$7,000,000,000 for Door-to-Door Salesmen (Apr, 1952)

According to this article in 1952 fully 2% of the American workforce were door-to-door salesmen. I wonder what it is now? I love how they speak approvingly of one organization’s “pyramiding partnership”.

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$7,000,000,000 for Door-to-Door Salesmen

By Harry Kursh

AMERICA’S fastest growing small-business opportunity is also America’s most underestimated! Few people know that a group made up of two per cent of the American working population managed to make over $7 billion last year in door-to-door selling. This fabulous figure was more than double the previous peak year. If you’re not afraid to knock on doors, you can claim your share, too.

The door-to-door selling boom—for which an even bigger year is predicted in 1952—is opening the door for thousands to become independent, self-employed salesmen, selling practically anything a family can use. Already more than 3,000 firms have men and women going from door to door for them to sell everything from nylon stockings to fire extinguishers.

For example, when Al Gogolin came to Toledo, Ohio, in 1948 to establish his own business in repairs and installation of home heating equipment, he knew no more about that city than a visitor from Mars might know about

Brooklyn. He went ringing doorbells anyway, convinced the housewife would go for a good thing if it were brought directly to her attention. After his first full year, he chalked up more than $100,000 in gross sales. Today, the Gogolin Heating Co., ringing more doorbells than ever before, uses five top salesmen, five junior salesmen and a half dozen mechanics to keep up with its orders for repairing and installing heating equipment.

An even more spectacular story of door-to-door selling success is the case of Forest S. Barrett. In 1941, when direct , salesmanship was still only a mild ripple in selling American products, he took a job with a Bible distribution firm! He went from door to door using this sales pitch: “Read the Bible to be wise. Believe it to be safe. And practice it to be holy.”

In a few years, he became the firm’s sales manager. Then he accepted a partnership in the company. By 1945, the company was changed to Barrett Distributors and moved to Dallas, Texas—Forest S. Barrett, president and sole owner. He is now backed by a force of 300 door-to-door salesmen and an office staff of 30 employes. His estimated sales for 1951 were close to $3,000,000.

In fact, Barrett added a new twist to launching door-to-door salesmen on the road to self-employment. He used the chain-letter principle, calling it pyramiding partnership. He formed a partnership agreement with a salesman and left that salesman free to form a similar (or different) profit agreement with anyone else. Each succeeding salesman, thereafter, joined the previous salesman in a separate agreement of his own. Today, Barrett claims “anyone capable of following instructions, recruiting, hiring and managing other people” has unlimited opportunities with him.

Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun and door-to-door selling is no exception. Experts trace it back to the first itinerant peddlers a couple of thousand years ago. However, as a big business, the history of door-to-door selling is comparatively recent. In 1852, C. W. Stuart and Co. of Newark, N. Y. started selling trees and shrubs directly to the consumer instead of through the established channels. Then, in 1868 a man named J. R. Watkins bought a small bottle of liniment from a doctor who made his own preparation. Watkins soon found the liniment popular with his own friends. On an impulse, he decided it could be sold more widely if it were brought directly to the attention of the housewife. Introducing what was also probably the first free-trial offer, Watkins went around in an enclosed wagon, leaving a few bottles at each house. When he made a second call, those who liked the liniment paid; those who didn’t, returned the unused portion.

Today, the J. R. Watkins Co. of Winona, Minn, sells hundreds of items and employs more than 15,000 door-to-door salesmen who ring up $45,000,000 worth of business annually. They serve some 20,000,000 customers.

But it took two brothers, Clarence E. Knapp and Elwin Knapp, right after World War I, to prove that you can sell almost anything by ringing doorbells. Looking around for new business ideas, they chose the shoe industry. But their decision was revolutionary for they decided to sell directly to the customer with a product that businessmen swore couldn’t be sold outside a retail store. They opened a small factory in Brockton, Mass. Then Clarence skooted out to Chicago to open an office, advertising for door-to-door salesmen. Hundreds flocked to his hotel room for interviews. Nearly all left just as fast as they came when they saw that it was shoes they would have to sell. One man stayed behind.

He was curious enough to ask: “How can you sell shoes without a store where you can invite a man to be properly fitted?”

