Would you let a salesperson in? Or has Covid put an end to direct selling once and for all? In this survey, we analyzed Americans' purchasing habits.
8 minute read
A few years back, my dad and I opened my grandfather’s mailbox to find an invitation to a cookware presentation.
Not sure how that works? Let me explain: These companies give out free gifts for all attendees. How is it profitable for them, you may be wondering? Once they have all those elderly people in one room, they get them to buy thousands worth of cookware.
So, my father and I did what any self-respecting people with limited time on their hands would do: we took that invitation and RSVP’d yes, curious to see them in action.
We were the only non-pensioners in the room. Sat in the front row, we clapped and raised our hands whenever the host was looking for volunteers. Unsurprisingly, they barely acknowledged our presence and focused on pitching to the older audience.
It got me thinking: as younger generations seem growingly reluctant towards salespeople, is direct selling dead? Or, are we in the minority and cold selling is alive and well?
Or, perhaps, Covid turned out to be the nail in the coffin of door-to-door salespeople? The only way to find out was through science. So, we decided to conduct some research at Storydoc.
To check the current state of direct sales and cold selling in the US, we surveyed 1,026 Americans about their direct buying habits and general attitudes towards salespeople.
Keep reading to see what our survey data revealed and how we analyzed the data.
As online fundraising tools allow you to support your favorite cause in just a few clicks, we set out to check whether Americans still tend to buy for a cause (e.g. girl scout cookies):
60% of respondents purchase physical products to support charity at least once a year.
Only 4% of respondents admitted that they never do it.
Unsurprisingly, Gen Z is the biggest group not to support charities with product purchases (49.8%). As our study found, 31.25% of all Gen Z males never purchase products for a charity as opposed to only 4.76% of Gen Z females. Almost half of all Gen Z females (42.86%) do it less often than once a year vs. 18.75% of Gen Z males.
Why so? Our hypothesis is: many Gen Z consumers often don’t hold a high disposable income yet—being in school or in the early stages of their careers. Also, as they embrace digital wallets and contactless payments, it may simply be that they prefer to Venmo money to a charity of their choice.
Interestingly enough, women in general are much more likely to support non-profits this way, with 45.5% of all male respondents claiming they never purchase physical products for charity. The main exception is millennial males, with almost 40% of them supporting charities with product purchases less than once a year.
To give more context to this, it’s important to note that only 7% of all millennials said they never buy physical products to support a charity. That’s usually the age when their own kids take part in girl scout cookie drives or other charity activities, possibly influencing their buying patterns. The things we do for our kids, right?
When we cross-referenced this data with the sectors our respondents work in, the results were pretty consistent:
47.3% of respondents who never purchased physical products to support charity work in the Food and Drink industry. This reflects the reality of fresh graduates and college students holding part-time jobs.
Almost 99% of people working in healthcare, manufacturing/construction, and software/IT support charities through product purchases. This suggests the higher disposable income of these respondents.
Next up, we analyzed how likely people are to donate money to a political party or a candidate they support:
15.5% of people said they never donate money to political causes.
Nearly half of the respondents (48.2%) do it at least once a year.
The group most likely to fall for politicians’ charm was millennial males. As a matter of fact, almost all of them (91.6%) admitted to donating money to political causes! 49.9% do it at least once a year, and 41.7% less often than annually.
On the other hand, 57% of female baby boomers never donated money to political parties. Another worrying statistic is that 60.9% of all female respondents never made donations to political causes. Sure, money does not guarantee victory. But, once they get elected, officeholders are more likely to support the interests of their donors.
Of course, with older generation females, it’s possible that their partners/husbands made the donations. Older generations of women are less likely to be political because of gender roles being stronger in their cases. So, it could also be a cultural result of gender inequality.
With the recent uproar among American women, it will be interesting to see whether they start reaching for their wallets more. The generation gap is already strikingly visible, with only 11.4% of millennial women not making financial contributions to the candidate they support.
As in the case of purchases for charities, over 90% of interviewees working in software/IT, manufacturing/construction, or healthcare admitted to financially supporting candidates of their choice. Out of all the respondents who never made political donations, 23.5% work in the Food and Drink industry, closely followed by Arts and Entertainment at 21.9%.
One thing we found particularly interesting here was that people who never donate money to a political party choose to support charity instead. 61% of respondents support charity with physical purchases at least once a year, while 20.75% do it less frequently than once a year.
