But not all of Tsang’s friends see it in such a positive light. One of her close university friends, Tin Hok-sum, 22, was invited by Tsang to join a make-up course this summer. Tin went to the course voluntarily. However, he felt the class was not professional and the main purpose of the lesson was to convince participants to buy the make-up and skin care products.
After the course, he found out that $100 of the $500 course fee was automatically counted towards the annual fee for becoming an Amway Privileged Customer, which he had no intention of being. After becoming a VIP, Tin gets regular calls from Tsang and other distributors encouraging him to make purchases. Tin says he sometimes avoids such “friends” because he is given a sales pitch every time they meet.
Even though they have enticed him with fabulous awards, Tin has no interest in trying direct selling. “What this business does is to sell your time and friends,” he says. He is also dismissive of the claim that participating in direct selling is to operate your own business. “They are still working for their uplines!” he exclaims.
Tin may be unconvinced, but for some young people, the lure of operating their own business has a great pull. Judia Yue Sau-chun, a social worker who also teaches social work at CUHK, says young adults often seek a sense of belonging and role models to look up to. Yue says the hierarchy and naming systems used in direct selling can appeal to young people’s self-esteem, “They are often called distributors instead of being labeled as ‘employees’.”
“Who would want to be a nobody when they can ‘run theirown company’?”
The rallies too, have a huge impact on young psyches. “Young adults in this stage are constantly trying to further develop their self-identity. They will feel overwhelmed as well as fascinated by the models sharing in rallies,” says Yue. The momentary sensation of gaining total control of our lives and the sense of belonging with the crowd can knock them unconscious and they fail to make reasonable judgements on these emotional occasions.”
Yue says she has come across people who have got so deeply into direct selling that it creates problems for their families, friends and associates. She hopes students and other young people can understand that they can choose to leave the business.
To Yee is an example of a young person who has left the business. To, 24,is a full-time tutorial teacher now, but he worked as an Amway distributor for a year after he graduated from secondary school. He thinks the main reason he left was because of his personality: he is shy, especially when selling to his friends and family.
“It’s just like using my friends to fatten my own purse. My conscience really troubled me a lot,” says To. “The company told us to focus on the people around us like neighbours and relatives as we are familiar with their living habits, they will be more convinced to buy the products,”
After listening to the mentors at rallies and in workshops, he fantasized that he too could stand on the stage and receive awards. “ I regarded money as a very important matter to me at that time,” he says. He once even thought of inviting his mother as his down-line so he could make use of her network of housewives to boost his sales.
But To’s family did not support his direct selling activities. His mother thought the golden age for direct selling had long passed as people now have easier access to product information and are less likely to be convinced by direct selling agents.
To’s mother was also worried by his behaviour when he was preparing demonstrations for home visits. “He was like spellbound. He made the family sit around the table and listen to his demonstrations while pulling out products continuously from his suitcase and talking non-stop. Sometimes it could last up to an hour or two,” Mrs To says.
To had been attracted to the business because of the claim that he would be able to build his own career and have flexible working hours. But he was soon disillusioned. He found he had to attend many evening courses while studying during daytime. He spent several thousand dollars on course fees but achieved low sales figures. His year in direct selling was not a happy experience.
Although To believes the dream presented by direct selling companies can be realised, he thinks only a few can achieve it. “They may be able to reach their highest sales revenue in a month, but what about the month after?” he asks.
“Some young people do succeed to stand on the stage receiving applause, but they are only a drop in the ocean.”