"Ooooooh!" As Angela Pryor pulled a $9.95 mini-hacksaw from her toolbox, the women in Kathy Stegmeier's Patchogue, New York, living room registered their enthusiasm. "After using tools for 30 years, you need something this powerful and light," Stegmeier said, wielding a multiratchet screwdriver. Geraldine Feindt needed the right wrench for a leaky sink. By day's end, Pryor had a sheaf of orders for Tomboy Tools' woman-friendly products.
It's the hidden corollary to the explosion in online shopping: Product parties, where buyer actually meets seller, are jumping, too. In six years, party sales have increased nearly 36%, to $8.2 billion in 2004, according to the Direct Selling Association.
Home selling has come a long way since well-coiffed gals first gathered around storage containers. When University of Chicago marketing professor Jonathan Frenzen studied Tupperware parties 16 years ago, he found that most purchasers were friends the hostess could count on for help anyway. But next-gen product parties aren't fueled by guilty goodwill. Instead, they start as lively gatherings guided by a consultant who doesn't necessarily know the partygoers—someone like Pryor, contacted through a Web site, who knows how to cultivate an emotional connection between customers and the product.
Pampered Chef, which offers kitchen-supply parties through 70,000 consultants worldwide, may have done the most to inspire the rebirth of the shop-at-home phenomenon—more so after its 2002 acquisition by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Co. In addition to entrepreneurs like Tomboy Tools CEO and cofounder Janet Rickstrew, established companies began testing the idea. In 2002, Crayola introduced its Big Yellow Box program, bringing kids and parents together to make crafts. Jones Apparel Group, which owns clothier Anne Klein and shoe retailer Nine West, was set to start a direct-sales company called Million Wishes this spring.
Even garment maker Jockey, which sells the most underwear in department stores nationwide, launched a direct-sales division last year called Jockey Person to Person. The idea is that shoppers will recall a fun party when they see Jockey products in department stores, says Kim Gentile, vice president of sales for the division. And that's the point: Big-box retailers and online shopping engines make it easy for products to get lost or, just as bad, discounted to the bone. Creating more personal experiences can fight that dynamic. How can you resist a brand, after all, when you've spent an afternoon pounding nails with friends?
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.