Knock, Knock. Who's There? Avon Man.
THIS might sound weird," Salvatore D'Amico will say when he approaches a man in the locker room at his gym. In other settings around suburban Philadelphia, he skips the introductory throat-clearing and just blurts out the bad news. "You look terrible," he will say, or "You look like you haven't slept in a week." Then Mr. D'Amico, 32, will slip the potential customer a $10 tube of Avon ProExtreme Advanced Eye Cream for Men and reassuringly tell him, "This will help."
"With men, eye cream is an easy sell," Mr. D'Amico said.
Mr. D'Amico doesn't look much like an Avon lady, with his high-and-tight haircut and treadmill-perfected physique. Then again, the Avon lady isn't what she used to be. For starters, she isn't always a lady.
Today up to 12,000 men stand ready to sell you a tube of Avon ProExtreme Energizing Face Moisturizer for Men— an enormous number for a corporation whose identity is so thoroughly feminine that it still bills itself as "the company for women."
Mr. D'Amico joined Avon when he got tired of having to wear a guest name tag at company events with his wife, Katrina, who is also a sales representative. He works as security guard at a local hospital, too, but that doesn't stop him from selling Avon when he's on duty. "I say, 'Doc, are you living at the office now,' " he said. "Then I get serious and sell him the eye cream."
Mr. D'Amico trumpets his association with Avon the way some men broadcast their fervor for their favorite football team. Outside his house in Levittown, Pa., a three-foot-wide sign spells out AVON in white light bulbs. At the gym, he wears a sleeveless shirt that reads AVON on the back and LET'S TALK on the front. In the summer his sons Caleb, 5, and Gavin, 3, sell Avon products in front of the house instead of lemonade.
But the life of the Avon man can be lonely. It's not just the occasional wisecrack ("Did you get a new dress to wear to your makeup sale," Mr. D'Amico's buddies joke) or the double take from new customers. Women still make up close to 98 percent of the sales force of 500,000 representatives — Avon could not provide figures on whether this percentage has changed in recent years — and Avon's corporate culture remains stubbornly ladylike.
The company rewards each rep who sells $10,000 in merchandise with a porcelain figurine of Mrs. P. F. E. Albee, the first Avon lady, dressed in full Victorian regalia, holding an umbrella or a birdcage.
Last year, Mr. D'Amico moved about $40,000 in Avon products to men and women (he kept half the money) to reach the Rose Circle, the third of six levels recognizing top earners. He earned not just a figurine but a cruise to British Columbia. His fellow sales representatives left their husbands at home, making Mr. D'Amico, one of the few men on board, as rare a sight as the gray whales spotted off the side of the ship.
A fellow sales champion asked him in disbelief, "Why would you want to go on a cruise with 800 women who are running around talking about hair and makeup?"
The heckling from his friends and fellow sales representatives doesn't bother Mr. D'Amico; he laughs off comments that real men don't sell moisturizer. "A man has to be secure in himself to sell Avon," he said. "The little teasing I get I have fun with."
At a recent craft sale in Levittown, Mr. D'Amico accessorized with a gold Avon pin that was almost as bright as his bleached teeth. He talked to everyone who walked by, offering free hand massages with Avon Moisture Therapy intensive hand cream and enthusing about the products. He praised the men's abdominal firming cream, which he said feels like Ben-Gay when he smears it on. "It burns off something in your stomach," he said.
Most of the people who stopped by for his hand rubs were women, who make up the bulk of his customers despite his best attempts to round up clients in the men's locker room. To them, he sells Avon perennials like Skin So Soft original bath oil. He doesn't ring up much makeup because he hasn't been willing to take Avon's beauty adviser course, an intense study of such things as which lipsticks and eye shadows should be worn together.
For years women have been the keystone of the Avon business model: They are not just the sales reps but the target customers. Even the men's cosmetics are typically marketed to wives who choose the shaving cream their husbands lather up with.
But in an age when growing numbers of men want to buy their own shaving cream — not to mention exfoliators and anti-aging salve — that paradigm is starting to show some cracks. According to the NPD Group, a firm that tracks retail sales, men's skin care and fragrance make up 17.2 percent of the total cosmetics market. Yet, at Avon, men's products are estimated at less than 1 percent of the $2.1 billion business.
The company might boost its share of the male market by taking better advantage of men like Mr. D'Amico. So far, however, Avon hasn't made any special efforts to recruit male sales representatives.
"I don't necessarily think that a man will buy more from another man," said Avon's senior marketing manager of men's products, Shirley Dong. "Women influence what men purchase."
Another Avon man, Billy Kolber-Stuart, said he thinks the company can do more to change that.
"Avon hasn't made an effort to make the representative program friendly to men," said Mr. Kolber-Stuart, of Beverly Hills, Calif., who is a skin care enthusiast with a biology degree from Yale. He has been selling about $10,000 in Avon products each year since 1998.
Mr. Kolber-Stuart, 42, said he made the point five years ago during a chance encounter with Andrea Jung, the chairwoman and chief executive of Avon, who was stepping out of her car in a white Chanel suit as he was leaving the Avon spa on Fifth Avenue in New York clutching a bag of shower gels and scented candles.
Avon said it supports all of its reps equally, despite the girl-power moniker. "Though Avon may be known as the company for women, we have many successful male representatives as well," said Debbie Coffey, Avon's vice president for public relations.
Mr. Kolber-Stuart said he also used the run-in with Ms. Jung to tell her that Avon needed a line of products just for men. Six years later, his wish was granted. Avon even put these products, named Pro Sport and Pro Extreme, into a separate, masculine catalog, so men don't have to flip past pages of lip gloss and mid-price lingerie.
But Mr. Kolber-Stuart won't use it; he objects to seeing Pittsburgh Steelers mini collectible mugs and Black Suede soaps-on-a-rope lumped in with the shaving and skin care lines (all of which he calls "impossibly scented").
"My clientele is too sophisticated for it," he said. "The guys I'm selling to are wearing Tag Heuer and Rolex watches. They don't care about Nascar."
Ms. Coffey said Avon is pleased with the success of the line, adding, "We continually work to ensure our product offerings are technologically superior, and that they meet the unique needs of our customers."
Instead, Mr. Kolber-Stuart makes his own pamphlets for the luxe Anew skin care line that Avon markets only to women. Then he gives his customers a sample of the Anew Alternative Intensive Age Treatment to experiment with.
"Guys would rather take something home and try it first," he said. "You just don't put cream on the back of a man's hand, gay or straight. No man wants you rubbing their hand and saying 'Doesn't that feel great?' "
Mr. D'Amico doesn't pamper the men he sells to, either. "With men you can be more rough," he said. "You don't have to be as compassionate."
At a recent meeting for local reps at Mr. D'Amico's house, he and nine women had gathered around his coffee table (which doubles as a tropical fish tank) for some Mary Kay bashing, lots of applause and a brainstorming session about how to sell to men. "We should push the foot cream," one woman said. "Men have nasty feet."
When the meeting ended, the guests wandered over to admire the D'Amicos' collection of Mrs. Albee figurines. The women talked about their outrage whenever they see one of the porcelain ladies sold on eBay.
Finally, the other reps turned to Mr. D'Amico for an opinion.
"Next year," he told them, "they'll have a statue of me."