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Margaux Jordon's life changed the day she admired the shoes a female acquaintance was wearing.
"My brother made them," the woman replied.
Jordon, who loves shoes, thought, "Women in the United States would go crazy if they could get handmade shoes." From that simple idea has emerged Footprints International, based in her home in Orange, Calif.
Jordon has learned that being handmade isn't nearly the shoe-buying enticement she thought, but buying them at a party is.
Home parties, part of the direct-sales industry, are used by such companies as Tupperware and Mary Kay Cosmetics.
Footprints could have been nothing but a glorified job: one woman selling unusual shoes at bargain prices in parties hosted by friends. But Jordon had a larger vision of creating a global direct-sales company.
That has required building a system that can be taught to others and expanded as the sales force grows. It is neither quick nor easy.
"I have been amazed at the amount of work that has gone into creating this business," she said. "There's one word I hang onto - persistence." Jordon was working for the Fullerton College Foundation, and still does part time, when she launched her business in 2003.
"I knew nothing about how to start a business, what permits I needed, how to get credit-card (merchant) services set up, where to get shoes," she said.
Shoe suppliers didn't want to talk with a small newcomer. So Jordon went to the World Shoe Association trade show in Las Vegas and trudged from booth to booth seeking companies with unusual shoes in varying sizes and colors that would accept small orders.
Finally, John Kim at Falo Mi Shoes in Arcadia, Calif., accepted her order. When she left the show, she had eight suppliers.
It was the idea of her husband, Tony, to sell the shoes through home parties. Despite the role major corporations play, small entrepreneurs like Jordon are still the backbone of home-party sales, according to Fortune magazine.
Selling through parties keeps expenses low, with no need for a retail shop or major advertising. Face-to-face selling in a party atmosphere usually holds customers' attention longer than in a shop and can build stronger loyalty.
Every step of the way Jordon has found people willing to help her organize her business.
"I didn't even know how to transport the shoes," Jordon recalled. "I boxed up all my shoes and put them in garbage bags. It took me two hours to set up the first party. I couldn't expect sales reps to do that."
One of Jordon's suppliers showed her large, padded suitcases used to transport shoes to trade shows.
She sought the help of SCORE, a free business counseling service sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Orange County, Calif., SCORE counselor Joe Di Stanislao suggested that she set up a system to reward her party hostesses. So Jordon gives them a gift certificate for shoes just for hosting the party and tiered discounts for their shoe purchases, based on sales at their party.
Di Stanislao also recommended that she stock inventory.
"I cautioned that if a supplier has priorities elsewhere, she could have a problem filling orders," he said.
That's exactly what happened. Jordon took orders at a party and then discovered that her supplier was out of those shoes. She spent hours trying to track down alternative sources. Now she keeps a supply of her most popular shoes in a range of sizes.
Jordon has also received advice from Greg and Patricia Kishel, Orange County residents and co-authors of several books, including "How to Start, Run and Stay in Business."
"Margaux has all that it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur," Patricia Kishel said. "She is following her passion. She researched her products and market. She has an outgoing personality, which you need to do home parties."
Jordon's sales representatives are independent contractors who run their own businesses based on Jordon's methods. She first had to write a manual to guide every step from buying a startup kit for $400, to networking with party hostesses, to selling, to serving customers.
"I am training my first sales rep and plan to have eight by the end of the year," Jordon said. "I think all the preparation I have done to develop the system will make expansion easier."
Facts about home-party sales:
Part of the $30-billion-a-year direct-sales industry.
74 percent of Americans have purchased through direct sales.
Major corporations that sell through home parties include Avon, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Crayola and Unilever.
Tupperware is considered the first to use home parties to sell merchandise.
Renowned investor Warren Buffett joined the home-party industry by buying cookware seller The Pampered Chef of Addison, Ill.
Products sold at home parties include cosmetics, home decor, sex toys, kitchen utensils, vitamins, scrapbook materials, tea, cleansers and handbags.
Most sales reps and customers are women.
Pluses of home-party sales include lower cost of startup and overhead, higher brand loyalty, and committed sales force.
Minuses of home-party sales include 50 percent and higher turnover among sales representatives, and Americans' image of direct selling as "pyramid schemes."
(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.