Many Americans are on the fence about charity and political donations. Maybe they’re more likely to spend their money on something they can actually use? My father and I weren’t willing to buy a shiny new set of pots and pans. What about others?
As it turns out:
Of people never buy physical products from door-to-door salespeople.
Of people buy physical products from door-to-door salespeople at least once a year.
Now, with so many of these cookware companies targeting older generations, you’d think they’d be really into buying home appliances.
*Buzzer sound* Wrong.
Actually, out of all the people who never buy from door-to-door salespeople, 55% are baby boomers! Salespeople are more likely to be more successful with millennials, as 33.9% of them make such purchases at least once a year.
If they happen to be engineers, even better! We discovered that 57.24% of people who work in engineering buy from door-to-door salesmen at least once a year. Hospitality workers are more frugal with their money, with over a quarter of all respondents answering ‘Never’.
An interesting thing to observe here is that those who don’t buy juicers from door-to-door salespeople often aren’t into political juice either. Most people (65.4%) who never purchased anything from door-to-door salespeople also never donate money to a political party. Another 21% of these people donate money to political causes, but they do it less frequently than annually.
Have you ever had a schoolmate you haven’t seen in years reach out with an MLM opportunity? You’re not alone. With the rise of social media, it’s not unusual to have complete strangers slide in your DMs and ask you to join Amway either.
We’ve been there. We all hate it. So, it naturally makes you wonder—how effective are MLM companies in this day and age?
51.3% of baby boomers never purchase products from companies based on multi-level marketing.
When it comes to the people who purchase from MLM companies at least once a year or less frequently than once a year, the votes are almost evenly distributed across the three remaining age groups.
MLM companies are most popular among those working in Engineering and Food and drink industries, with 70.7% and 73.3% buying from them at least once a year, respectively.
Our natural instinct was to check whether there was a correlation between the type of seller and people’s tendencies to buy from them. For instance, do people lump all direct sellers together or are there certain organizations they’d make an exception for? Or, maybe they would rather see their money go to charity than another salesperson?
Turns out, those critical of direct sales are generally savvy with their money.
A vast majority of people who never purchase products from door-to-door sales (85.2%) also never support MLMs. It’s very similar the other way around—77.5% of people who purchase products from door-to-door salespeople at least once a year also support MLMs by purchasing their products at least once a year.
Same with charitable causes. We found that 67.5% of people who never purchased physical products to support charity also never bought anything from MLM. But, once you get people to donate, you can get them to purchase other things too. 87% of people who ever purchased physical products to support charity also support MLMs.
So, what’s the secret? What makes Americans more likely to buy from people, and what will make them shut the door in your face?
Don’t worry, I won’t keep you on your toes. Here’s what we found out…
The most common reasons for Americans to listen to the offering of a door-to-door salesperson are:
63.2%: I am familiar with the brand.
53%: They are polite and professional.
52%: They are physically attractive.
46.2%: I am on the market for the product they are selling.
38.8%: Their sales pitch was well-phrased.
24.2%: The product they are selling looks good at first glance.
Yes, you read that right! 52% of Americans said they're most likely to purchase goods from door-to-door salespeople if they're physically attractive.
While the initial findings may seem shocking at first, some of them stand to reason. I mean, I wouldn’t let a scruffy-looking stranger into my home, especially if they were promoting a company I wasn’t sure existed. Would you?
And then, of course, there’s the universal truth: nobody likes pushy salespeople. Even if we don’t give two hoots about their offering, we’re more likely to listen to polite people before sending them away. What’s really surprising, though, is how few responders care about the attractiveness of the product. No matter how unusual you think your business idea is, maybe it’s worth a try then…?
In the next part, we set out to check Americans’ attitudes toward cold selling. Many people find unsolicited emails and calls from someone they’ve never even interacted with extremely annoying. That's why most tend to report spam emails and block unwanted calls influencing the response rate. Some of them also opt to use temporary emails to avoid getting spammed. Surely, if they wanted to purchase something, they’d make the first move?
Now, that’s where it starts to get really interesting. Turns out, most of our respondents don’t really see it that way!
Almost half of them (46.3%) said they like getting cold emails, with another 18.13% saying they like it a lot.
Females were on the opposite sides of the spectrum, with 57.5% of all votes for “hate them” and 53.2% of all votes for “like them a lot”. Men were generally indifferent, with more than half of them (56.6%) choosing “neither hate nor like”.
