By  on June 27, 2014

SKILLMAN, N.J. — Call it the ultimate social network.

While some women enjoy shopping for beauty online in the privacy of their homes, there’s a growing segment opting for the camaraderie of home parties.

At a recent gathering here, 17 women dined on raclette, sipped rosé and listened intently as Carol Whitmore passionately educated them about a line of bath and body, fragrance and home decor.

Three hours later, they had caught up on each other’s lives — in person rather than on Facebook — and purchased more than $1,500 of merchandise.

This isn’t your mother’s Tupperware demonstration — quite the opposite it, as it was a party featuring Jo Malone London, an Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. brand.

Instead of learning to seal plastic storage containers, the guests smelled Jo Malone candles and learned how to layer colognes. Whitmore, Jo Malone business manager at Bloomingdale’s in Bridgewater, N.J., treated guests to hand and arm massages using Jo Malone products. In just a few hours, the guests — most of whom had never purchased the brand — became fans with several returning to Bloomingdale’s in subsequent weeks to buy more.

The Direct Selling Association hasn’t monitored an uptick in beauty home parties, said Amy S. Robinson, DSA’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, but she thinks the concept is a good match for the category. “It’s a more relaxed atmosphere than bricks and mortar. You can experiment and try new things. It’s also nice to shop with friends who can give you instant feedback,” she said.

An informal poll of women agreed that interaction is a nice change from the impersonal nature of online or the inconvenience of going to a store. Several said they have been invited to more home parties in the last six months than they had in the past four years.

Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail, credited Jo Malone with hitting upon the concept of the ultimate addition to the omnichannel world of retailing. “Party selling is an extension of the broadening social marketing platform that has expanded through the use of digital. It puts a personal face on it again, as in the old days of door-to-door and party plans.”

But with the likes of Jo Malone and other upscale brands, the parties of today are a far cry from the origins of home demonstrations. Jo Malone may seem like a surprise addition to home parties, but Liebmann sees it as a stroke of genius since it is a brand that flourishes with education.

Chris Wyatt, global education director for Jo Malone, said all retail partners have the opportunity to have Jo Malone stylists visit key clients in homes in a “relaxed, private setting.” The stylists go through extensive training to ensure they have the skills needed for the home environment.

The events benefit the brand and the merchant. “New clients from these events often come back into their local boutique. Having formed a relationship with a stylist, they return for further advice and start to interact with the brand more regularly,” said Wyatt. “Parties can last three to four hours. This means that guests have time to really delve deeply into the world of Jo Malone.”

Robin McNamara, one of the partygoers, agreed. “I’m tethered to my computer all day long,” she said. “This was a better environment to shop and to hear from my friends what they liked. I bought cologne and a body cream that I learned how to layer. I had passed by the Jo Malone counter before, because I really didn’t know anything about [the brand].”

In East Hampton, N.Y., Diana Dolling-Ross is also taking certain premium brands found at White’s Apothecary, including Estée Lauder, Clinique and Bobbi Brown, to the homes of the store’s customers. Dolling-Ross, the marketing director for Nyco Chemists, which owns White’s, plans parties where if $1,000 is sold, the hosts gets a $250 beauty basket. A $2,000 party nets a $400 basket and a 15 percent off coupon. She also offers deluxe home spa parties and Clinique birthday parties.

Nerium International, a direct-sales skin-care company, has found that sharing before-and-after photos motivates women to shell out $110 for 1 oz. of its day or night cream. Nerium owes much of its success to its informal gatherings, said Amber Olson-Rourke, cofounder and vice president of marketing and culture for Nerium. “We make it simple and show you don’t need 526 different products. Nerium works on any age and any type of skin,” she said of the line, which just added its third item, a body contouring cream. Tammy Smith, a California-based Nerium brand partner agreed the social format works. “Friends trust friends. When women are in a relaxed environment, they really open up.”

Outside of beauty, Stella & Dot uses trunk shows as a major vehicle to promote its jewelry line, said Jessica Herrin, founder and ceo. Hostesses often wear the pieces to inspire purchases. Herrin conceived of Stella & Dot as a new breed of home sellers without “lackluster products and high-pressure sales tactics.”

Even experts in the digital space see benefits in the home approach. Robert Ricci, chief director of digital strategy and social media strategy for Marina Maher Communications, said the informal gatherings further deepen connections with consumers and influencers. “Increasingly popular, [house parties] can bridge the gap between the real and virtual world and offer participants an environment where one-to-one engagement and experience with a brand can create a conversation that converts,” he explained. “They can also be rich sources for the types of data that typically come out of focus groups, at a fraction of the cost.”

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