Avon, the prominent global beauty company, has been around since 1886 when door-to-door salesman David H. McConnell realized the female customers on whose doors he knocked in New York City were more captivated by his perfume samples than his books.
By Janice Llanes Fabry
Avon, the prominent global beauty company, has been around since 1886 when door-to-door salesman David H. McConnell realized the female customers on whose doors he knocked in New York City were more captivated by his perfume samples than his books. The visionary subsequently recruited this very same domestic population to become his sales representatives or “Avon ladies,” early pioneers of women’s entrepreneurship.
One of Avon’s distribution centers opened its doors right here in Rye 55 years ago at 601 Midland Avenue. The facility has since evolved into an IT and finance headquarters. It’s still home to hundreds of employees, albeit a small percentage of the company’s 40,000 employees in over 100 countries. Today, Avon is one of the world’s largest direct-selling companies with $10 billion in annual revenue. Those iconic “Avon ladies,” by the way, grew into over six million sales representatives worldwide.
“Through Avon’s business, we empower millions of women around the world to be self-sufficient,” noted External Communications Manager Lindsay Fox about the company’s steadfast philosophy. “Since 1886, the company has offered women a no-barrier earnings opportunity to support themselves and make a better life for their families.”
Whereas women at the turn of the century generally stayed at home or were confined to factory and agricultural jobs, McConnell identified them as an underutilized resource.
Moreover, he tapped into women’s innate ability to market to their own demographic.
The first Avon lady, Persis Foster Eames Albee, traveled by horse and buggy to sell her wares throughout the northeast. Heralded as the “mother of the California Perfume Company,” as Avon was originally called, Albee excelled selling their Little Dot Perfume Set with five fragrances, violet, rose, hyacinth, heliotrope, and lily-of-the-valley. As McConnell expanded the company, he renamed it after his favorite playwright William Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, which supposedly reminded him of Suffern, New York, the location of his original perfume factory.
That site is now a 225,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art research and development facility. Avon eventually expanded its products to include cosmetics, bath and skincare lines, costume jewelry, fashion, and home products. Following the company timeline is a veritable lesson in American history.
During World War One, the company began its international expansion in Canada. Sales climbed to $1 million by 1920, the year women won the right to vote. It survived the Great Depression, converted half its Suffern facility into a factory for the war effort in 1942, and went public in 1946. In the 1950s, its “ding, dong, Avon calling” television commercial was introduced, becoming one of the longest running advertising campaigns in history.
In the mid-1970s, while continuing to expand globally, Avon held one of the first women’s marathons and began supporting women’s tennis. In the 1980s and ’90s, it brought anti-aging technology to the mass market with stabilized Retinol and Alpha Hydroxy Acid. It was also the first beauty company to introduce an e-commerce site that shipped products to customers.
Reinventing itself “from Little Dot to Dot-Coms,” as expressed in its website, Avon’s meteoric rise continued well into the new millennium. Not only can shoppers log on to www.avon.com, Avon sales representatives may establish their own websites so customers can order directly from them.
At a Consumer Analyst Group conference this year, CEO Sheri McCoy remarked, “We’ve made a lot of progress in social media. Today, we have over 15 million fans that follow us and we are getting new friends each and every day. That is important because it allows us not only to get our brand message out there, but also to learn what is important to our Representatives and what is important to our consumers.”
Avon has also become the largest corporate-affiliated philanthropy dedicated to helping women’s causes worldwide. Having established the Avon Foundation (later changed to Avon Foundation for Women) with a $400 scholarship in the 1950s, the company went on to launch the Breast Cancer Crusade by selling the first pink ribbon pin to raise awareness and funds in 1992. Today, the Avon Walk mobilizes millions around the world, raising millions with every step.
Avon has certainly lived up to the progressive thinking McConnell’s ambitious vision of sustainability, philanthropy, and the empowerment of women through its global ambassadors, health and domestic violence programs, and environmental initiatives. In the portentous words of the founder himself, “If we stop and look over the past and then into the future, we can see that the possibilities are growing greater and greater everyday.”