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How Avon Is Retooling Its Digital Game

The beauty mainstay is relaunching its site and re-evaluating how to deliver on e-commerce.

As a 128-year-old company, Avon has been through quite a lot of cultural and technological shifts over the years. The beauty giant, known for its network of door-to-door sales reps, is now working to figure out its digital game. 

To that end, Avon has given its website an overhaul.

The question of how to evolve its direct selling model in a retail environment that increasingly blends offline and online shopping hasn't had an obvious answer thus far. Avon launched its e-commerce site early relative to most of its competitors, in 1996, and initially required shoppers to join up with a sales rep to guide their online experience. That would be called "forced attachment," according to Matt Harker, Avon's vice president of North America marketing. 

The extra step added a level of complication to the online experience and weeded out those who just wanted to place an order and be done with it. The intention was good, says Harker, who joined the company last February: The goal was to protect the sales reps, who are at the heart of Avon's business model. But while the company was early to e-commerce overall, it was behind in developing the kind of functionality that shoppers have become accustomed to.

So in October of 2013, Avon traded out its 'forced attachment' e-commerce model and made it possible for consumers to shop independently, with the option to pair up with a rep should they want additional advice. Importantly, reps still get paid when their clients make an online purchase without their help. 

To facilitate those online relationships between customers and salespeople, Avon is focusing on content and engagement on existing social media and messaging platforms, not on building out proprietary messaging systems. As Harker points out, "We'll never be specialists in tech." Trying to compete technically with Skype or Facebook Messenger isn't a good use of resources since it requires constant iteration; an on-site chat that looks pretty good today will look ancient next year.

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Instead, reps are encouraged to connect with their clients however they see fit — the aforementioned online messaging platforms, by email or by phone — and they have access to a "Social Media Center" on their sales dashboards. A key part of the site's overhaul is a focus on arming sales reps with timely content like pro tips and video interviews with makeup artists backstage at Fashion Week (see below), which they can blast out via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr. Reps can submit their clients' contact info to Avon's email program. When it comes to online, Avon Ladies look a lot more like social media marketers. 

Avon, which is rolling out its own online marketing campaign to coincide with the relaunch, has a vested interest in growing its online segment. Sales have been weak for the company over the last few years, and in the second quarter of this year, overall revenue sank 13 percent to $2.2 billion. In fact, Avon hasn't posted a profit since 2011, spurring on speculation that it may be open to a buyout.

The company isn't trying to silo its online and offline sales segments, however. It's hard to do that when the sales team is the same for both. According to Harker, the majority of sales reps operate either entirely offline or mixed online/offline. Fewer run their businesses exclusively online. 

That has a lot to do with the demographic of the salespeople: The average age hovers around 40, but it spans people in their 20s to those in their 60s. That's a lot of variation in the reps' comfort and knowledge of e-commerce and social media, putting Avon in the uniquely tricky position of having to make things simple and effective for both while appealing to a younger generation of shoppers that spend a lot of time online.

As with any company that's been around for a long time, it's hard to pull off a repositioning overnight. Still, we'll be looking to see whether this refocused effort online will give Avon's sales a boost -- it needs one right about now.