Momming Hard

Multilevel-marketing companies like LuLaRoe are forcing people into debt and psychological crisis

The minimum order is 30 pieces at a time, and LuLaRoe requires sellers to buy a minimum of 33 pieces a month ($346 in wholesale leggings, for example) to maintain active status. This means that if a retailer sold 30 pairs of leggings a week, it would take them just under three months to make back their initial $5,000. As they also need to use their revenue to restock an additional 33 pieces a month ($1,038 worth of leggings over 11.5 weeks), it would therefore take another month or so of selling 30 pairs of leggings a week to start turning a small profit. (There is a more detailed mathematical breakdown of different business models here.) “Just like anyone starting a new business, there is risk involved and not everyone is guaranteed success,” LuLaRoe CMO Lyon says.

After earning $3,000 to $5,000 a month for a few consecutive months, Kayla quit her job in late 2016 to sell LuLaRoe full time. “The next month my profits took a dip. And the next month my profits took a dip,” she says. “I’ve not been able to recoup anything since I quit my job.” After trying to sell off as much inventory as she could, she resigned from the company last month and is awaiting her refund check—which, at the time of writing, still hasn’t arrived.

But for most MLMs, the real money isn’t in selling wares: It’s in signing up consultants. Up until July 2017, LuLaRoe’s sellers who signed up new retailers got a 3-5% commission on the inventory their downline bought. But they only garnered that commission if they and everyone underneath them each bought 175 pieces a month, a rule that incentivized inventory buying.

Some variation on this structure is common at most MLMs. Financial analysis on Pink Truth, a website that analyzes Mary Kay and other MLMs’ business practices, estimates that as a LuLaRoe seller advanced up the ranks, had 10 people below her, and garnered 3% of her recruits’ inventory-buy value, she could make a bonus of $1,500 a month—but only if her downline spent about a combined $35,000 on merchandise. That’s why struggling sellers used to be told to buy more inventory: Not only did their higher-ups get a cut of each bulk buy, but if their downline didn’t hit the minimum purchase mark, no one got a bonus. “The entire year that I did LuLaRoe, I was pushed to continue buying and buying more and more and more, no matter how the sales declined, and that buying more and more was the only solution to get more sales,” Sophie says.

On July 1, LuLaRoe instituted a much fairer Leadership Bonus Plan(pdf) that awards compensation based on sales to consumers rather than wholesale purchases. But there are still thickets of obscure rules: Leggings only count as half a piece; your bonus is based on your downline’s wholesale value of sales, not their retail value; and your team’s per-piece average needs to be at least $30, meaning that if you want to get your bonus, you can never sell your wares for discounted prices.

With the company’s rules shifting and no small-business training offered to consultants, it’s easy to let enthusiasm blindside reality—and if you’re drowning, you’re fighting against a riptide of consultants to save yourself.

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You vs. the community

The upper echelons of LuLaRoe’s consultant community have a reputation for being vicious to their downline. “It’s like the policy police,” Ashley says. “‘We’re going to find you, stalk you, tell on you. How dare you guys say a single word bad. We’re going to shame you.’”

Whether they realize it or not, consultant leaders often use time-honored cult tactics of denial and blame to keep women within their sorority. A famous series of experiments from the 1950s conducted by Soloman Asch in England showed that three out of four people will deny evidence right in front of them if the majority says it’s not true. In the study, individuals were placed in groups where they were constantly contradicted by other members. When this happened over a length of time, they would start to agree with the majority—even though it was clear that the opposite was true. In MLMs, “you’re trained to avoid people who question whether this is a viable business or not,” Brooks says. “Which is exactly the same technique that cults use—they try to isolate you from people who question your belief system. I’ve been contacted by a number of people who deal with cult survivors, and some of their clients are former MLM people.”

