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Tales From Ireland – The Betterware Man

June 7, 2011

I’m currently in Ireland on a short break visiting the in-laws. The next few posts are about aspects of life in one of the debt-slapped nations of the European Union.

A very long time ago, when I was an impoverished student, I ran through a typical gamut of holiday jobs. There was the two weeks during the British Leyland industrial holiday shovelling gunk and metal shavings from the car assembly line pits, usually with less efficiency after the obligatory liquid lunch. There were the bar jobs, often spent avoiding flailing fists and head butts at closing time.

And then there was my brief career as a Betterware representative. It was the first job that required me to sell. Betterware was and continues to be a mail order company. It sells gadgets of all sorts and sizes – for the bedroom, garden, kitchen and bathroom. It satisfies the eternal longing for a better mousetrap, an easier life.

My job was to be dropped off at a housing estate with a suitcase of samples, and to knock on doors. I would show the householder the catalogues, and sing the praises of the brushes, dishcloths and tin openers to be found within my suitcase. I was trained to reassure the startled housewife with the cheery “it’s only the Betterware man”, as if the magic name was enough to convince the subject of my sales patter that she was not about to become the fifth victim that morning of the scruffy, long-haired serial killer with the rictus smile who stood before her.

But in those days people had never heard of serial killers, and I was a pretty unthreatening nineteen-year-old. I hadn’t mastered the Jack Nicholson grin from The Shining, and I didn’t have the scrawny menace of Antony Perkins in Psycho.

In fact I was a pretty pathetic salesman, better able to exhibit a sense of hopelessness than a messianic belief in the product. I did sell a few brushes, but mainly to kindly old ladies who felt sorry for me. I suppose I did learn that appealing to the motherly instinct was a useful sales technique in the great game of love that every student from a single-sex boarding school embarks upon at university. But many of my rivals were far better at acting pathetic than I was, so it didn’t really work for me.

Anyway, three weeks on, and a miserly thirty pounds to the better, I decided to quit when I was ahead, or at least while I still had a head. I never forgot my career as a Betterware man.

Fast forward to today, and my brother-in-law has a nice little business as the local Betterware man. Amazingly, the business model has changed little in the past forty-odd years. The company has made a nod in the direction of online sales through their website, but according to Colm, it’s predominantly still a door-to-door business. The product range, on the other hand, has expanded massively. The Betterware catalogue is a fascinating reflection of the domestic preoccupations of the modern Irish family.

Cats defecating on your lawn, Madam? Try our metal pussy with glowing eyes that you plonk on the lawn. Next door’s moggy will never bother you again. Limescale on the inside rim of your toilet bowl? Try our specially shaped brush that scrapes away that embarrassing crust in a jiffy. A sense of serenity on those balmy summer nights in the garden? You need our solar Buddha garden light made of weather-resistant resin – once darkness falls, its face is illuminated by the light below. I’m not sure what the church makes of gardens full of glowing Buddhas in Catholic Ireland, but times have clearly changed since the theocracy of old.

Mind you, the old religion does strike back, with solar memorial angels, graveside tributes and a decorative crucifix with the Lord ’s Prayer set in a crystal – “keep the Lord’s Prayer close to your heart” says Betterware. Its  catalogue is packed with aids for the forgetful – glowing glasses trays and luminous key rings – cleaning products of all sizes and descriptions, kitchen tools, storage units, dust mite inhibitors, zipper repair kits, digital luggage scales, anti-bark collars for noisy dogs, glowing guardian angels, invisible bras, facial hair removers, jumbo remote controls and of course that essential  intruder repellent, the motion-sensing owl – it hoots and its eyes light up when it detects movement within 6 feet.

According to Colm, these products sell by the bucket-load. Nothing over 40 Euro, and if you don’t like what you buy, you get your money back, no questions asked.

So why, you might ask, have the customers of Betterware not succumbed to the lure of on-line ordering? Colm says that most of them can be classified as low-to-medium income families. Many don’t have internet connections, and those that do are suspicious of internet transactions. Also, with Ireland’s banking system in such chaos, credit facilities are hard to come by. So it’s easier to put the money in an envelope and wait for your delivery in two weeks’ time.

But there’s another dynamic at play – almost forgotten by the process-driven MBAs, lawyers and accountants that run big business in the West. It’s the joy of buying from a human you know. Colm knows his customers. If Mrs Murphy wants her deliveries before mass on a Sunday, he will oblige. If she wants stuff dropped in the dog kennels in the garden that’s where they will go. Despite the presence of Betterware’s deadly rival, Kleeneeze, trawling the same streets, many of Colm’s customers will buy only from him.

How many large businesses do you know that have operated the same business model for the past eighty years, as Betterware has? Car manufacturers? Not without massive restructuring and a transformation of manufacturing processes. Most household names have undergone many iterations of reinvention since 1928, when Betterware was founded. Nokia, for example, was in those days into timber and wellington boots, and even now is apparently thinking of selling its mobile phone business. Meanwhile Betterware and Kleeneeze continue to slug it out on the streets of Ireland’s country towns

And I suspect that if and when Ireland goes to the next stage of its debt trauma and ends up defaulting, the lean-and-mean modern businesses that put greater premium on process than on people will fare less well than those companies that employ people like Colm. In Ireland, perhaps more than in many of its neighbours, relationships count. The downside is that there may be a higher degree of corruption and sweetheart deals in the Emerald Isle than in the UK, but people, especially in the country, still like to buy from people. And that is a lesson that the soulless suits in the head offices of Ireland’s corporates seem to have forgotten. When the reckoning comes, I suspect that many of them will be history – they will find it hard to work again.

And Colm will still be in business.

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