“Come,” said Clarence Knapp, “I’ll show you.” And he took him over to a group of newspaper truck drivers cluttered around the Chicago Daily News building waiting to haul away the latest edition.

Within a couple of hours, Clarence sold 19 pairs of shoes from a suitcase. Today, the man who was with him supervises dozens of door-to-door salesmen from his slick Chicago office. And the name of Knapp Bros. Shoe Manufacturing Co. hangs over three factories producing men’s shoes at capacity. Recently, Knapp Bros, door-to-door salesmen sold more shoes in one month than in any similar period in its entire history. And every pair is still sold without benefit of a store.

Nowadays, if you want to set yourself up as an independent door-to-door salesman, working as little or as long as you like each day, the list of things you can sign up to sell is practically endless—automatic floor waxers, pop-corn machines, brushes, vacuum cleaners, pots and pans, tools, gas and oil savers, fruit trees, machine tools, ball point pens, greeting cards, food products, insecticides, soap, razor blades, fire extinguishers, store signs, radios, typewriters and even television sets. In a tough, competitive market like New York, for instance, it was estimated recently that about 50 per cent of all the television sets sold in the area were sold by direct salesmen.

Of course, door-to-door selling today does not mean that you have to restrict your efforts to the housewife. The big trend is toward specialization. Many door-to-door salesmen sell only to people who run institutions. Many just visit garage owners. Some call on offices, others on private homes only. Most manufacturers who supply products for door-to-door selling don’t care where you’re from or even where you’re going to sell. They only want to be sure that you’re not too bashful to carry their products directly to potential customers.

Like any other business, door-to-door selling has its share of unscrupulous characters. Not so long ago, several door-to-door salesmen got housewives to open doors for them by pretending they were taking a survey. Once inside the door, the salesman would ask a few innocent questions on a dummy form, then he would proceed to sell his own products. You can imagine how much this angered housewives.

Recent war talk has even made it possible for some salesmen to capitalize on the gullibility of people. One such salesman was arrested last year in Los Angeles for selling “anti-atom-bomb” lotion. It turned out to be nothing more than a smooth, homemade mixture of water and cold cream, for which he was getting $2.49 for half a pint. It cost him six cents to make.

Other unscrupulous salesmen talked people into buying special clothing for protection against the effects of an atomic explosion. Such clothing, of course, doesn’t exist.

Then, of course, there was the recent example of the inflammable brushed-rayon sweaters which burst into flame easily and caused many injuries to innocent purchasers.

However, through the vigilant efforts of such famous policing organizations as the Better Business Bureau, door-to-door selling is as clean a profession as you can expect to find in any form of business. Perhaps that’s why it is becoming more and more a growing opportunity for ambitious inventors to get their own brainstorms on the market.

There’s probably no better living example of this than Ray Lee who astounded the cosmetic industry and started his own revolution in the home permanent wave business. Back in the ’30s, when he left college full of optimism only to run smack into America’s worst depression, he had a clever home permanent wave invention up his sleeve. That’s where it would have stayed if he had relied on a backer to market the product tor him. Instead, Ray bought himself a battered Ford for $50, cashed a $400 insurance policy and went from house to house ringing doorbells to sell his own product.

That was enough to get him started. Business grew so fast that Ray hired a chemist and opened his own small plant. But by this time others were trying to horn in on his invention and he was kept busy fighting law suits to protect his patent. Meanwhile, he took in a partner and went to work dreaming up new ideas while business just continued to climb. It wasn’t long before he was able to sell out his 83 per cent interest in the business for $600,000. That was a slight mistake, though; shortly afterward, his partner sold out for $30,000,000. But Ray is not worried. Having gotten the start he needed, thanks to door-to-door selling, today at 41 he is financially independent and associated with John Roosevelt in a brand new home permanent wave business.

Probably the best known firm selling in the door-to-door field is Fuller Brush. Even before Hollywood deemed it a good idea recently to make two movies about the Fuller Brush man and his feminine counterpart who sells cosmetics, the company was said to be raking in more than $33,000,000 a year. Unofficial estimates for 1951 put the total closer to $60,000,000.