 “I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you?” Even when consultants wake up to the fact they’ve been hoodwinked, many don’t warn their friends to stay away. That’s because if you speak out against any of LuLaRoe’s rules or mishaps, the community could publicly shame and harass you for being negative. “I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you? I have to block you due to your constant-gross-delusional-uneducated opinions of LLR.” If you reveal you are struggling to make sales, you might be told to stop playing the victim, that you’re not putting in enough effort, to be more enthusiastic, and, of course, to buy more inventory.

“Success as a retailer results only from successful sales efforts, which require hard work, dedication, diligence, leadership and perseverance,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Success will depend upon how effectively these qualities are exercised. As with any business, results will vary. In addition to the factors above, retailer success is influenced by the individual capacity, business experience, expertise, and motivation of the retailer.”

In other words, it’s not the system that’s broken—you’re just not trying hard enough.

To try and understand what LuLaRoe success looks like, I studied Nicole’s Facebook Live stream. What was she doing so right? Nicole and another consultant pulled out 71 pairs of leggings in an hour. They deemed almost every one “pretty,” “beautiful,” or “cute.” The most egregiously ugly leggings—like one pair covered in paintball splats with flowers overlaid on top—were “fun” and “different.” In an MLM, saleswomanship is key, no matter what the wares you’re selling look like.

They ended up selling 20 of them over the next 24 hours.

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Leggings anonymous

Many LuLaRoe Facebook groups have the word “addiction” or “addicts” in their titles: Christine’s LuLaRoe Addicts AnonymousLuLaRoe AddictsLuLaRoe Addiction VIP Boutique. It’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s truer than many women realize.

Mary (last name withheld) is a wife and mother who holds a master’s degree in nursing and works from home in Arizona. She bought her first pair of LuLaRoe leggings in 2015 and loved them. But what started as a fun social activity turned into a compulsion, and she found it taking over her life. “I spent more hours than I want to admit ‘hunting’ that pair,” she says. “I spent more than $3,000 in a month. I would lie to my husband about feeling ill so he would take the kids to their afterschool activities so I could be at home to watch pop ups. I would also drive as far away as an hour to attend LLR events.”

 LuLaRoe merchandise boxes are like Lycra slot machines. LuLaRoe merchandise boxes are like Lycra slot machines. In the onboarding package, new recruits don’t get to choose the size or style of their items. For example, Sophie knew plus sizes would sell best for her, but her initial package contained five XXS dresses and several long-sleeved shirts that were a tough sell for a Texas retailer in June.

After that package, consultants can start choosing styles and sizes for their next orders, but they never get to choose the patterns they’re delivered. This means they can wind up with a box of clothes that is less “chic young mom” and more Pee Wee’s Playhouse. There are 400 new prints apparently designed every day, and LuLaRoe says most patterns are limited to around 5,000 pieces each. When a consultant opens a box, they hope to find a few “unicorns”—the styles everyone wants—among armfuls of duds, like the infamous Dorito pattern.

Research has shown that our brains release more of the pleasure chemical dopamine when we unexpectedly get a reward at a random time. Gambling addicts will run up credit cards and bankrupt themselves chasing that high, continually putting coins into the slot even though it’s become clear that, overall, they are losing. Likewise, LuLaRoe customers will stay glued to Facebook groups and consultants will keep buying inventory they can’t afford in the hope they will stumble across the rarest, most elusive styles.

“Retailers can generate a sense of excitement among consumers because the garments they purchase are unique to them,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Many retailers report that they use the unexpected nature of the shipment to build excitement among existing and new consumers for their new inventory. This also fosters a sense of cooperation among retailers as retailers will often refer consumers to other retailers to help consumers find the patterns that they seek.”

Sophie says she was often only able to sell five pieces out of every 30-piece order she made. “They said, ‘Be a creator.’ I hate that phrase,” she says. “It means: ‘Figure out how to sell them.’”

