Cookies shaped like dresses and little potted plants are part of the pampering that women who shop with Sheila Schmitz-Lammers sometimes get – along with fashion advice and personal service.
It’s a highly personal selling proposition that goes on all over the U.S., through word-of-mouth connections at the country club, the Junior League and charity organizations, but is mostly invisible to ordinary folks who equate shopping with a trip to the mall or a session online.
“It’s exclusive. You’re in the know,” said Anne Brouwer, a senior partner at McMillan/Doolittle, a Chicago retail-consulting firm.
It’s also pricey, although not as high as runway designer clothing. Along with Worth, the direct-to-consumer women’s brands include Doncaster, Carlisle and Etcetera.
A pair of Worth pants goes for about $300. Etcetera skirts and pants run $165 to $195. Like any products sold in homes, they aren’t typically marked down.
That’s a big plus for the companies in a world where shoppers are obsessed with getting a deal. The manufacturers also don’t have any expense for storefronts and marketing campaigns, Brouwer said.
The companies are privately owned and low-profile, so sales figures aren’t available. But they are a tiny portion of the $107 billion U.S. market for women’s apparel.
“We are competing for a share of a woman’s closet,” said Laura Kendall, president of Tanner Cos., the North Carolina parent company for the Doncaster brand. The recession was a challenge for Tanner, the oldest company among the high-end direct segment. But sales are improving this year, Kendall said.
Celeen Flemma uses a room in the basement of her home in Mequon, Wis., as a showroom for Etcetera. She started selling the line 10 years ago, when it was a new concept for the Connaught Group, the parent company for Carlisle.
“You start out with people you know,” Flemma said. “I spent a lot of time going through different groups I was associated with – school, country club, volunteers.”
The high-end fashion lines operate similar programs:
The reps get a week to sell each season’s line – spring, summer, fall and winter. Samples of each line, about 300 pieces, are shipped to the rep’s home, where she sets up displays. The rep invites prospective customers to come in alone, or with a friend or two, to see and try on the clothing. Customers place orders, and their items are shipped to their homes or to the rep.
When the week is done, the rep packs up the samples and sends them on to the next rep in the rotation. A rep gets a percentage of sales, typically 25 percent, but she must pay expenses to operate her business, including some of the shipping costs for the samples.
It’s possible to earn enough to support yourself by selling a fashion line, but it’s a side job for many, the reps say. Average income for a woman who sells Doncaster four weeks a year is about $20,000, according to Ellyn Cooley, marketing director for Tanner.
Schmitz-Lammers started selling Doncaster during the 1990s, after returning to Wisconsin from Germany, where she lived for many years and developed a love for quality clothing. She built up a client list by starting with her neighbors in her former neighborhood in Bayside. After 10 years, Schmitz-Lammers switched to Worth because she liked the company’s fashion-forward designs.
“It’s high-end clothing, but not as expensive as Needless Markups,” Schmitz-Lammers said, using a nickname for high-end department store Neiman Marcus. “You need a lot of networking to find women who need these types of services. A lot of my clients who are high-income businesswomen don’t have time to run around shopping.”
The reps keep records of what their customers purchase and can make suggestions for new additions that will coordinate with what’s in a woman’s closet. But that doesn’t always guarantee that women in the same social circles won’t show up at the same event in the same outfit from a popular line such as Etcetera.
“At the Cancer Lunch, six of us had the same three-quarter-length duster coat on,” recalled Renee Ferrara of Shorewood, Wis. “It was humiliating.”
Ferrara, a former Junior League president, was recruited into the upscale direct-sales world by Worth because of her social connections. The company looks for women who have a list of at least 200 prospective buyers.
Ferrara switched recently to selling a Dallas-based custom men’s line, J. Hilburn, a task that she says is easier than the women’s business.
By using the same social-networking skills, Ferrara calls on businessmen and typically brings her samples directly into executives’ offices.
“Men want to be told what to wear. They’re looking for guidance,” Ferrara said. “If you start in one office and you get six guys and they’re happy, they’ll give you six more.”