When it comes to the differences between age groups, one thing immediately stands out. As is becoming a clear pattern in our study, 56.1% of all baby boomers said they hated getting cold emails.
Interestingly enough, not even female baby boomers enjoy unsolicited emails, with 34.7% choosing “hate them”. On the other hand, if you want to increase the chances of your email getting read, you might want to target female millennials, as 23.3% love receiving cold emails!
Now, what about cold text messages? Our respondents were *sliiightly* less enthusiastic about those.
30.7% of all respondents said they like getting cold text messages.
Another 27.49% like getting them a lot.
Only 13.45% of interviewees said they hated cold text messages.
As we analyzed different genders and age groups, we found the results were rather consistent with what we saw in the previous question. The majority of voters who said they either hated or liked cold text messages a lot were females, while 60.4% of males were indifferent about them.
The least enthusiastic group were baby boomers, with 37.5% of females choosing “hate them” and 22.1% of males choosing “dislike them”. Gen Z and millennials have something in common, as females from both age groups love getting unsolicited texts (15.7% and 18.7%, respectively)!
Now, let’s move from the online world to the offline. I mean, I can almost see the appeal of unsolicited emails and texts. You have all the hottest deals come to you without doing any legwork. You just pick out the best ones, and… Poof! The rest is gone with a few clicks. You can go back to Inbox Zero if you wish, and you’ve saved yourself a couple of bucks. Win-win!
But, what happens when these offers start trickling down to the offline and you get inundated with leaflets and sales calls? Are the Americans less forgiving then?
The quick answer is: Not really.
When asked about cold calling, the results were as follows:
40.25% of Americans like receiving cold phone calls offering products and services.
Another 20.96% of respondents like such calls very much.
What we found particularly interesting here was that cold calling is something all age groups tend to agree on:
While baby boomers once again were the least enthusiastic group (58.8% said they hate cold calling, including 35.3% of all female baby boomers), they were closely followed by Gen Z (43.9% said they dislike it, including 30.1% of all male Gen Z).
Finally, we found something Americans truly love: leaflets. 39.67% of Americans said they like getting physical leaflets or brochures from local businesses, with another 24.56% saying they like it a lot.
When it comes to vote distribution across different genders and age groups, we didn’t notice anything unusual. Once again, almost half of baby boomers (48.2%) were immune to the benefits of leaflets. The group most excited to find a stack of brochures in their mailbox were millennials (37.8% said they like getting them a lot). Seeing as many Americans are into couponing, this statistic makes perfect sense, especially with the rising cost of living!
So, by now we’ve got a pretty good insight into Americans’ attitudes towards direct selling. But, how self-aware are they?
First up, we asked if they thought older people were more likely to buy products from cold calling. Almost half of all respondents (47.17%) agreed with the statement, with a further 22.12% strongly believing it to be true.
As we analyzed the answers between different demographics, we discovered that most people who strongly disagreed with the statement were baby boomers themselves (54.1%). The younger our respondents got, the more they believed the original statement to be true, with 31.5% of Gen Z choosing “Strongly agree”.
That was one of our most surprising findings. As it turns out, older people hate direct sales more than younger generations so the stereotype doesn’t really hold true!
Next up, we wanted to check if Americans were likely to buy from a door-to-door salesperson if they liked the product they were offering.
We’ve already learned our respondents pay more attention to the attractiveness of said salesperson over whatever product they offer. That said, does a good product still matter?
Apparently, it does. At least that’s what our respondents claimed.
A staggering 63.84% of Americans say an attractive product offer is more likely to get them to part with their money (32.65%—agree, 31.19%—strongly agree).
This sentiment was generally more expressed by females:
33.72% of females vs. 31.86% of males agreed with the statement.
35.09% of females vs. 28.31% of males strongly agreed.
But, no matter how incredible your product is, baby boomers still won’t budge. A whopping 62.3% of all baby boomers strongly disagreed with the statement.
And the group that was most set in their ways was—yes, you guessed it—female baby boomers! Nearly half of them (46.8%) wouldn’t buy from door-to-door salesmen even if they came out with an answer to all of their prayers. They might want to save their pitches for millennial women, then, as 20.8% of them said they would purchase a product they liked.
The last thing we wanted to know was—how trustworthy are salespeople in the eyes of Americans? Do they write them off as conmen before they’ve even heard their pitch? Is direct selling a losing game?