Stern was taught ways to unload her unwanted stock on unsuspecting buyers by her group’s leaders. “You have to be creative about how you sell it,” she says. Stern would bundle 10 pairs of leggings together—nine less desirable ones and one unicorn pattern—into “mystery sales,” where the first 10 women to comment “sold” would purchase a random pair, but only one would get the coveted leggings. She feels guilty about using this psychological gambling trick, but it worked.

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LuLaRoe’s quality and return policies

In recent months, sellers have claimed that LuLaRoe leggings have a tendency to tear like “wet toilet paper.” The $25 leggings—their most popular item—are manufactured in the US, Vietnam, Guatemala, Indonesia, and China, and are mostly made of a mix of polyester and spandex. Starting in fall 2016, customers started reporting that LuLaRoe’s “buttery soft” leggings were falling apart. Sometimes within just a few hours of wearing them, pinholes would splatter across the fabric, a “blow out” would reveal the wearer’s underwear, or they’d lose all their dye in the wash, leaving them a sad, mottled grey. LuLaRoe has denied that anything was wrong with its leggings, saying that only 1% of its clothing is returned with defects.

 Starting in fall 2016, customers started reporting that LuLaRoe’s “buttery soft” leggings were falling apart. That figure may be low because LuLaRoe products used to be so hard to return. For a long time, angry customers couldn’t send back faulty products directly to LuLaRoe: They had to return them to the consultant they purchased them from. Customers are instructed to hand-wash leggings inside out and air-dry them, but that hasn’t stopped the company from getting sued by angry consultants alleging that the leggings are poor quality. Some LuLaRoe retailers have even taken to fat-shamingcustomers, telling them if the leggings rip, it’s their fault.

Founded in October 2016, the LuLaRoe Defective/Ripped/Torn Leggings and Clothes Facebook group was initially intended for posting pictures of holey leggings. Now it has more than 30,000 members and has become a place for women to share pictures of ugly merchandise, screenshots of vicious consultant behavior, and to upload documents from the numerous lawsuits against LuLaRoe. (At last count, there are nine ongoing legal battles.)

Christina Hinks, an aspiring journalist and the former moderator of the Facebook group, attempted to draw attention to LuLaRoe practices she found problematic. She has been collecting and documenting LuLaRoe issues at her blog, Mommygyver, which went from product reviews toeducating readers on the risks of MLMs and inventory loading, revealing fat shaming by consultants, sharing stories of women who claim to have been victimized by LuLaRoe, and posting screenshots and stories of shenanigans by consultants and leaders at the top.

After a slew of complaints, LuLaRoe rolled out a Happiness Policy in April 2017, which states that customers can get a credit, cash refund, or replacement pair (but not the same pattern) for defective leggings purchased between January 2016 and April 2017. However, many are saying their refund checks have still not been issued, even though they were told they’d arrive several weeks ago.

Consultants and clients say the clothing’s quality has been going back up, but the PR damage has been done. Shoppers are becoming wary—and wondering why they’re not buying leggings that don’t rip on the first wear for $7.99 at Wal-Mart instead.

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Getting out

With their leggings falling apart, parties going dead, and debt ballooning, going-out-of-business (GOOB) sales have proliferated. As a result, potential customers now know they don’t have to pay retail price for products: They can just type “LuLaRoe going out of business” into Facebook and find heavily discounted items. This makes it even harder for the consultants still in the game to make money, as they are competing with women who are undercutting their prices in an attempt to squeeze every last penny out of their remaining inventory.

These sales go against company policy. While a LuLaRoe spokesperson says sellers are “free to set their own sales prices for the LuLaRoe products they sell,” they don’t allow you to actually advertise those prices: “Out of fairness to all retailers, they are not allowed to advertise prices below MAP (Minimum Advertised Prices). LuLaRoe encourages retailers not sell product below MAP as MAP ensure that the LuLaRoe brand maintains a consistent level of value and fairness that benefits all Retailers. Advertising prices below MAP violates the agreement between retailers and LuLaRoe.” If caught, sellers are ostracized by the consultant community for diminishing the LuLaRoe brand, and some have claimed to be locked out of their point-of-sale systems.