There are over 17,000 Fuller dealers, as the men and women who sell the products are called. About 7,000 sell brushes and about 10,000 are cosmetic dealers or Fullettes. And although the majority of Fuller dealers have had no previous selling experience, they manage to average close to $100 per week. It’s been the experience of the company that anyone of good character, good appearance, with a reputable product to sell and a willingness to work can sell successfully. The law of averages works in favor of the salesman, they say —if you ring enough doorbells, you’ll sell enough products. Last year, many Fuller dealers netted $7,000 or better with the top earners making about $15,000. And according to President A. Howard Fuller, dealer earnings will probably increase 20 per cent this year.

Outfits like Fuller Brush have been known to provide door-to-door salesmen with excellent training for going out on their own. There’s Stanley Beveridge, for example, founder of Stanley Home Products. He started with Fuller Brush. Now, his own company is reported to have grossed $35,000,000 in 1950. While he undoubtedly got a lot of ideas from his job with Fuller Brush, Beveridge can claim a. unique twist or two of his own.

Instead of getting full-time salesmen to work for him, he concentrated oh taking on part-time dealers, mostly men who could work sparetime evenings only. Instead of just traveling from door to door, a Stanley Home Products man gets a housewife to use her own apartment or house for a gathering of neighbors and demonstrates his products to all at the same time. As an inducement, the housewife gets a special gift, depending on the total sales for the evening. Today, there are about 16,000 such dealers working for Stanley. Sooner or later any of them may strike out on his own with a brand new idea for door-to-door selling—just as Beveridge did.

Generally, you can get started in door-to-door selling in two ways: you can buy or make your own products, establish your own route, set your own margin of profit, do some advertising and start ringing doorbells; or you can get in touch with a company that sells in the door-to-door field and ask to be appointed to their sales staff.

In the latter case, it doesn’t matter where you live because most firms will supply you with sample selling kits. And usually it doesn’t matter that you may already have a full-time job because by acting as a representative of the company, your income is based on commissions and you can work whenever you please.

But wherever you operate, don’t make the mistake of calling yourself a door-to-door salesman. If you do any advertising in the local newspaper or if you print up your own calling cards, refer to yourself by the more dignified title of sales distributor or factory representative, which, indeed, is what a door-to-door salesman actually is.

Probably the best instruction you can get in door-to-door selling comes from experience. And for some it can be tough. A few years ago the New York Post hired 3,000 men in a special campaign to sell encyclopedias from door to door around New York City. After three years, only 32 of the original number stuck to the job.

Successful door-to-door selling, however, is only beginning to be recognized. Barron’s, a leading financial weekly newspaper, points out a recent report in which average annual earnings of door-to-door salesmen were said to range from $6,000 to $20,000 a year. Many, the report said, earn much more than that but don’t make their full earnings known to the public for fear of competition.

Earl A. Lifshey, a famous newspaper columnist in the retailing trade, once set out to do a brief article on door-to-door selling. That was three years ago. He ended up taking a nationwide tour, interviewing more than 200 leading members of the door-to-door selling industry and writing a book because the subject turned out to be bigger than even he had ever suspected. Today, his book Door-to-Door Selling, published by Fairchild Publications in New York, contains a complete history of successful door-to-door selling. The book is practically considered a Bible in the direct-selling industry and lists the firms concentrating their products and efforts in the door-to-door field.

Often businesses not engaged in direct sales don’t understand the true power of door-to-door selling. In 1947 someone brought it to the attention of the Western Auto Supply Co. and the company decided to give that kind of selling a try. By 1950, adding up its door-to-door figures along with regular sales, it reported a gross of $65,400,000, five times as great as any previous peak figure without door-to-door selling!

Chances are, as an individual, you won’t do quite as well. It takes a lot of time to get a decent-sized company rolling. But if you can ring doorbells and enjoy the gift of gab, there’s no reason why you can’t talk yourself into a sizeable income.

  1. Stannous says: June 12, 20066:43 pm

    Door-to-door sales workers, news and street vendors, and related workers
    Sell goods or services door-to-door or on the street:
    2004 employment: 239,000
    US employed civilian labor force 141,000,000

    About .6% of the work force work as street vendors or door-to-door sales people. The latter is considered a ‘high risk’ occupation by OSHA because of the likelihood of auto accidents

  2. […] And that it was the fastest growing industry of that time. For more on that, read this  article on Door-to-Door Sales that ran on April 1, […]

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