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Fuller brushes up its sales strategy

Charles Terrasi climbs out of his maroon Buick, reaches for his suitcase, and marches up the steps of a neat white house. After ringing the doorbell once, he calls out in a friendly voice, ``Anyone home? It's your Fuller Brush man.'' A 49-year veteran of the company, Mr. Terrasi still makes his door-to-door rounds for a few hours two or three times a week. ``You don't have to look for a second job in this business,'' he says.

But he is a rare breed. Times have changed since the full-time, door-to-door peddler made a living by toting his wares in neighborhoods across the country. Today, it's unlikely you'll find a smiling Fuller Brush man at the doorstep, because 80 percent of the 13,000 representatives are women, and most do their selling by appointment. With 90 percent of the work force now part time, traditional door-to-door selling Fuller-style seems to be part of another era.

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After two decades of sluggish growth, the 81-year-old Fuller Brush Company, once the leader in door-to-door selling, has changed its sales strategy. Although president David Bryan maintains that direct selling is still the backbone of the company, Fuller, a division of the Sara Lee Corporation, is now using mail order as well as offering a wider variety of merchandise.

Last April, a national full-color catalog advertising some 200 products - from the classic boar bristle hairbrush to newer products like grills and closet organizers - arrived at more than a million households. In September, the first retail store opened in Mesquite, a suburb of Dallas; another will open in Dallas later this fall.

Sales, which steadily decreased through the 1960s and '70s, are improving. While the company will not release dollar figures, sales in 1986 increased 7 percent over the previous year.

Fuller Brush is doing fairly well in today's market, says John McMillin, a food industry analyst at Prudential-Bache Securities in New York. Although the outlook for door-to-door selling is bleak, the company's other techniques seem to be boosting sales. ``Sara Lee is one of the most innovative companies on the market, Mr. McMillin says. ``If there's a way to sell, Sara Lee will find it.'' To attract potential sales representatives, Fuller Brush has also raised commissions. Now representatives can earn up to 50 percent of sales - a significant increase from the 35 percent it offered more than a year ago. ``We have people earning over $50,000 a year,'' says Derek Stryker, vice-president of Fuller's household division and a veteran of both the Shaklee Corporation and Avon Products Inc.

The company does a good business in Mexico, where more than 60,000 representatives sell a cosmetic and personal-care line. Mr. Bryan attributes this success to a more traditional society, where more women are at home to buy products.

Based in Winston-Salem, N.C., Fuller Brush, known for its long-lasting products, manufactures more than 2,000 household and personal-care items in its Great Bend, Kan., plant and produces 50 new ones each year.

The late Alfred J. Fuller founded Fuller Brush in the basement of his sister's Somerville, Mass., home in 1906 with one wire-and-bristle brush. After his first week of knocking on doors, he had collected a not-too-modest profit of $42.15. The farm boy from Nova Scotia then started custom-making brushes for specific homes needs, and sales jumped from $30,000 in 1910 to $41 million in 1946.

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By 1960, sales totaled more than $100 million. But after that Fuller was slow to adapt to a changing society. The birth of convenience stores all but eliminated the need for salesmen. And the flood of women into the work force meant not so many were home to answer the doorbell. Those who were home were reluctant to open their doors to strangers - even if that stranger was a respectable Fuller Brush man. By the time Sara Lee bought Fuller in 1968, the company's traditional strategy of using full-time salesmen was outdated, and sales plummeted.

While companies like Avon and Shaklee jumped ahead in the '60s, largely with women selling door to door part time and a national advertising campaign for their cosmetics, jewelry, and health-care products, Fuller took a back seat. An experiment in the late '40s with women representatives - known as Fullerettes - angered salesmen, and the company returned to a men-only sales force. It did not try women again until 1965.

But by that time sales lagged behind those of other companies. While Avon's sales climbed more than 900 percent between 1953 and 1967, Fuller's sales rose just 47 percent.

``They [Fuller management] missed the boat,'' Terrasi says. ``In 1948 we were putting on women to sell our cosmetic line. They should have kept doing it just like Avon. Avon was just getting organized,'' he recalls.

Fuller is now getting organized, says Mr. Stryker. ``We've had our best year in seven or eight years, and we'll have our best year in 20 years after this year.''

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