A Road To Trouble

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A Road To Trouble

Newspaper article

By: Anne Constable

Date: October 11, 2005

Source: Constable, Anne. "A Road to Trouble." Santa Fe New Mexican (November 13, 2005): A1, A6.

About the Author: Anne Constable is a staff writer for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper. She has won first- (feature story) and second-place (news feature) awards from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in 2000.


The concept of the door-to-door salesperson has been a mainstay of American culture since the end of the Second World War in 1945. The Kirby vacuum company, Fuller Brush, Tupperware, Avon, and Encyclopedia Britannica all employed traveling salespeople during the middle of the twentieth century. People sold household sundries, books, magazines, cleaning products, knives and kitchen utensils, foodstuffs, and self-care items door-to-door during a time when streets were considered safe and neighborhood crime was low. By the 1970s and 1980s, the demographics of the traveling sales industry had changed (as had the tenor of the country): there were far fewer mature adult professional traveling salespeople, and a bur-geoning number of adolescents and young adults being recruited into large-scale door-to-door sales crews.

The young sales crews often travel in groups of twenty-five to fifty, moving from area to area, then state to state. Typically, the crews are recruited by means of newspaper ads promising good pay and the opportunity to travel. They are given minimal training and even less supervision, and housed in groups in inexpensive motels. The sales crews are dropped into neighborhoods, instructed to set out door-to-door to carry out direct sales, and told to earn a specific quota, which generally translates into a targeted dollar amount of sales. If the quota isn't met, the sales representative does not earn any money, and may be subject to a variety of punitive consequences and deprived of privileges such as meal money, use of a telephone, and subjected to verbal abuse by the crew leader(s). When the quota is met, the sales representative may still not be paid as promised, may be given a small meal allowance, and may not be permitted to use a telephone to contact friends or family.

In the case of magazine sales, the subscriptions are sold at significantly higher prices than are available though tear-out response cards inserted in the periodicals themselves, and a hefty processing fee is tagged on to the final cost. The recipient is told that the subscription will not commence for three to four months—although many people never receive their magazines at all, according to data published by observer groups such as Parent Watch and Traveling Sales Watch. The young sales people sometimes report being encouraged to lie to consumers, telling them that they are competing for trips, scholarships, and money for higher educational programs. They are also sometimes reportedly told to lie about where they are from, where they are staying at present, and what their future plans are.


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The Better Business Bureau (BBB) reports that there are extremely large numbers of complaints lodged against the largest direct magazine sales organ-izations. The BBB posts warnings, particularly to youth, to be wary of seeking or accepting employment with the traveling sales crews. They report that consumers have filed complaints regarding failure to receive promised goods and services, as well as intentional misrepresentation of sales practices (crew members have claimed that they attend local high schools and were trying to earn points to go on school trip, and similarly inaccurate stories). In addition, each of the above-mentioned websites (Parent Watch, magcrews, and Traveling Sales Watch) lists strong warnings about the potential dangers posed to the crews as well as to consumers whose homes are visited and who may lose significant sums of money or their personal safety to the traveling salespeople.

Sales representatives are typically hired at the conclusion of the interview, if one occurs, and background checks rarely, if ever, occur. Because the crew members hired are considered independent contrac-tors, there is no process of insuring or bonding them that takes place. The hiring company has no responsibility, therefore, to protect either the crews or the public (who may potentially be victimized by unscrupulous or criminal crew members). Crew members receive no legal protection for their employment conditions, and accrue no benefits. They do not receive medical or dental insurance, and have no written contracts specifying frequency or method of payment. Many of the former crew members whose stories are posted on the websites report never having been paid, or of leaving the job while being owed thousands of dollars. Former sales crew members report that the majority of money earned by them goes directly to those above them—crew managers, and the owners of the traveling sales company. Law enforcement officials estimate that many abuses, injuries, and victimizations involving traveling sales crews go unreported.

The Child Labor Coalition has published statistics estimating that, at any given time, there are approximately fifty thousand juveniles working door-to-door sales, earning the companies for which they are employed somewhere in the neighborhood of one billion dollars per year. They offer an extensive list of unsafe business practices engaged in by many of the sales companies, and term the work dangerous and exploitative.



Short, Jr., James F. Poverty, Ethnicity, and Violent Crime. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.

Web sites

The Child Labor Coalition. "Youth Peddling Crews: Sweatshops of the Streets." 〈http://www.stopchildlabor.org/teensandstudents/doortodoor.htm〉 (accessed March 05, 2006).

Direct Selling Education Foundation. "Is that traveling sales job for you?." 〈http://www.dsef.org/information2175/information_show.htm?doc_id=29943〉 (accessed March 05, 2006).

MagCrew.com. "The Official MagCrew Site: Did you or do you currently sell magazines or soap door-to-door?" 〈http://www.magcrew.com/〉 (accessed March 05, 2006).

Parent Watch Inc.: A Clearinghouse for Information on Traveling Sales Crews. "Missing Persons." 〈http://www.parentwatch.org/missing/missing.html〉 (accessed March 05, 2006).

Traveling Sales Crews Information Web Site. "Traveling door-to-door sales." 〈http://www.travelingsalescrews.info//〉 (accessed March 05, 2006).

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