Judging by this question alone, it appears that way.
A vast majority of respondents (73.68%) perceive salespeople as tricksters or conmen.
But, seeing as more than half of Americans buy from salespeople on an annual basis, apparently, it doesn’t bother them too much.
As we looked at differences across genders and age groups, one main thing surprised us: it’s more often females that perceive salespeople as untrustworthy.
33.94% of females vs. 25.59% of males strongly agree that salespeople are tricksters or conmen.
On the other hand, only 2.52% of females vs. 3.05% of males strongly disagree with this statement.
At least there’s one group that remains predictable throughout the whole study.
The group that remains most critical of door-to-door salespeople is baby boomers, with 30.7% strongly believing them to be untrustworthy. Younger generations are generally more trusting toward salespeople, with 38.1% of Gen Z strongly disagreeing with the original statement.
This sentiment was reflected in the open-ended question we asked in our study: “Have you ever been approached by a door-to-door salesperson? If so, how would you describe the experience?”
Many of our respondents were apprehensive about door-to-door salespeople:
“Many times and it always seems to be at the most inopportune moment. To be honest, if I'm looking to buy something, I will go buy it. I don't really appreciate people coming to my house to sell me things.”
“Yes, I was approached by someone selling books door to door. It felt like a con. I think the guy was a former inmate, or at least he seemed that way. It all felt very sketchy and made me very uncomfortable. In the end, I just wanted him off my property, and I told him I just couldn't justify buying anything he was selling due to my limited income and needs.”
“In the world today: I would be scared, worried, afraid to open my door... I would never buy from a door-to-door salesperson..”
But, there were also those who recounted their positive experiences and restored our faith in salespeople:
“Yes. A representative of Dish Network. I liked his approach, soft-spoken demeanor, his presentation, and I ended up switching to that network and am very glad I did.”
“I used to buy from a door to door Avon lady. I felt safe to ask her to come into my home.”
And—case in point—this one person:
“I had no problem. She was an attractive woman.”
…and don’t make any unsolicited contact with them either. They’re holding on tight to their money and they’re not letting go for anyone.
Across all other age groups, direct sales is alive and well.
While there were some gender-based differences in Americans’ purchasing habits, the most significant contrast was the generation gap.
The older generations, in particular our female respondents, are generally more money-savvy. Baby boomers are less inclined to donate to different causes, be it charitable or political, and they’re highly critical of direct selling practices.
On the other hand, Gen Z and millennials are more trusting towards salespeople and willing to put money where their mouth is by supporting causes that are close to their hearts.
There is also no direct correlation between the type of seller and people’s willingness to part with their money. People who don’t donate to charitable organizations or political campaigns are also less likely to support MLMs or buy from door-to-door salespeople.
Similar results can be observed the other way around too. Those who financially support charities and political candidates of their choice make more frequent purchases from door-to-door salespeople.
Not only aren’t younger generations critical of unsolicited messages, calls, or brochures, they generally welcome them. Their perception of salespeople is also typically more favorable, providing more hope for the future of direct selling.
But, if they want to maximize their chances of making a sale, companies’ top priority shouldn’t be an attractive enough offer. It should be attractive enough salespeople.
Want to share our findings? Go for it! All images, animations, and items of data featured in this study are available for non-commercial reuse. Please, make sure to reference the source and link back to this page to give the authors proper credit.
For this study, we collected answers from 1,026 American respondents via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Respondents consisted of 57.5% males and 42.5% females. 3.6% of respondents were 24 or younger, 59.8% aged 25-38, 25.9% aged 39-58, and 10.6% 59 or older.
To make sure the gender and age makeup of our sample can be generalized to the entire population, we weighted and balanced the demographic variables so that they correspond to the gender and age makeup of the current US population.
All specific demographics this study refers to when making comparisons between different groups consist of at least 100 respondents. Smaller groups were ignored because the responses could not be statistically relevant.
This self-report study investigated Americans’ attitudes towards direct sales and cold selling. Respondents were asked 5 close-ended questions, 7 scale-based questions, and 1 open-ended question.
To help ensure that respondents took our survey seriously, all respondents were required to identify and correctly answer an attention check question.
Some questions and responses have been rephrased or condensed for clarity and ease of understanding for readers.
As experience is subjective, we understand that some participants and their answers might be affected by recency, attribution, exaggeration, self-selection, non-response, or voluntary response bias.
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