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Avon has a new wrinkle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is the new Avon Lady calling:

"I heard that Johnny Depp wears mascara," coos Lauren Shiflet, 17, referring to the Academy Award-nominated actor. "How cool would it be if he bought it from me."

Shiflet represents a new breed for Avon, the cosmetics retailer. As its century-old door-to-door selling has met new challenges and competition, the company has turned to younger women as the next legion of Avon ladies.

Young women ages 16 to 24 are pitching a new Avon line called Mark at high schools, college dorms and slumber parties.

Avon has long sold some items for children, but it hadn't before used youths to sell products or created a separate line for them.

Long known for its appeal to middle-aged women, the 117-year-old company is attempting to become a trendsetter for finicky teens.

A recent Mark catalog featured products such as body crystals, "plumping lip" pots and duo nail polish colors so girls can stripe their nails.

The promotional material more resembles teen magazines than the company's familiar pocket-sized catalog.

Avon hired pop singer Jewel and Lala, a VJ on MTV, as "spokesmodels." And a teen-age character on the NBC soap opera Passions sold the products as part of her role in three episodes last year.

This is definitely not your grandmother's Avon.

"There is an extraordinary opportunity for us to target this demographic," said Deborah L. Fine, the former publisher of Glamour magazine and president of Avon Future, the company division responsible for Mark. "The buying power of this group is extraordinary. "

Females under 25 spend about $250 billion a year, a quarter of it on makeup and fashion, according to various sources. To better reach this audience, Avon created the Mark line last summer.

It had hoped initially to sign up 13,000 Mark salesgirls, but got nearly twice as many: 25,000. Mark sales reached $20 million in December. Avon hopes the line will bring in $100 million by the end of its first full year this summer - still a fraction of Avon's total sales of more than $6 billion.

Along with cosmetics, the Mark brand includes hats, purses and earrings ranging in price from $4 to $28.

Making a mark

Avon officials said they named the line to celebrate the "mark" that young women are making on the world - and because it was short enough to fit on a tube of lipstick.

"The average age of Avon's salespeople and customers is middle-age," said Linda Bolton Weiser, vice president of research at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York.

"You need to get something to try to liven up your brand. The company has recently upgraded many of their products. The next step is to offer things to people that are trendier."

Shiflet, a senior at the Institute of Notre Dame in East Baltimore, recently gathered five of her friends in the school library for a Mark session. She put pink lip gloss on the girls and painted their nails gold and silver. She passed around lotion that smelled like roses.

The girls, in their plaid-and-navy Catholic school uniforms, lathered it on their hands and giggled a lot. The conversation bounced frenetically from exams, to the latest Lord of the Rings movie, to the relative cuteness of Johnny Depp and fellow actor Orlando Bloom.

"I like the lotion," said Courtney Howard, 15, a freshman from Pasadena. "It makes my fingers tingly."

"I do it for the makeup," confessed Shiflet, who has sold more than $700 in products, making about $300 in commissions. "I love makeup."

Sales to the boys

Maureen Jeffreys used to sell Mark every other Thursday at Columbia Union College in Montgomery County's Takoma Park. The 19-year-old from Baltimore would set up a table in the boys' dorm where she says the girls spend most of their time. Her strategy: to persuade guys to buy gifts for their girlfriends.

One night at the dorm she approached a guy in a white sweater, neat cornrows, built like a football player.

"Are you and your girl still together?" she probed with a slight smile.

"Yeeaah," he answered skeptically.

"Well, why don't you buy her a nice gift, like some shower gel or lip gloss?" Jeffries suggested, pointing to her collection of perfumes, blush and eye shadow.

Her sales pitch wasn't successful that time, but overall she said she earned $1,500 in four months selling Mark. She liked the job but recently gave it up for a full-time job at a marketing company.

Avon, an iconic name in American retailing that evokes retro images of women cheerily ringing door bells, wouldn't be the first company seeking the Fountain of Youth. From the "Pepsi Generation" to Oldsmobile's advertising that it was "not your father's" automaker, plenty of businesses have tried to get the public to see them in a more modern light.

Avon's roots reach back to 1886, when David H. McConnell started it as the California Perfume Co. By 1906, an army of 10,000 representatives was visiting women at home, offering generic perfumes and cosmetics. The first products bearing the Avon name - a toothbrush and talcum powder - hit the market in 1928.

Decades later, as the feminist movement fueled opportunities for women in the workplace, the homes that Avon sellers visited began emptying out by day. The very customers Avon helped prepare for work outside the home had disappeared by the 1980s.

In 1999, Andrea Jung, a former Neiman Marcus executive, was named Avon's president and commenced a turnaround. The company weeded out stale apparel lines, beefed up its mid-price offerings and targeted youths more aggressively. Net income tripled, to $535 million in 2002, the last full year for which figures are available, from $142 million when Jung took over.

'Minor' impact

Some on Wall Street, however, wonder whether young women are as formidable and motivated a sales force as the company's older "sales associates."

"In terms of an impact, it's very minor at this point," said Howard Choe, an analyst with Standard & Poor's. "I think you have to look at it over the next several quarters to really see how it is working."

Other critics wonder about youth exploitation.

"These companies like Avon want brand loyalty established as early as possible," said Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for the American Way, a consumer watchdog group in Takoma Park. "It's a smart concept from an economic point of view. The question is if it's right for our children."

But Mark girls said selling cosmetics was cooler than flipping hamburgers and gave them a chance to be their own boss and make their own hours. Openings in retail and fast food have become tighter as a weak job market has pushed adults into many of those positions.

Mark girls make $40 for every $100 they sell. That compares to older Avon representatives, whose commissions run 20 to 50 percent of sales, depending on seniority and volume.

"It's so easy," said Krisstina Evans, 17, a Glen Burnie High School senior who was looking for something flexible to complement her part-time job at a day care center so she can earn enough to buy a car.

"I can stay home and make money."

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