PHILADELPHIA — When De Ann Mensch was laid off last month for the second time in a little over a year, she did not polish her resume.
Instead, the ex-bank teller (and ex-mortgage loan closer) burnished her sterling silver jewelry and her sales pitch.
Now the softspoken Mensch, 44, of Pennsburg, Pa., spends several hours a week at house parties where she hawks the earrings, necklaces and other jewelry she loves to wear, earning about $250 a pop in commissions.
"I need the income," said the mother of two, who has a son in college. "I don't have to worry about being fired or laid off; I don't have to worry about the company being downsized."
In a weak economy, that promise is solid gold. As layoffs mount and the nation's unemployment rate hovers above 8 percent, many of those down on their luck have joined jewelry company Silpada, cosmetics maker Avon or any number of other direct-sales companies to fill the income void.
The door-to-door pitch, or more often the house party, that peddles jewelry, cosmetics, pet items, health products, and such, known as direct sales, consistently has weathered economic storms, experts say.
"Whatever it is that makes someone feel better is a good candidate for that little splurge, and many direct-selling companies have products in that range," said Amy M. Robinson, spokeswoman for the Direct Selling Association.
Perhaps an entire outfit or a fancy vacation is out of the question, but a $4 lipstick can fit any budget, direct sellers say. Even a more expensive piece of jewelry can find takers who want a pick-me-up from the recessionary blues.
Silpada, for one, saw its sales force grow to 27,000 last year, up 13 percent over the previous year, and revenue jump 8 percent to $270 million, its best year ever, said Jerry Kelly, CEO and co-founder of the Kansas City, Mo., company.
Besides, the social aspect of parties — where consultants talk up products while friends of the hostess sample items and compare notes, often while sipping wine and munching appetizers — encourages participation. It even offers a relatively cheap girls night out.
"If you agree to attend one of your friend's parties, then you buy," said Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at the Wharton School. "You may not buy much, but you buy some."
An analysis of the period from 1987 to 2007 found that during recessionary times, direct selling in the U.S. (adjusted for inflation) grew 4.5 percent on average, Robinson said. During the same slow years, the gross domestic product took a baby step of less than 1 percent, and retail sales fell 3.3 percent.
While 2008 numbers are not due until midyear, Robinson said anecdotal reports indicate the industry continues to prove "recession resistant. ... The party-plan jewelry companies seem to be doing particularly well, as are some of the smaller companies that are still in a high-growth stage."
Most direct sellers make modest wages, Hoch said. "But some are driving around in pink Cadillacs," he said, referring to the car incentive for top earners at Mary Kay Cosmetics.