I remember hearing the concept of a “party plan” as a youth and can still feel my face scrunching up in confusion and incomprehension. It must have been in the context of a Tupperware party, as that company enjoys an instant association with the concept. The idea is largely credited to Brownie Wise, who devised the party plan system of marketing in the 1950s for Tupperware.
Wise was a former sales representative for Stanley Home Products, and that is where the origins of party plan marketing are slightly contested. Stanley Home Products claims on their website that the innovative selling method is theirs. “This concept was the brainchild of a Stanley dealer, who began giving product demonstrations to clubs and organizations to increase sales volume.”
Regardless of birthright, the concept was a hit because it is based on the idea that everyone should win. The Stanley approach is described as, “Homemakers would invite small groups of friends to their homes for a product demonstration and light refreshments, and the hostess in turn would receive a gift of choice from the Stanley dealer, who took orders from attendees.”
Some social event/sales presentation formats are largely disdained and represented in popular culture as ethically questionable, like resort timeshare presentations. But the party plan has found new life, and the underlying business model has only slightly morphed since its inception. It works as follows: Brand representatives approach potential hosts to throw the event in their home. The representative will give a product demonstration and explain pricing and delivery. The host will receive in some combination a gift, a share of proceeds and/or discounts. Orders are taken from attendees, and then the representative is almost always compensated by commission. The representative may also recruit others to be representatives, and that is another form of revenue.
It may sound trite or hokey, but when you think about it, party plan events are truly premised on social networks. Their efficacy lies in their face-to-face nature and leverages the impact of word of mouth. But there are detractors who argue that the format exploits a party’s normal social convention and applies undo pressure on the guests to make a purchase.
I had my first experience with this form of marketing and selling when my stepdaughter announced she was having a Stella & Dot trunk show at our home. The brand representative had got to her somehow, and then it largely fell on my wife to pull off the event and ensure there were enough guests to make a go of it. I was fascinated by it, so I stuck around to pour the wine (or grease the wheels of commerce).
The format went through its straightforward paces and delivered both on the social enjoyment and the sales process. Without sharing numbers, allow me to say it was well worth it for the Stella & Dot representative. But of course, sales success cannot only be based on the sales process. The company provides quality products that cannot be sourced through other channels, which are priced in a range that works for many. My wife benefited by receiving a gift and discounts on her own purchases.
There are many types of products now being sold through the party plan system. A cursory look turned up:
Wine, including Wine Shop at Home: “Our independent wine consultants throughout the country present in-home wine tastings that make discovering and purchasing great wine effortless and fun.”
Toys, including Discovery Toys: “Host with us and discover what fun a night in your living room can be for you and others like you. Discover the thrill of throwing a party with a love for learning and giving to children and the joy of shopping – without leaving your home! Become a Discovery Toys hostess.”
Scrapbooking and albums, including Creative Memories: “Host a summer project party where everyone gets together to create their own family travel album. Everyone walks away with something great, and you get wonderful free products!”.
Cooking, including The Pampered Chef: “A cooking show is a fun, easy and affordable way to get together with friends and family. As a host, you can share simple recipes that are so delicious and impressive, too! Many are ready in 30 minutes or less and feed your family for around $2 per serving.”
I also wasn’t too surprised to discover an aggregator service for party plan businesses: “House Party” makes it easy to have a party in your own home and get exclusive access to products for you and your friends. “We provide the fun, you provide food and feedback and promise to have an awesome time.” They have twined it with a daily deals function.
The range of products sold in-home are extensive but skewed toward women. There is definitely a way to apply party plan marketing to both genders. Certainly wine and cooking can appeal to both and make for a fun social event. And when you think about it, a book club is actually a party plan that prompts you and your friends to purchase multiple copies of the same book.
Male-focused party plans could work, too. I wouldn’t mind a scotch tasting. It might be a stretch to suggest a custom dress shirt and tie event for men, but who knows until it is tried. To me, the event format has appeal because of its social nature, product exclusivity, but most importantly, the product knowledge and related education. I could see fishing and golf equipment working for guys if the product is unique and the brand representative is highly credible in knowledge and experience.
The Tupperware party has long been a part of popular culture and has now given rise to many more brands using the format. This is because it leverages human nature and has the benefit of bringing people together. It will be interesting to see what other products adopt this marketing and sales channel and how it could evolve into fully-grown clubs of people who share similar interests. So the challenge is to have people connect with both the brand and the sales model. That is its next frontier: creating customers for life.