independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

The Avon ladies who won't be calling on you any more

Reese Witherspoon is one of Avons celebrity ambassadors.

Avon Calling? Not any more, after the cosmetics giant dramatically pulled out of Ireland as part of a $400m cost-cutting initiative this week.

Up to 5,000 'Avon Ladies' across the country have been left jobless following the shock announcement by the US company on Monday.

For Avon veteran Valerie Ryan, it's the end of an era.

"When I was growing up, I remember my mum getting the Avon catalogue," says mum-of-four Valerie (54) from Crosshaven in Co Cork.

"Then, 17 years ago, when my own children were quite small, a friend asked me to come on board.

"The beauty of Avon was that you could go in at any level. You could just buy your own lipstick at discount or you could have 20 [sales] reps under you.

"It was ideal for me," adds the hairdresser. "I could do an hour here and there without being missing full-time from my family. I could drop the boys to rugby training and do an hour and then go and collect them.

"For me, it was just pocket money – it helped me buy my own lipstick and night cream. But I know other women who relied on it to pay the bills.

"It's very sad for us."

Since gracing doorsteps in 1886, the Avon Lady – famously portrayed by Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands – has become one of the world's most enduring emblems of women's entrepreneurship.

Today, around 6.5 million reps worldwide, 99pc of whom are women, help shift four lipsticks every second for the brand through door-to-door sales, Avon parties and online.

Five decades after selling her first lipstick, former Avon Lady Pat O'Neill says she's still a fan of the products.

"Back then, you got your little suitcase full of samples and you went around door to door," recalls Pat, who's in her 80s.

"After I got married, I saw an ad recruiting sales reps. My husband bought my kit for me and I started off.

"The children in the area used to call me 'The Lipstick Lady'. You had to look the part and, of course, you had to drive.

"In the beginning, it was difficult knocking on doors," admits Pat, who, until this week, was a customer of Valerie's.

"But I soon got into it.

"The first time Valerie came to me I said: 'I was an Avon Lady long ago – I could never turn one away from my door'."

Despite almost $11bn in annual revenue and celebrity endorsements including Reese Witherspoon, Avon has not been without its own wrinkles recently.

According to one quarterly report last year, the company sold 1pc fewer items, while its army of sales reps shrank by 2pc.

For Ireland's Avon ladies, however, it's the terse five-line statement posted on the company's website this week announcing that it had "ceased trading in the Republic of Ireland" that is most disappointing of all.

"Avon has just disappeared overnight," says Valerie Ryan. "I only found out after a friend texted me. I couldn't believe it and went straight on to the website.

"The worst thing is we've been left without any information, so there's nothing to tell customers.

"I've had people on the phone to me all week saying: 'Where am I going to get my face cream?'

"Avon hasn't actually told us anything," she adds. "Even on the posting on the website, it didn't say sorry – that'll tell you we're a blip on their horizon."

"Avon has always claimed to be 'the company for women'. There are a lot of women [for whom] that's the only bit of pocket money they have for themselves – now that's gone."

It's not the first time the company has pulled the plug on its Irish operations.

"In the last recession in the 1980s, the same sort of thing happened," explains Valerie, who joined Avon after it re-entered the Irish market in 1994.

"They're a global company and we really are only a dot on their landscape.

"I have an order pending. I don't know if customers are going to get their products now.

"Normally, when an order is delivered, you collect the money from customers, you pay your manager and the manager pays Avon. There will be [sales reps] who will be left out of pocket – but Avon won't be. Avon will have to be paid."

However, a spokesperson for Avon told Weekend Review: "Avon has not sought any payment from business developers for orders that were not fulfilled.

"Avon Ireland has seen a decline in revenue and has not made an operating profit in the last three years in the Irish market.

"Given current marketing conditions, following an in-depth internal review of operations performance and potential for growth, Avon made the decision to close its operations in the Republic of Ireland.

"It truly was a very difficult decision to make. This is part of a global effort to turn around the business. We're committed to doing what's best for the larger enterprise and Avon representatives all over the world."

As independent contractors, the company's "active representatives" here are not entitled to any severance pay.

But Valerie reveals it's not the extra cash she'll miss the most.

"I was widowed at a young age, so my Avon was very precious to me then," she says. "Over the years, I've sat in a lot of people's kitchens.

"I had a lot of people I called to regularly that have now become friends as much as customers.

"Avon has been a big part of my life. I never felt it was work.

"I'm going to miss it."

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