“Now let’s go to a little town in New Jersey where things are really poppin’!” a female voice suggests, as the camera zooms in on a suburban split-level at dusk and romantic string music swells underneath. The commercial cuts to an interior—a living room comfortably crowded with well-coiffed women of a certain age. “Yes there’s a party going on at Mrs. Betty Martin’s house. It’s a Tupperware party, and it’s really fun!” The camera pans past a tower of nesting bowls in pastel colors.
Sixty years after Tupperware Home Parties, Inc. pioneered it, the party plan sales model is alive and well, setting up in suburban living rooms around the world to move items from lingerie and blinged jeans to sex toys and homemade crucifixes. And purses—lots and lots of purses.
“I had never been to any purse parties before,” says Alyssa Lichtfuss, who started holding parties herself about a year and a half ago. “I knew a couple of girls that sold the knockoffs, and they seemed to bring in a decent amount of money as a side job, which is what I was looking for at the time.” Lichtfuss buys the purses at cost and sells them for around USD 40 or 50 and nets about USD 150 or 200 a party.
The party’s host gets a discount on purses based on how many guests come and how much they buy. Lichtfuss gets her purses from a company called Designer Inspirations in Southern California. On the company’s map of nearly 100 North America consultants, her marker sits off by itself in Central Pennsylvania. Lack of nearby competition was one of the reasons Lichtfuss signed on with Designer Inspirations—one of a multitude of similar companies she found googling around.
She says another reason is that, unlike a lot of purse party companies, the purses that Designer Inspirations sells aren’t knockoffs or replicas but “inspired by” designs—similar to designer bags but “with their own flair”, as Lichtfuss puts it.
Purse parties have earned a reputation for being an avenue for hustling counterfeit goods. An Internet scan quickly turns up hordes of knockoff purse parties (although these places clam up when contacted by a reporter) and heated chatroom discussions both pro (“I would love to have a purse party, I had one last year and had almost $3,000 in sales!!”) and con (“Do these women even know or acknowledge that these bags are not the real deal? Why not just save up [like I do] and purchase one or two pieces a year?”).
In recent years, federal agents have busted counterfeiters in Maryland, Missouri, and Nebraska who were using parties, among other methods, to sell illegal knockoffs. A 2008 case that began with a purse party circuit in Oregon ended up nabbing 62 people and nearly USD 20 million in counterfeit bags.
Still, investigators say house parties are a blip on the radar of worldwide apparel and accessory counterfeit sales, which have an estimated annual value of around USD 24 billion. “Those are usually sellers on a smaller sale,” says Tamara Tarbutton, VP at Vaudra Ltd., a company that investigates counterfeiting for major retail brands. “They’re not large wholesalers that have warehouses. Maybe they make the occasional trip to New York or they’ve connected with somebody at a flea market and decided to use that as a way to get product for a purse party.” Some researchers even argue that, instead of eating into designer brands’ profit margins, the imitations on offer at purse parties can work kind of like a gateway drug—bringing new customers into Louis Vuitton stores by first hooking them with lower-cost knockoffs. Renee Gosline, a marketing professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, got interested in how purse parties fit into overall brand image after a friend invited her to a neighbor’s purse party a few years ago.
She quickly discovered that the staid, upper-middle-class atmosphere of the party bore little resemblance to the images conjured up by the words “black market”. “The illegality of the behavior seemed to be sanitized by the congenial atmosphere,” Gosline wrote in a 2010 Forbes article. The experience led her to two and a half years of research. She documented how 112 purse-party goers gradually changed in the way they thought about brands they first encountered as knockoffs at parties.
Her conclusion? “The fakes hadn’t turned potential Gucci customers away from the brand. The opposite was true.” Time after time, people who’d purchased a “Gucci” at a purse party would soon be browsing the web and strolling the streets looking for the real thing. The fakes had whetted their appetite for the real deal.
And, as was true back in the 50s when a single mom named Brownie Wise introduced the party plan sales model to a plastics company and made Tupperware a household name around the globe, some talk about today’s version in the language of girl power. “I believe women should empower one another,” says purse-party consultant Lisa Brown. She estimates she’s squeezed seven or eight Designer Inspirations parties in between two other jobs in the last year.
Brown encourages women who come to her parties to start hosting their own. Isn’t she creating competition for herself? Yes, she says, but she also gets commission for bringing new consultants on board. Then she asks me if I have any interest.