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Party on! Tupperware still going strong after 65 years

By: BILL RADFORD
September 2, 2011
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photo - This 1950s photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives Center shows Brownie Wise as she tosses a bowl filled with water at a Tupperware party.  Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
This 1950s photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives Center shows Brownie Wise as she tosses a bowl filled with water at a Tupperware party. Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Five years ago, Monica Luke quit her civil service job at U.S. Northern Command to sell Tupperware.

“It’s my full-time job,” the Colorado Springs woman says — a job that lets her be her own boss, set her own hours and make as little or as much money as she wants, she adds. She holds home parties — the traditional way to spread the word about and sell Tupperware — two to four times a week. She’s made about $50,000 in her top year.

“I’ve had an increase in business since the economy went south,” Luke said. She attributes that to people eating at home more and realizing the value of Tupperware products, which come with a lifetime warranty.

A few years ago, Orlando, Fla.-based Tupperware Brands Corp. boasted that a Tupperware home party was held somewhere in the world every 2.3 seconds. Now it’s 1.7 seconds, driven by a direct sales force — mostly women — of 2.6 million. Worldwide sales last year totaled $2.3 billion, including beauty and personal care products.

Tupperware, it seems, is enjoying a renaissance 65 years after it first hit the market with Wonder bowls, Bell Tumblers and Ice-Tup molds for homemade frozen treats.

Gail Richards of Colorado Springs has been part of the Tupperware family for about 40 of those years. She started with hopes of making a little extra money by hosting Tupperware parties — even though, back then, “I was the most bashful person you ever met in your life,” she recalls.

At the time, she and her husband, George, lived in Greeley. George Richards figured Tupperware was a gimmick that wouldn’t last.

“I called it Suckerware back then,” he said.

But Gail Richards’ confidence grew — and so did her sales.

“I started going with her once in a while and, lo and behold, she started making really good money,” George Richards said. Good enough, in fact, that he eventually quit his job as service manager at an auto dealership to join his wife in the Tupperware business.

When he told his boss his plans, Richards recalls, “he offered to pay for psychiatric help.”

Gail and George Richards rose through the Tupperware sales ranks and at one point had a franchise, complete with a warehouse, before the company did away with franchises. Today, the couple have risen to the level of what the company calls legacy executive directors — bringing in new people, training them, keeping them informed of new products and catalogs.
Gail Richards still holds the occasional Tupperware party —usually a “grand opening,” a party for a new salesperson (called a consultant in the initial stage) to help get her or his business off on the right foot.

Tupperware’s offerings have changed over the decades. Long gone is the signature burp, that whoosh of air from pressing on the center of a lid to tightly seal in the goodness.

Also gone is the color goldenrod, fussy floral accents and the soft pastels of the 1950s and ’60s. Today’s Tupperware is drenched in edgy shades of “purplicious” and “fuchsia kiss,” or crisp greens dubbed “margarita” and “lettuce leaf.”

You can buy contemporary takes on Wonderlier bowls, but Tupperware also sells an appetizer tray that looks like a caterpillar, fancy chef’s knives, bakeware and heavy stainless steel pots and pans. The company also has choppers, whippers and microsteamers.

“We’ve become so sophisticated and modern, yet we still have the good old basics that every kitchen needs,” Gail Richards said.

But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, her husband said.

“One thing I’m very proud of is we’ve never compromised on the quality,” George Richards said.

Under Tupperware’s limited lifetime warranty, the company will replace for free (except for shipping and handling) items that suffer chipping, cracking, breaking or peeling under “normal non-commercial use” for the lifetime of the product.

That guarantee can create confusion, though, Gail Richards said, because some people think any kind of plastic ware is Tupperware.

“People will bring a piece of plastic and say it’s got a guarantee. And I have to say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not Tupperware.”

Before her husband bought some Tupperware at the Peterson Air Force Base BX, Leslie Couch said she didn’t even know the brand was still around. Now she has a kitchen full of Tupperware products — and has been selling Tupperware since April.

“I do parties, I do booths, I do just about anything Tupperware that I possibly can,” she said.

Business has been good, she said, but when she signed up to sell Tupperware, bringing in extra money wasn’t the main goal.

“I think more so than anything, I needed something that was for me,” said Couch, a stay-at-home mom.

Gail Richards said she has been transformed by her four decades with Tupperware.

“I’m not the shy little girl that I was 40 years ago,” she said.

In spreading the word about Tupperware, in bringing more women into the sales circle, she’s hoping to make an impact on their lives, too — to provide, for example, a way for a struggling single mom to help pay the bills.

