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The new Avon ladies

They wouldn't open the door for Grandma's saleswoman, but these teens are totally into pushing a new youth line -- at parties and on campus.

March 21, 2004|Deborah Netburn | Special to The Times

At just before 5 o'clock on a Monday evening, 17-year-old Megan Ver Steeg, a perky blond with a sparkly pink pedicure, is perched on the edge of her living room couch anxiously awaiting her guests. The candles are lit, a maroon-and-pink striped ribbon is tied smartly around her waist in place of a belt, and her parents' old card table has been transformed into a shimmering display of beauty products.

"I'm featuring a new product, Hollywood Pink, so I went with a Golden Globes theme," Ver Steeg says, referencing the awards ceremony of the night before. She covered the table with black plastic and taped gold fringe around the edges. She wound a string of white lights around the samples of De-Luscious Plumping Lip Pots, Electro-Lights Lip Vitagleam, Scanda-Lash Mascara, Starliner Hook Up Eye Glimmer and five different lines of fancifully titled lip glosses. On top, she sprinkled a handful of gold star confetti.

Soon the guests begin to arrive at Ver Steeg's family home in Artesia -- friends of hers from Valley Christian, the private school where she is in her junior year, as well as friends of her younger sisters, Emily, 15, and Olivia, 12. "Oooh! Megan, can I smell?" asks a blond girl with a fuchsia sweater and a brand-new promise ring on her finger, walking directly to the display and taking a whiff of the fruit-flavored lip glosses.

"Did you just get your eyebrows done?" Emily Ver Steeg asks a friend. "They were so bad you could tell?" the other girl squeals. Within 15 minutes the living room becomes a sea of blond hair and flip-flops. The girls gather around the table testing lip liner shades on their hands, experimenting with eye shadow combinations and asking Megan whether she thinks the light or dark blush would best complement their complexion.

This was Ver Steeg's third "social beauty party" -- a sort of Tupperware party for the belly-baring set -- where young women get together to purchase products by Mark, a new line from Avon. Although the Avon brand is marketed squarely to middle-class women between 25 and 55, the company hopes that Mark, with its multitude of sparkly eye shadows and eyeliners and clever packaging, will be bought and sold by their daughters and nieces, women between 16 and 24. The line was launched in August and represents the first time in Avon's 118-year history that it has actively ventured into the teen market.

"We had two clear objectives with the Mark line: to bring new customers to the world of Avon and to pass the baton to a new generation of sellers," says Deborah Fine, president of Avon Future, the business unit responsible for launching Mark.

Mark is sold the same way Avon is, though the sales structure has been tweaked to fit more comfortably into a teenager's lifestyle. The start-up fee is the same, $10, but the Internet plays a central role. Mark reps do all their ordering online, and a full list of products also is available on Mark's pink and flowery girlie website.

There is a lot of competition for the allowance and after-school job money of the roughly 17 million women in the United States who are in Mark's target age group, but Avon has high hopes. In 2004, the line's first full year of business, Avon expects Mark to make $100 million in sales. And because of the direct sales model, Mark can be sold in places its competitors can only dream of reaching -- high school hallways, college classes and sleepover parties.

Thanks to a sizable army of loyal Avon representatives (650,000 strong in the United States) and a comprehensive marketing campaign that includes a TV spot by Wes Anderson (director of "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums") and advertisements in Allure and Cosmopolitan, 20,000 women who had never worked for Avon signed up to sell the Mark line, and an estimated 10 million women have already flipped through copies of the catalog. Mark also has been well received in the tastemaking world of women's magazines.

"I really, really like Mark," says Erin Flaherty, beauty editor of Jane magazine. "Their stuff is really cute and modern and fun to use. We've run them in the magazine several times, so that's my stamp of approval."

Ver Steeg, who has been a Mark representative since late August, was among the first teenagers to sign on to the campaign. "My aunt got a [Mark] catalog from a lady in my church who sells Avon," she says. "I've always been interested in hair and makeup and stuff, so when she saw it, she was like, 'Hey, that's totally you.' "

Not that she was interested in selling Avon herself. Ever. "I had a couple of things from Avon, but it feels so like Mom and Grandma makeup," she says. "I don't think I would have ever sold Avon. Unless I got really old all of a sudden."

Better than baby-sitting

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