It's Time to Take Second Look at the Direct Selling Industry

Who doesn't want to earn extra money? Thanks to digital technology, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to sell our crafts on Etsy, work part-time for Uber, or rent out a spare bedroom via Airbnb.

Download an app, enter some information and images, and we're in business.

While experts scramble to find the actual job impact of the 'gig' economy, there is a growing consensus that project work is steadily increasing, given the dramatic rise of 1099s filed by freelancers and W2 numbers filed by employers over the past 20 years. The research shows that, in general, most people hang on to their full-time employment and supplement it with freelance project work on the side. This is basically how Uber finds its drivers.

Ask experts in the direct-selling industry and they'll agree. Over 18 million people in the US were involved in direct selling in 2014, with industry sales reaching $34.5 billion in the US and over $182 billion globally, and with industry sales expected to continue to grow. Just as with Uber, the vast majority of representatives--usually called Distributors--are part-timers supplementing their primary income.

These emerging consumer purchase patterns are a huge boon to the direct-sales industry. As buying online is now as commonplace as going to the mall once was, consumers have become increasingly comfortable with purchasing name-brand products from websites or in non-retail settings, like homes. In fact, e-commerce sales for the holiday season grew approximately 20% in 2015 compared to 2014, while retail sales were only up roughly 7.9%.

Savvy direct-selling companies recognize that this is an unprecedented opportunity to widen their customer base as well as increase Distributor ranks. The personalized shopping experience that the business model offers - referral-based sales and a personalized shopping experience - give customers trust and confidence in the value of the products offered for sale.

Even better are the enticing options, such as a general awards program for preferred customers with higher discounts and specials. Or, many customers move on to become Distributors themselves, allowing them to sell the product or a service and set up their own business. Often, the financial investment is no more than a few hundred dollars, and this sum (which varies by company, of course) gives Distributors entrée to a credible company where they commonly receive training and community support to help grow their business. It is truly a unique proposition, as it allows most Distributors to earn some type of steady income.

Given how profitable the direct-selling industry can be, why are so many consumers still wary of its products and reliability? Is it thanks to the years of late-night infomercials that some equate - incorrectly - to direct sales? Or the hard-sell approach? Or because direct-sales companies left all the public relations efforts to its inexperienced Distributors, giving them few guidelines for managing the media and the public's perception of what they were selling? Likely, it was a combination of all three--but in our hyper-connected world, it's imperative that direct-selling companies establish and reinforce their credibility. Otherwise, they're toast!

The best direct-selling companies understand the value of smart and savvy public relations that helps them spread the word through integrated public relations and communication efforts. They see how many new customers are out there and they see new Distributor interest and momentum. It just takes a push from the pros in the right direction, allowing Distributors to leverage a company's reputation which in turn helps them grow their individual businesses. This is how consumers discover and even rediscover fantastic products. It's how they enjoy their personal shopping experience. And it's how they can turn from shopper to seller, and reap all the rewards of a satisfying career as an entrepreneur.