Known to many as the ding-dong company for its door-to-door sales approach, Avon began as the California Perfume Company in 1886. Its founder, David Hall McConnell, originally a bookseller, started giving out perfume samples to his book costumers and found that they thought the samples were more attractive than the literature. Avon’s products center on fragrances, cosmetics, and toiletries; they also sell some specialty items such as jewelry, clothing, and toys. Today, the Avon company markets its products in over 100 countries, with 5.5 million sales representatives and 42,000 corporate employees. No longer tied to marketing door-to-door, Avon has updated its company workforce, its management workforce, its corporate vision, and its selling models to effectively deal with the early 21st century.
For most of its 123-year history, the company known as Avon was staffed by women and run nearly entirely by men. Founder McConnell marketed his first five fragrances in 1886: lily of the valley, violet, heliotrope, white rose, and hyacinth. They were so successful that McConnell abandoned books in 1892 to concentrate on fragrances. Credited with much of the early successful history of selling the California Perfume Company products was Mrs. P.F.E. Albee, who was not only Avon’s first official salesperson, but also began the practice of recruiting other women to sell the product. The company honors her memory today with the Albee statuette for its top sales representatives. Shortly after perfumes took off, shampoo cream, witch hazel cream, almond cream balm, and small household items including toiletries were added to the product lineup. By 1906, the first cosmetics were added with a rouge in liquid and powder form.
By 1920, the company had reached the $1 million sales mark; during the Great Depression, the company received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, switched to a three-week sales cycle (rather than four weeks), and created sales territories for its representatives to maximize sales. In October 1939, the California Perfume Company ceased to exist and was renamed Avon, in honor of the founder’s liking for Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was already one of the brand names of the company. As a public corporation in 1946, Avon then expanded into international markets beyond Canada (which it entered in 1914). By 1972, the door-to-door sales juggernaut began to expand into non-related endeavors, such as buying Tiffany’s in 1979. This also initiated the company’s financial decline through the 1980s until 1990. The company went through hostile takeover attempts by its chief rivals, Amway and Mary Kay.
At the same time that the company was experiencing its most traumatic economic decline, it was also trying to deal with a non-modern workforce, as well as seemingly antiquated product lines and customer marketing. Well past the 1954to-1967 Ding Dong advertising campaign, the public identified Avon as solely a door-to-door selling company, and during the social changes of the 1970s and 1980s, it fell behind the times. During the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Avon modernized its product lines, market distribution, and diversity of workforce, and finally broke the gender barrier in its management team. The company of women working for men came to an end and Avon consciously redirected its mission toward the “World’s Premier Company for Women.” The company’s first female CEO and president was Andrea Jung, appointed in 1999.
Today, Avon is one of the international companies most heavily dependent on technology for sales, distribution, and manufacturing. Because its U.S. catalog (new products) turns over every two weeks and the international catalogs change every three to four weeks, the company’s research, production, and distribution sectors are some of the most complex and active in the sales world. Approximately 70–75 percent of sales business is currently international, while the U.S. market is handled by 650,000 sales representatives. The company’s sales model has been redefined, paralleling the old direct-sales with a new sales leadership structure that will, the company hopes, be able to improve Avon’s dismal retention rate in representatives by offering women a career choice rather than a strictly part-time supplemental income. Because of the negative reputation of pyramid structures, Avon’s Sales Leadership program started small in 1990, and is slowly being expanded into full integration into the U.S. market and, more slowly, into appropriate international markets. This is a three-tiered system where representatives recruit others to work under them, while they work under an upward management layer. In contrast to some of Avon’s competitors, Avon representatives in the Sales Leadership program must continue direct selling themselves, not just living off their downline commissions. Another difference between Avon’s selling methods and those of its competitors is that sales representatives do not have to purchase the products in advance of customers. Avon extends what amounts to credit to its representatives and waits for reimbursement from the customer once the product has been delivered.
The foundation of Avon’s business today remains the top three: cosmetics, fragrances, and toiletries. Avon’s initial reputation was made and is maintained through its fragrance lines, and the company strength is still scents, although recent expansions have changed the look of the company. Today its key brands are Anew skin care, Avon Color, Skin-So-Soft, Advance Techniques hair care, and Avon Wellness. Most long-term successes have been found among the skin-care products. Skin-So-Soft was launched in 1962 as a bath oil, but has found its most loyal following over the last 40 years as a bug repellant. In 2004, Avon recognized that the company was not fully accessing a fast-growing market, and launched M: The Men’s Catalog. Avon is also attempting to more fully recruit and market to black and Hispanic women, as well as younger women, and especially to recruit college-age sales representatives to ensure the future of the sales force.
Avon was an early (1980s) innovator in adding UVA/UVB protection to its moisturizers (often without labeling it), came out with the retinol product BioAdvance in 1985 after learning how to stabilize a pure form of vitamin A, patented its process for stabilizing vitamin C, and launched anti-aging products in 1987. In 1992, Avon became the first mass producer of Alpha Hydroxy products. While the company’s main research facility remains in Suffern, New York, it also has one in Europe, two in Asia, two in Latin America, and one in Japan.
Like many other beauty companies, Avon contributes significant monies toward breast cancer research and treatment foundations. The Avon Foundation (1955) is its main avenue through which to fund not only breast cancer issues (since 1995), but also more recently, an anti–domestic violence campaign. Because of the breadth of Avon’s sales force and market areas, these campaigns are global in nature. In addition to health philanthropy, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation funds educational and developmental programs for young people from low-income backgrounds. At the same time, controversy has surrounded the company. For example, during the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in California in 2005, the company lobbied against efforts to implement a regulatory framework for the use of chemicals in beauty products that would require companies to report all toxic ingredients used in their products.