By Laura KlepackiNEW YORK — The oppressive heat hovering over Manhattan last Friday couldn’t wear down the convivial spirit of 5,200 Avon ladies who converged on Madison Square Garden for the 116-year-old company’s first sales-representative conference in the New York metro area.Firmly debunking the dated image of the Avon lady as a demure suburban matron, the women here, of all ages and shapes, moved to the rhythms of Donna Summer’s "She Works Hard For the Money" and sang along with the pulsing refrain "Money money," from the O’Jays hit "For the Love of Money."To show who owned New York that day, Brian Connolly, president of Avon North America, led the packed auditorium, located beneath the main arena, in doing the wave, to "blow some cool [air] down Eighth Avenue," he said.Connolly joined Avon 24 years ago as an accountant, moved into sales and seems to have morphed into head cheerleader for Avon’s 550,000 U.S. reps. A native New Yorker who spent 13 of the years in field sales in South Carolina, his personality is part bad-boy charm and part spiritual leader. Connolly simply says, "I fell in love with the business and with Avon."The power of the brand and the power of direct selling is what makes Avon so easy to sell," remarked Connolly, who commands Avon ladies to scream "oh, baby" in fits of delight on stage."He is precious, isn’t he," remarked Nancy Marken, a 27-year veteran, who traveled from Maryland to participate in the "Home for the Holidays" day-long event that included a three-hour sales rally led by Avon corporate executives and a product expo showcasing fourth-quarter launches.Four years ago, Avon followed in the footsteps of direct sellers Mary Kay and BeautiControl, and held its first national sales representative convention. The motivational event featured Richard Simmons and then-Miss America Heather Whitestone McCallum. An annual gathering has been held since. But this year, Avon opted to break out into smaller regional meetings to enable more reps to attend. A mega-national event will be held every other year from now on. The New York rally is one of eight regionals held through August that will in all draw some 30,000 associates.Last week, the women in New York were reminded of Avon firsts, such as its introduction of alpha hydroxy acid in Anew moisturizer and the first insect repellent with sunscreen in Skin So Soft. Other notables mentioned included Avon’s dominance in mass fragrance market with sales of more than $1 billion and its recent worldwide success with Retroactive, which the company claims is the number-one-selling mass market anti-age cream.During the session, Avon’s breast cancer fundraising efforts were recapped — donations should hit a whopping $250 million by yearend. New fourth-quarter products like Dream Life fragrance and Anew Ultimate, a $30 anti-age skin cream, were described. The group got a sneak peak at an advertising campaign for Ultimate that directs viewers to call their Avon lady. They also learned of Avon’s initiatives to further develop the Hispanic market under a program called Avon Eres Tu (Avon is You).The rate of growth of the Hispanic market is "triple" the rate of growth of our core business, said Connolly. As part of the Eres Tu program, a Spanish language brochure has been introduced that is tucked inside a traditional brochure. There will also be products specifically directed at the Hispanic market like a scent called Untamed.Sonia Russomanno, director of marketing segmentation at Avon, said other new items will include gifts for Sweet 15, a birthday celebration for teens, and fragranced items for babies, both popular customs in Hispanic culture.As well, the reps were teased with a promotional video for a teen product collection to be unveiled next year — but Avon provided few details. Additionally, there was mention of Avon’s management and beauty advisor training programs; the expansion of online ordering — 30 percent of reps now order online — and other improvements to the Avon brochure.Naturally, top sales people from the area were lauded, including Maria Tirotta, 52, of East Rockaway, N.Y., who sold more than $100,000 worth of Avon products last year. Tirotta, a 10-year rep, said she has built her business with the use of personal "helpers." Most of her customers are women with children who are too busy to shop.And then came the audience prizes.With names randomly picked from a tumbler on stage, three women won trips to next year’s annual convention in Orlando. Then cash prizes in the amounts of $1,000, $750 and $500 were raffled off to audience members with the bills counted out by hand by Avon corporate executives. Finally, a glass enclosed box, as seen on TV game shows, was wheeled out. Two women, chosen again by raffle, grabbed at cash that was blown around them in the box. One came away with $2,250 and other take was even higher.Betty Howe, 62, of Newark, Del., one of the cash prize winners, thinks that the idea for a teen line is "great." And Linda Monzione, of Vineland, N.J., said the trip to Manhattan was worth it because she got to see new items up close. "I think a lot of the time, the catalog doesn’t do the product justice." And, no surprise, Marken of Maryland, who coincidentally won a cash prize and a trip, said, "the meeting was awesome."But is Avon getting out of its price range with a $30 skin cream, its priciest ever? "No," said one top sales woman. "For women to look young, they will pay anything."

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