What Mainstream Publishers Don’t Want You to Know About Door-to-Door Magazine Sales
In the Ramada Inn, across I-10 from Ikea, dozens of young sales agents spill out of vans and head for the first-floor conference room. They’re in their late teens and early twenties, tired from a long day of selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, but excited about the money they think they’re going to get.
In the conference room, a line of middle-aged managers sit behind folding tables and count the stacks of receipts and cash their agents place before them. It’s a ton of money. The crews hit Houston in late February, it’s near the end of March now and it’s been a lucrative stay. Houston is always a windfall.
It’s been a tough hop for this caravan of sales crews, though. Winding their way down from California, they lost a few agents. Two were arrested in Albuquerque after they allegedly forced their way into the home of an elderly couple and beat them to death, raping the wife first. A few weeks later, another agent allegedly raped a woman in Claremont, California, so he got picked up, too. Then, in West Texas, a van flipped, killing one agent and injuring three others. That’s seven agents out of commission. That’s about a $2,800 loss per day.
After they turn in their cash and receipts, two agents, a pudgy girl and a lanky guy, hit the parking lot for a smoke. Two Houston Press reporters are there, observing. Without knowing they’re talking to reporters, the agents walk over and ask for rolling papers. When asked what they’re doing in town, the agents explain their job and how much they love it. It’s a blast, they say. You lie all day to sell subscriptions, and you unwind afterward with some smoke. You tell the customers that you live a few streets over, that you go to the local school and play on the soccer team, that you just sold subscriptions to their neighbor, and the idiots buy it because by now you’ve got it down to a science. And on to the next town. And the next.
In the eight months the Press investigated door-to-door magazine sales across the country, the industry has seen at least three murders, one rape, two attempted rapes, one stabbing, one attempted murder, one vehicle fatality and one attempted abduction of a 13-year-old girl.
Interviews with former agents reveal a constant party atmosphere where agents have easy access — often thanks to their managers — to drugs. The agents come primarily from two populations: reprobates who need to leave wherever they are fast, and vulnerable kids from unstable families who believe that hopping into a van full of strangers is better than what awaits them at home.
Agents are often driven across the country by managers whose driver’s licenses have been suspended or revoked. And while the industry’s trade group says it encourages member companies to conduct background checks, the crews are overflowing with agents with open warrants, extensive criminal histories and probation terms that prohibit them from leaving their home state. Since its inception in 1987, the National Field Selling Association has not only done nothing to clean up the crews, it has lobbied against proposed legislation that would implement the most basic of safety regulations and prohibit the hiring of underage employees.
While mainstream publishers and their trade group, the Magazine Publishers Association, say door-to-door sales account for a minuscule percentage of annual sales, this seemingly small percentage still translates into millions. It’s profitable enough to publishers like Conde Nast, Reader’s Digest and others that they still consider door-to-door sales a worthwhile venture in the 21st century. And without publishers’ participation, the industry would cease to exist. Which means, quite simply, that publishers have decided the collateral damage is worth the boost in circulation.
The following is a story of that collateral damage — of murder, rape, assault, overdoses and scamming — and the business decisions and lack of legislation that make it possible.
Whenever there’s a tragedy tied to the industry, whether it be the death of one of the agents or of one of the customers, the industry mouthpieces issue impotent condemnations or reiterate the notion that door-to-door sales are just a sliver of the pie.
The Magazine Publishers of America will give a variation of the following, which is a statement it gave to the Press: “Magazine Publishers of America condemns any door-to-door business that preys on vulnerable individuals or poses a threat to the public. [MPA] has long urged its members to identify any subscriptions coming from these sources and recommends that its members cease doing business with any company that does not fully comply with the law. Our guidelines and relations with subscription agents are clear, and we encourage all our members to follow them.”
Which, based on the Press‘s investigation, previous media stories and industry watchdogs, is complete nonsense. The object is to push subscriptions, and it scarcely matters how.
Traveling Sales Crews Information Web Site — Dedicated to presenting the violent, destructive, greedy and criminal acts that have turned the Traveling Sales Industry into a National Tragedy
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