Gail force: Gail Reynolds started selling door-to-door eight years ago and now has a business worth £5m. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
In 2002, at the age of 31, Gail Reynolds had moved to Hastings for a job at an accountancy firm when she saw an advert that said: Join Avon, Meet New People. "And that was why I joined – because I was lonely. I gave up my job at the accountant's after three months, and then went on to meet all my goals – I bought a car, I got married, we went on our first holiday abroad, we bought a home. By 2015 I'll have bought my next house in Bowleaze Cove, which is like millionaires' row. I was brought up on an estate, to work, pay bills and sleep. I'm one of 53 grandchildren and, apart from me, they all work in shops and factories. So I love my life," she says. "But while most people join Avon to earn an extra £50 around Christmas, you do have to be very competitive to do well, to win the Mercedes, to get the prize holidays in New York and Berlin, for being one of the top 20 sales leaders."
Later, Gail and Brian show me their trophy cabinet. First, the cabinet itself, "Beautiful wood, solid oak, it'll look amazing in the new house," and then the Avon trophies, shelves and shelves of them, alongside a framed photograph of Gail with Avon spokeswoman Reese Witherspoon, one of the celebrities (along with Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas) who has helped combat the brand's occasionally mumsy image, and fundraised for their female-focused causes – breast cancer and domestic violence. On the wall of the Reynolds's bright, sunlit office, a map of Britain is pinned beside a print which reads: "It's a hard life."
Despite Avon's current boom, and the success of the individuals whose home businesses are thriving, Carly Syme, retail analyst at Verdict, predicts trouble ahead for the company's reliance on door-to-door sales. "The mail-order market itself is a declining one," she says, "and that is really impacting on Avon's sales. While it is putting more focus on the online channel [in 1997, Avon became the first major beauty brand to sell online], this needs to be a real focus for it over the coming years if it is to attract new customers to the brand."
When I ask Brian Reynolds about the impact that web sales have on his business, he says the two – the "real-life" doorstep sales, and the impersonal web ones – are so far removed that he doesn't worry about it. Sales on Avon's website make up just 5% of its £10bn international annual revenue. In fact, Brian says, web sales are soon to benefit home sellers – Avon is talking about changing the way online orders work so that each purchase will require a representative to log the buyer in. But, when I later ask an Avon spokesperson about this move, she denies it with a sharp shake of the head.
"Innovation is something that is absolutely vital in health and beauty," Syme says, "and while Avon has been developing new products, it struggles to justify higher price points to its customers compared to its store-based competitors." Customers are willing to pay premium prices for health and beauty products, adds Syme, but door-to-door selling is typically the place for low-cost sales. Will Avon be able to break out of its bargain-basement image?
It's an odd contradiction, the growing achievements of Avon's representatives and the relative doom of Avon itself, a brand only limited by its own sales methods, but whose methods are the thing that makes it unique. While analysts forecast a fall, its Avon ladies and Avon men are thriving in this recession; as well as the much-documented lipstick effect (when facing an economic crisis, consumers are tempted by small luxuries) which is no doubt contributing to their buoyant local sales, the business model is such that there are opportunities to build new careers from the ashes of redundancy, at least as long as Avon's name and heritage remains in lights.
For now, the sales leaders seem thrilled, dazzled by their success, and rightly proud of the business skills they've acquired, skills that they articulate confidently, and publish as advice for their team in comprehensive coloured leaflets stacked on their dining table, skills that seem to have risen to the surface recently, like bodies suddenly floating up from the bottom of a muddy lake.
The future is bright for the Reynolds. Each year stands for another incentive – in the Drive Your Dream scheme they've won their car, now bright with Avon logos (bronze level gets you a car worth £16,500, silver £25,000 and gold £35,000) and next year they'll win another. Gail is writing a business book. Brian is taking flying lessons. In the Avon newsletter he's pictured in black tie on a trip they won to Mallorca, a blond streak in his fringe, his brilliantly white teeth shining. In the background the blue sea shivers seamlessly into a blue sky, and a caption to the right details the home they've bought, the holidays they've won. "However," he says, the best part of his involvement in Avon, "has been the friends I have made, genuine people who are all living the dream."