In the 15 years since she became an Avon lady, Elizabeth Demas has rowed against the currents of culture and a rough economy.
Now, wait ... an Avon lady? As in: “Ding-dong, Avon calling?” In this century of shopping by clicking, you can’t be serious.
But Demas, 43, has been very serious — seriously toiling — beginning with her rapping on thousands of Kansas City area doors when she became an Avon rep in 2003. That’s after the computer-major mom was among many locals laid off from Sprint in the telecommunications bubble burst.
From her door-to-door sales, through the ups and downs of early online marketing, to the gamble of creating a retail store, Demas today is among the highest-selling Avon reps in the country.
Her Avon Mega Store in Overland Park is far-and-away the retail leader nationwide in sales of the iconic cosmetic brand, according to tabulations by New Avon LLC. Demas’ 2017 sales surpassed $550,000, almost doubling other stores and online vendors.
And Demas has a book: “From Knocking on Doors to Making Millions.” Released in 2016, it has a five-star customer review on Amazon.com. The book aims to revive a sense of empowerment to the women who dominate direct-selling trades.
Some call it “momtrepreneurism,” the be-your-own-boss peddling of doTerra essential oils, Tupperware or Amway soaps and vitamins.
“After I got to the point where I had sold $5 million of Avon products, I thought, ‘You know, I could write a book on this.’ So I did,” said Demas, who lives in Independence.
Demas defies what many would expect of an Avon lady. So fascinated by science that she named one of her kids Isaac, for futurist author Isaac Asimov, she admits: “I’m the least girlie-girl you’ll meet.
“I’m not here because I love makeup. I’m here because I love business!”
Speaking of business, how’s Avon doing?
Fortune magazine in 2015 said “Avon’s in a ding-dong battle to stay in business.”
With its stock price plunging (along with the number of sales representatives, whose businesses are considered their own), Avon in 2016 sold off what was left of its U.S corporate operations and began setting up headquarters in Great Britain.
That’s the old Avon — a publicly traded company whose roots in America stretched 130 years deep.
It was an Avon that stirs fond memories in former sellers such as Mary Anderson, 89, who recently shopped for shower gel and lotion in Demas’ store.
“I was a representative back in the ’60s, when I had four sons at home,” Anderson said. “Avon helped put them through college.
“Door to door, you bet.... Those were fun years. A lot of the customers I met became my close friends. But I wouldn’t do it today. Now you don’t know who your neighbors are.”
In the United States that old Avon company has been replaced by the privately held New Avon LLC, also known as Avon USA. “Not your grandma’s Avon!,” declare the social media sites of today’s sales reps.
“It used to be the cheapest,” but the product line is changing, said Nicki Keohohou, CEO of the Direct-Selling World Alliance. “The new owners are bringing on a more youthful look.”
Demas’ top-selling store features purple lipstick, gluten-free nutritional supplements and sleep aids. She said the typical customer is around her age, 40-ish.
The former Avon North America was slow to adjust to modern tastes and online marketing, said Demas: “It’s hard to right a ship that was sailing for 130 years.
“The new company can do things without answering to shareholders,” she said. “And they’ve already proven to be nimble to new approaches.”
From doors to store
Few Avon representative these days launch their businesses as Demas did in 2003 — door to door to door, hundreds in a week’s time.
Here’s how her book pitches the science:
“Knock loudly three times. If there is no answer, ring the doorbell. As many as 20% of doorbells are broken, so you will miss out out on sales if you rely on them....
“Count to 10 after each knock or ring before moving on.”
Demas — a high-energy woman who laughs in throaty outbursts — did this more than 1,000 times in her first month selling Avon products in Gardner, where she lived with her young family at the time of her layoff from Sprint.
With two sons in daycare, she was desperate. The situation called for reinventing herself.
“Just do something,” her husband said.
When daycare expenses were figured into their household budget, Demas calculated that a decent full-time job would allow her to take home $500 in disposable income each month. Take the kids out of daycare, however, and a hard-working Avon lady could earn the same by knocking on doors at night.
Yet life for Demas would get harder from there. She took night courses to obtain an MBA. And the opening of Demas’ retail store in 2005 meant working 95 hours a week just to cover the rent.
She set up PlayStation for her sons in the back room. One of them, Rahasya Bharaniah, would later sweep and even help customers in the store find the right match in foundation shades, as his mother had trained him.
“It wasn’t just a passion” that stoked her success, said Bharaniah, now a student in actuarial sciences at Washburn University. “It was hard work and putting pen to paper. It was, ‘I’m going to get this done.’”
Still, the business of selling Avon kept shifting.
With door-to-door fast fading in the 2000s, websites and social media became the new marketplaces. Most lacked the personal touch that Avon reps brought to doorstep introductions, home parties and event booths.
Kathy Dilley of Liberty has been adjusting to the changes since launching her own Avon business in the mid-1980s.
“We all as Avon reps have websites. But even now some girls do house parties,” Dilley said. “Different strokes for different folks.”
For many direct-sellers, house parties have given way to online parties via Facebook Live.
And yet online shopping would spell trouble for retail stores. Somehow, Demas has managed to weather that trend, too.
She notes: “Picking out lipstick online is tricky.”
But what is it about the Overland Park market that would send her store to the top of the sales charts among more than 80 Avon stores around the country?
Ask Demas’ mother behind the counter, Verna Cornish.
When raising a family, Cornish’s job pursuits and those of her two husbands took them all over the Midwest. Daughter Elizabeth thus spent her K-12 years in and out of 10 different schools.
Constantly being around strangers helped her develop people skills. And with each new school came a new challenge when pupils participated in fundraisers.
Door to door, you bet.
“And Elizabeth,” said Cornish, “was always the top seller.”
Elizabeth Demas will sign copies of “From Knocking on Doors to Making Millions” on Saturday, Jan. 27. from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Avon Mega Store, 11034 Quivira Road in Overland Park.