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Getting Troops Ready to Sell, Sell, Sell

November 23, 1987|MARY ANN GALANTE | Times Staff Writer

It was like a Kathryn Kuhlman revival meeting.

Amid shouts of "I believe," about 150 Fuller reps clapped their hands, blew horns and pledged allegiance to the Fuller Brush Co.

"If you believe Fuller Brush is the best quality product in America, say, 'I believe!' " yelled Carol Cappa, national training manager, to the assembled faithful. "If you believe Fuller has the best workmanship on items that last and last, say, 'I believe!' "

On cue, Fuller salespeople who drove to the Costa Mesa sales rally from as far away as Las Vegas, Fresno, San Luis Obispo and San Diego rattled their noisemakers and stood up and cheered.

Dose of Indoctrination

The fervent sales reps--some wearing tiny, gold toilet scrubbers and carpet sweepers on their lapels--got free sales tips, cedar blocks, plastic key chains and, of course, a big dose of indoctrination.

For five weeks this fall, Fuller took its roadshow to 25 cities throughout the United States to drum up support and to recruit more reps. The efforts are aimed at overcoming Fuller's decline over the last two decades, during which the company seemed in danger of sliding into extinction.

Fuller's sales force today is only a fraction of the 400,000 U.S. agents who work for Avon Products or the 140,000 who represent Mary Kay Cosmetics. Although the company is making a comeback, Fuller's U.S. sales dropped from $110 million in 1965 to about $51 million in 1982.

The 81-year-old firm was acquired by Consolidated Foods.--now Sara Lee Corp.--in 1968. By the late 1970s, it had gone through three relocations and 10 top executives.

Meanwhile, societal changes caused more and more of the company's best customers--homemakers--to take jobs outside the home or to become wary of opening their doors to strangers. Fuller's sales plunged.

But the company, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., retained one asset that may have saved it: name recognition. The Fuller Brush man was such a slice of Americana--even celebrated in a 1948 Red Skelton movie--that seven out of 10 people in the country still recognize the name instantly, according to company research.

So a few years ago, Fuller began slashing prices, raising commissions, recruiting women sales reps and suggesting evening hours and phone sales.

By last year, industry analysts estimate, Fuller sales were somewhere between $50 million and $75 million. While the firm will not reveal exact figures, Fuller President David W. Bryan said sales grew 7% last year and should jump 12% in 1987.

Other recent moves could spur the company's recovery, such as the aggressive recruiting program, introducing new products each month and allowing shoppers to use credit cards.

Earlier this year, Fuller mass-mailed a glossy, mail order catalogue to 1.6 million households throughout the nation. It will be sent to 5 million homes this holiday season.

First Retail Store

And in what may be its boldest move, Fuller this fall opened its first retail store, called Fuller Brush, in Mesquite, Tex. If the specialty store does well, Fuller plans to open a second Fuller outlet in northwest Dallas.

The catalogue and stores are not designed to sweep away door-to-door sales. Instead, Fuller hopes they will make direct selling easier.

"The catalogue and the new stores . . . let people know that Fuller is still alive and well," Bryan said.

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