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College kids go door-to-door, looking for opportunity

Some say selling books is lucrative, some say it's a racket.

By Melissa Caron
mcaron@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Avoid being scammed

    Neither the Better Business Bureau of Piedmont nor the N.C. Attorney General's office has received complaints about Southwestern Co. However, several door-to-door companies operating locally have faced backlash from the Attorney General's office, which has released helpful tips to avoid fraudulent sales. Laws against or limiting door-to-door sales may vary across communities and counties.

    You have three days to change your mind. In North Carolina, you have a three-day grace period in which you can cancel a door-to-door sale, even if you have signed a contract and made a payment. Notify the company in writing to cancel an order.

    Get everything in writing. Make sure to get a receipt that has information on how to contact the company about refunds.

    Identification. While Charlotte and North Carolina do not require workers to carry ID badges and permits, many door-to-door sales companies, including Southwestern, do. If sellers say they represent an organization or school, ask to see a badge or a letter of endorsement.

    Check with the Attorney General's office. To check out a company, call 1-877-5-NO SCAM (1-877-566-7226).



Knocking on doors thousands of miles from home for 80 hours a week might not be a typical summer for a college student. But 22-year-old Kyle Stantus says the long hours and the three days drive from his home in Arizona are worth it.

Six days a week, he goes door-to-door in the Monroe area selling books for Nashville, Tenn.-based Southwestern Co. The possibility of making more than $8,500 in a summer – as Southwestern boasts in promotional material – has attracted more than 2,700 college students into its ranks this summer. Nearly 40 students from Arizona and New Mexico are selling for Southwestern in the Charlotte area.

Praise and criticism for the 150-year-old, privately held company can run the gamut. Sellers such as Stantus laud the discipline the Southwestern program gives them or how it helps them pay college costs.

“It's great money,” said Stantus in his second summer of selling. “Nothing in life ever comes easy.”

But some former sellers criticize the long hours and disavow the company's claim that students make an average of $8,500 a summer selling academic study guides.

Some states have tried to pass laws aimed at the direct-selling industry in general that would prevent Southwestern from operating under its business model of hiring people as independent contractors.

Students buy the study guides from Southwestern, which is the main publisher of the materials. Students then sell the books at retail, keeping the profit – which can be as much as a 40 percent, said Southwestern spokesman Trey Campbell.

As independent contractors, sellers do not receive an hourly wage, which can leave some with nothing if they are unable to make a sale. With three out of 10 first-year sellers quitting, the program isn't for everyone, Campbell said.

Quily Ho, 19, left the program this summer after selling books for two weeks in Georgetown, Ky., and working 14-hour days.

“I think I kind of overestimated myself,” said Ho, a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Without a car, Ho was dropped off in the morning by another seller and picked up at night after walking for more than 12 hours. Sunburned and having made one sale for the summer, he said everything finally brought him down. He turned over his one sale to another seller and flew home on a plane ticket he hadn't used for his brother's graduation in May.

He estimates he's out more than $380 from travel and living expenses for the summer.

In the end, he said it came down to not having the right mindset.

“Since everyone in the organization is doing the same thing, everyone is motivated,” Ho said. “If everyone else is doing it and you are not, it's awkward.”

No restrictions in Carolinas

While Charlotte and the Carolinas haven't restricted companies like Southwestern, Wisconsin legislators recently tried to require direct sellers to label peddlers as employees. This would have held companies responsible for the actions of sellers and put them under laws governing 40-hour work weeks.

Campbell said Southwestern opposed the bill because it would have disrupted its business model and prevented students from operating as their own businesses – a benefit that many students like. The measure failed.

“We are set up to provide training and products,” he said, “not to have 3,000 employees.”

The door-to-door industry received some attention in the Charlotte area five years ago when a Charlotte man sexually assaulted and killed 18-year-old Jin-Joo Byrne of Seattle, who stopped by his apartment soliciting money for the Unification Church.

Safety is always on the minds of Southwestern sellers, said Monique Flores, a 24-year-old seller from Arizona. She said she uses Census and poverty data to determine an area's safety.

“Nobody ever works (in areas that are) past the poverty line,” said Flores, who is selling in Concord this summer. “Nobody would work in a place that has $40,000 or less annual income per household.”

Campbell said the students sell in areas where crime levels are lower than on their campuses, although there is no direct formula for determining this. He adds that students typically have their cell phones with them and they are just a 9-1-1 call away.

Most sellers from out of state

Students generally sell outside of their home state to cut down on distractions. There are nearly 80 sellers in the Carolinas this summer, with most of the ones in the Charlotte area coming from Arizona and New Mexico, Campbell said. There are more than 70 students from colleges in the Carolinas working west of the Mississippi River.

The company depends on the enthusiasm of sellers like Stantus. A student at Arizona State University, he was one of the top first-year sellers last year. He says he made more than the $8,500 average but wouldn't give an exact figure.

He admits the summer is tough with workdays averaging 12-14 hours and rejection happening more often than sales.

Every morning he wakes up before 7 at the home of a host family arranged by the company and meets with two other sellers at the Village Grille in Monroe. Over a breakfast of eggs and hash browns, they plot out the day – analyzing worn maps, drawing out targeted streets on legal pads and getting order forms ready. One sellers has scribbled “I love my job!” on one of his notepads.

Stantus, in a morning ritual, reads aloud a passage from “The Greatest Salesman in the World” by the late sales guru Og Mandino.

“‘I will sell more goods than ever before,'” Stantus said. “‘I will earn more gold than ever before. I will live this day as if it is my last and if not I shall fall to my knees and give thanks.' That's pretty good.”

Stantus says goodbye to his fellow peddlers and heads out for a day of driving and knocking on strangers' doors. Homeowners are sometimes angry and there is the occasional encounter with pets. He was once chased by a peacock.

He tries stay positive. He often turns to the daily passage by Mandino and says he focuses on the present to keep his spirits up.

“If you are able to see the most prospects with the best attitude, you will probably be the most successful,” Stantus said. “But that's obviously a lot harder said than done.”

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