Multilevel marketing ‘didn’t feel icky to me,’ one Utahn says, as tech has transformed selling

The industry has critics, yet it drove nearly $2.7 billion in statewide earnings in 2020 as its flexibility has drawn more than 200,000 Utahns to independent sales.

Sherralynn Arnold became a school teacher after graduating from college — but eventually, she found she kept needing her sister to look after her child during the work day.

“If I wasn’t going to walk into a classroom,” she thought with frustration, “I might as well be at McDonald’s,” with no qualifications in other fields.

Instead, she focused on direct selling — and not only does she bring in half her family’s income, she said, her flexible hours have meant “I could tell my kids ‘yes’ to anything” that they needed her for.

Utah is a global hub for direct selling, with the combined economic impact of its almost 100 companies, plus key suppliers and conventions, driving nearly $2.7 billion in statewide earnings in 2020 and supporting 38,000 jobs, according to a report earlier this year from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

The report focused on direct selling companies and suppliers with headquarters and other offices in the state and their employees, so the industry’s actual footprint in Utah is larger. It includes additional businesses and nearly 230,000 independent sales reps and discount buyers who purchase the industry’s products to sell as self-employed entrepreneurs or for their own use.

In 2020, Utah ranked ninth in terms of direct sales per capita, according to the nationwide Direct Selling Association, which represents the industry.

Several of Utah’s direct sellers, which include multilevel marketers (MLM) who recruit a team and receive a commission based on their sales, shared why the field works for them — and how they are trying to attract their share of Utahns’ spending on gifts this season.

Suggesting DoTERRA as gifts — and support

Describing her holiday sales strategies for Utah County-based doTERRA, best known for its essential oils, Melyna Harrison lights up.

“The holidays can go a couple of ways,” Harrison said. “They can be magical. We can provide a way to fill the home with different aromas that help people make connections with memories and the people they love.

“But the holidays can also be very stressful. So our oils can support people. I do a lot for women to help them with self-care. We can package body scrubs, lotions, skin care products, so maybe with just five or 10 minutes we can really give attention to ourselves and destress.”

After 13 years with the company, Harrison, 42, has reached the Everest summit of this MLM business. She is a “presidential diamond wellness advocate,” having risen from earning $1,300 a week in sales to managing a team of 500,000 in 30 countries.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melyna Harrison at her home in Lindon on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.

She directs her large sales force in creating gift boxes for clients who need tokens for co-workers, neighbors or their kids’ teachers. Gifts can be tailored to the home cook, the gardener, even to family pets. (“Yes, I use oils on the family dog,” she said, smiling.)

DoTERRA is among the biggest Utah employers in direct sales, topping Young Living, Nu Skin and Usana Health Sciences in 2020 with an average of 2,265 to 3,526 company employees, the Gardner report said.

The institute found there were 91 direct selling companies with headquarters and other offices in the state in 2020, with nearly one-fifth of them small businesses with fewer than five employees. Seventy-two companies had fewer than 100 employees. The “health and wellness” sector is the most dominant in Utah direct selling, followed by beauty and fashion.

Before becoming one of the millions of people around the world who sell essential oils, room diffusers, skin care products and nutritional supplements for doTERRA, Harrison was a massage therapist. She said she has always gravitated to health and wellness work.

Harrison describes her decision to join the company in almost spiritual terms. One day, one of her four children — a baby at the time — felt very hot to the touch, and was listless.

“I’ve always been leery of running to the doctor for everything,” she said. She had a small vial of DoTERRA peppermint oil in the house, diluted it and dabbed a bit on the back of her son’s head. She said it cooled and calmed him.

She quickly added she makes no promise of a cure value. That would run afoul of DoTERRA’s rules against making unfounded medical claims for its products.

Harrison, a single mother, has been the sole income source for her family for 10 years. Starting in direct sales, and methodically building a business strategy, she values the flexibility this work allows.

“I get to choose which sacrifices to make and when to make them,” she said. “It might be 20 minutes here, then two hours there. I worked during nap times when my kids were little. Sometimes I work in my car while waiting for my son at hockey practice.”

At this level of her career, Harrison said, she has been able to invest in vacation homes and start work on creating a foundation to support single parents. She is set for retirement. She can afford private schools for her children. “I can give them the life I want for them,” she said.