“Our goal is to really just change people’s lives,” Gail Richards said. “I know what it’s done for my life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

 

A HISTORY OF TUPPERWARE

Tupperware’s success is a study in perfect post-war timing — a period of rapid growth in consumer products, consumption and the rise of suburban living after women were sent home from wartime factories.

The “party plan” for selling Tupperware in homes to friends and neighbors was put in place by inventor Earl S. Tupper’s right hand, a divorced mom from Detroit named Brownie Wise, after Tupper’s failed attempts to sell in stores. Today, home parties remain the way most consumers scoop up their Tupperware, though there’s an option to host online parties and Tupperware itself sells from its website.

It was 1938 when Tupper — a New Hampshire farm boy and failed tree doctor who barely graduated high school — first got his hands on a sticky black glob of polyethylene slag, then figured out how to turn it into squishable kitchen storage and cereal bowls; Tupperware products made their debut in 1946.

Plastics of the time were hard, brittle and smelly, prone to leaks and easily breakable. Without lids, homemakers used moist towels, tin foil or shower caps to make food last on the counter and in ever-improving refrigerators.

Tupper’s base material and introduction to the business came at DuPont during a year’s stint in its plastics division in Leominster, Mass. But it was the flamboyant Wise, not the all-business Tupper, who refined the party plan, allowing the company to soar to 20,000 dealers by 1954, a golden year.

Stanley Home Products used the party plan before Tupperware came along, but Wise refined it, whipping women into a frenzy for selling the newfangled plasticware. She first peddled Stanley, adding a bit of Tupperware to the mix and later switching altogether, catching Tupper’s eye with an impressive sales network in Detroit, then Florida.

Appointed vice president and head of sales, Wise promised real money and recognition for hard workers, without the need for formal education or job experience.

Wise, an admirer of such positive thinkers as Norman Vincent Peale, put on splashy “Homecoming Jubilees” every year for hundreds of Tupperware Ladies. Held at the company’s swank headquarters, the jubilees were equal parts circus and revival meeting, with themes like the Gold Rush-style “big dig” in 1954. Wise buried about $50,000 worth of mink stoles, diamond rings, gold watches and little cars that the faithful could redeem for the real thing after they dug them up.

Wise had her own rags-to-riches story: a meager Georgia childhood and a desperate need to support son Jerry after a bad marriage to an abusive alcoholic whom she divorced in 1941.

“Brownie made it clear, if you’re divorced, married, single, disabled, Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, Christian, it doesn’t matter. Tupperware is an opportunity for you,” said Laurie Kahn, who wrote, produced and directed the 2004 PBS documentary “Tupperware!”

“These women were very traditional, yet they were subverting the system from the inside,” she said. “They could earn more money than their husbands if they were successful, and be able to put their kids through college and buy houses.”

Some made millions through their own sales forces. Husbands quit jobs as firefighters, factory workers or truck drivers to help when their wives’ Tupperware businesses took off, Kahn said.
Wise, often photographed in her favorite peacock wicker chair amid fawning male Tupperware executives, was the first woman to make the cover of Business Week, in 1954, well before Mary Kay, Martha Stewart or Oprah. But four years later, she was unceremoniously dumped by the quirky, paranoid Tupper after seven heady years with the company.

The falling out was complicated, fed by Tupper’s disdain for Wise’s excesses and his desire to sell the company to avoid heavy estate taxes in the event of his death, by some accounts.

According to Kahn’s film, Tupper felt that suitors for the company would have no interest in taking on a woman at the top.

After receiving a paltry $35,000 settlement, slightly less than her annual salary, Wise was unable to make her Tupperware magic reappear. She dabbled in real estate, took up pottery making and died in relative obscurity in 1992 at age 79.

“She was living the life she wanted to, but Tupper held all the cards. She poured her whole life into Tupperware,” said Bill Kealing, who wrote the 2008 book “Tupperware Unsealed.”

Tupper’s patent for his famous air-tight, leak-proof seal, modeled on an inverted paint can lid, expired about a year after he fired Wise. He sold the business for $16 million to Rexall Drug Co., renounced his U.S. citizenship and wound up in Costa Rica.  He died in 1983 at 76.

As for Tupperware parties? Rexall, with thousands of drug stores, could have sold the products off shelves but kept the home party plan in place.

Tupperware Brands has since spun off as an independent once again. Rick Goings, chairman and chief executive of Tupperware Brands, chalks up the party plan’s success to the power of the demo.

“It still works. People still have the same values,” he said. “We’re sensing people want to get reconnected.”

- By Leanne Italie
The Associated Press

 

 

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