Take Rodan+Fields, a skincare line developed by the dermatologists who created Proactive. It’s supposed be top-notch stuff. When they initially launched the product, they went the traditional retail route. Estee Lauder then bought the company for an undisclosed amount and continued to sell it through traditional retail. Sales of Rodan+Fields were surprisingly lackluster, however, so its former owners bought the company back and implemented the MLM model. Sales of the product skyrocketed to over a billion dollars. They’d claim it was thanks to the word-of-mouth marketing MLMs facilitate. I’d venture to guess it had more to do with the fact they have a captive customer base amongst the hundreds of thousands of distributors who are required to make minimum purchase amounts each month and recruit other distributors who will have to make minimum purchase amounts each month too.
In June 2016, Sophie (name changed) quit her job in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas to sell for LuLaRoe, a rapidly growing clothing company that offers self-employment opportunities to American women in the form of hawking hyper-hued apparel. LuLaRoe’s consultants told her—and tens of thousands of other mostly rural and suburban women over the past five years—that she could provide for her family, join a sisterhood of supportive women, and find meaning in her life again through the conduit of colorful, stretchy fashion—all for a reasonable upfront investment of around $5,000.
MLMs disproportionately flourish in suburban and rural America: According to LuLaRoe’s retailer map, it only has 10 consultants in all of Manhattan, which has a population of 1.64 million. By comparison, Pueblo (Colorado) has the same amount for its population of 110,000, St. George (Utah) has 12 sellers to its 82,000 residents, and Idaho Falls (Idaho) and Casper (Wyoming) both have nine sellers servicing each’s 60,000 citizens. In 2016, the US Census Bureau stated that the median rural household income is 4% lower than it is for urban families, and income inequality is also higher. Job growth in metropolitan areas has far outpaced that in rural areas since 2008, and the job market in these regions has shrunk 4.26% in the same time.

During the Obama administration, the Federal Trade Commission made its biggest-ever effort to curb this industry when last summer it slapped nutritional supplement–seller Herbalife with a $200 million fine and, as part of a settlement with Herbalife, demanded it restructure its business so that it would “start operating legitimately,” as FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez put it. The FTC alleged Herbalife had engaged in “unfair and deceptive practices,” and put it under a federal monitor for seven years, demanding onerous changes to its compensation plan and requiring extensive documentation of customer sales. Ramirez then set down an ambitious posture for the FTC: In the future, she said at an MLM industry conference in October, these companies should adopt the new Herbalife rules when structuring their businesses, as the FTC would be watching.
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