Offering a contrast to big box stores

Everyone has some kind of holiday budget, and “I’m trying to get people to spend whatever that budget is with me, rather than with big box stores,” said Arnold, a direct seller for Mary Kay cosmetics who lives in Plain City.

Before a recent errand, Arnold said, she hadn’t been to a mall in two years. She finds that in the wake of the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, “people are more keen to support local businesses and smaller businesses, especially after all of the shutdowns,” which has made them more enthusiastic about shopping with her.

And now, some “people hate going to stores,” she said.

She developed and markets “12 days of Christmas” towers — stacks of presents that earn her about $100 each.

Arnold first tried selling for Mary Kay when she was 25, she said, and “a starving college student” at Brigham Young University looking to make a few extra hundred dollars a month, on top of working a full-time minimum-wage job.

She met someone in direct selling and “out of the kindness of my heart, I let her show me a Mary Kay presentation,” she recalled.

Arnold made about $200 per month selling the cosmetics “until my car broke down,” she said. Mary Kay sellers could earn a car, so “I got real serious about it,” Arnold said. “I earned a free car.”

Typical incomes for independent sellers are below $10,000, the Gardner report notes, though that varies widely by company and the time and effort put in by individuals — with some purchasing products primarily for personal use. A 2017 nationwide survey found that only about a quarter of those who became involved in multilevel marketing said they turned a profit, according to a 2018 report by the AARP.

Arnold acknowledges “it is really hard to be self employed,” she said. “Nobody makes me get up at a certain time. Nobody makes me have deadlines,” and that’s a challenge.

Texting to beat the traffic

As an introvert, former music teacher Janae Pew said, she “never saw myself doing” direct sales.

But when she moved across the country to Lehi because her husband, who is in the military, was stationed in Utah, “I lost all my violin students,” she said.

And after finding Norwex, which specializes in cleaning supplies, “I fell in love with this company,” she said.

Pew hosts two sales a year. First she tries to “beat the traffic” during the holiday season with a pre-Black Friday sale, then she does a “12 days of Christmas” sale to follow it up, with alerts about both sent out via text notifications.

Pew subscribes to Project Broadcast, a platform that enables her to automate texting to her customers and routinely follow up with them.

And about 98% of her business is now online. She mainly uses Facebook to set up online parties to share information on products, with organizers who invite their friends.

In running her business this way, Pew feels she found a way to make direct selling work for her. “It didn’t feel icky to me,” she said. “It didn’t feel salesy, because I was doing it the way I enjoyed.”

The stigma is that those doing direct sales “are just pushy, and they just want you to buy,” Pew said. Her goal, she said, is to develop relationships. “I don’t even bring up what I do when I talk to people … unless they ask.”

Selling for Norwex, she said, “I made more in my first month than I did teaching my 15 violin students and I could do it on my own time,” which she said has been great as she raises six kids.

The flexibility offered by direct selling disproportionately attracts women, the Gardner report noted; the field also draws Utahns with low incomes and below-average rates of business ownership and labor-force participation.

Avon calling, virtually

Forget your doorbell — you will find Laurie and Mark Allen online for Avon, using Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and their site, Lipstickjunkiepro.com.

The West Jordan couple posts videos about Avon products every week — they have a weekly livestream to showcase them, and Laurie Allen posts daily, 15-second videos on products, along with personal updates, quotes and other tidbits. In recent appearances, she has showed off the sparkle of Avon’s holiday jewelry.

The videos “try to weave our every day life into our story” so they don’t focus exclusively on products, Laurie Allen said.

The couple does most of their work remotely, also texting using Project Broadcast, which connected The Salt Lake Tribune to the Allens, Arnold and Pew.

“We really do try to ramp up our marketing” for the holidays, Mark Allen said, in order to compete with big box stores. This includes setting up a tent at events such as the Crazy Daisy Christmas Show in Sandy.

Laurie Allen has been selling for Avon for two and a half decades. She had tried two different companies before Avon, but felt they were not a good fit, she said, in part because they didn’t communicate well enough.

“This is a way to have your own business,” Laurie Allen said. She gets to call the shots in how she operates; she could travel whenever she wanted, and could stay home with her children when they were younger. She recently also was a full-time caregiver for two elderly parents, she said.

Her husband got formally involved after they attended an Avon convention a few years ago and began to think of the business as a means to make money after he retires from his full-time job.

“Perfume, lip balm, diamond necklace,” Mark Allen cheerfully summarized on a recent livestream, “sounds like a deal to me!”