002 Subscription Services Inc., of Buttonwillow, Calif. He left home in February and spent more than two months selling magazines. A month ago, with a friend's help, he fled his hotel in Memphis, Tenn., and made his way home.

 

"We would knock on doors from 9 in the morning to 9 at night," Spencer said. "We'd knock on doors for seven days straight before we went on to the next place. We never got any permits from here to Memphis."

 

"We were taught that if a cop comes up to you, you play dumber than dirt," Jamison Lee Spencer said. "You always say the manager has your permit."

 

Roberta Barnes of La Pine, Ore., said her son, Tyler, 18, became almost robotic only a week after he left home to sell magazines for Atlantic Circulation Inc., of Mountville, Lancaster County. Office manager Laura Potter said Atlantic was a clearinghouse that does not hire salespeople. They are self-employed, she said, working by contract with a distributor.

 

"He was using phrases like 'I can sell. I am not weak,' " Barnes said, recalling phone conversations when she tried to get her son to return home.

 

One night last month, after working for hours in Medford, Ore., Tyler Barnes said his shuttle van never returned. He was hungry, cold and broke, he told his mother, who bought him a bus ticket home.

 

"The whole point is control," said Earlene Williams, director of Parent Watch, a New York group that monitors young sales crews.

 

"They can't get home easily. [The companies] make them believe, for a while, that they're going to make a million dollars," she said.

 

Contact staff writer Dwayne Campbell at 215-702-7815 or dcampbell@phillynews.com