Stern decided to get out after she realized she had $20,000 in unsold wholesale inventory sitting in her living room. “It clicked for me that if you order 30 items, they send you 10 quick movers and the rest sit. It’s a false sense of actually being successful,” she says. “I noticed all these people started going out of business. I started getting scared that my inventory would be worth nothing, and I would be stuck with $8,000 on my credit card.”

 Thankfully, getting out is easier than it used to be—sort of. Thankfully, getting out is easier than it used to be—sort of. LuLaRoe has started providing free shipping so that consultants who want to leave can return their inventory and get back what they paid, as long as those items are in perfect condition and in their original packaging. This sounds reasonable—except that retailers generally have to unbox, hang, and photograph each item in order to have a shot at selling it, meaning a lot of their unsold inventory isn’t eligible for a refund.

But one woman’s trash may be another woman’s treasure. New consultants are reporting getting boxes full of old merchandise that appears to be from merchants who went out of business—the ugly stuff others couldn’t sell. “While LuLaRoe may resell some inventory returned in original packaging and in new condition to its employees in its company store,” LuLaRoe CMO Lyon says, “LuLaRoe prefers that product that is returned in original packaging and in new condition be used for donations or giveaways only.” Consultants dispute that claim, posting pictures of “new” merchandise with old patterns and tags that have been marked up by other consultants.

In April, Stern quietly put all her inventory on sale for 25% off, paid off her credit-card debt, and got out. She’s an example of someone who rode the wave and managed to leave before wiping out entirely. She has now started a new company selling leggings using the same skills she learned from selling LuLaRoe—without the binding policies, and with an added charity element. She’s one of the fortunate ones. But what about the rest?

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The winners and losers

What made Nicole Haas so prosperous, but nearly ruined Sophie, Kayla, Ashley, and thousands of other women just looking for a small piece of the apple pie?

Perhaps the successful consultants are right: It’s all about enthusiasm. Perhaps some people don’t succeed because they don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Perhaps it’s about believing that leggings printed like hotel carpets are beautiful to someone. Perhaps you think that a thin polyester dress you could get for $15 in a chain store is worth $60 if you buy it from a friend. Perhaps it’s about having no qualms hawking clothes to people who struggle to afford them, or signing women up underneath you while you struggle yourself.

For a portion of independent retailers, LuLaRoe is to economic opportunity as Goop is to wellness: It’s for ladies who already have it all. The ability to throw down $12,000 to start a LuLaRoe business and work 30 hours a week sometimes comes from a place of privilege, not desperation. Some mothers who are just looking for a hobby have husbands whose salaries are already high enough to support their families. “I felt like I was trying to keep up with the Joneses to stay in business against these other consultants who can afford to drop a $500 order every few days,” Ashley says.

 This is the story of rural disenfranchisement and the MLMs that offer desperate American women a chance at clawing their way out. This isn’t a story about leggings, however. It’s not even a story about LuLaRoe. This is the story of rural and suburban disenfranchisement and the MLMs that offer desperate American women a chance at clawing their way out. They’ve become part of the fabric of suburban America, as cherished and inevitable as barbecues and the county fair. Regional newspapers are rife with announcements for fundraisers for children with cancer and elementary-school fetes that promote LuLaRoe pop-up shops. Not buying a pair of leggings can be read as being unsupportive of your friends—or not chipping in for a local kid’s chemotherapy. It’s a genius manipulation of rural and suburban American societal norms.

But even if LuLaRoe were to go out of business tomorrow, another MLM pushing scented candles, jewelry, or kitchen products would rise up to take its place. “The regulators cannot keep up with these companies,” Brooks says. “There are so many of them. When one company blows up, the founders and high-level distributors move on to another company, and it goes on and on.” At best, LuLaRoe is a company that grew too fast; at worst, it consciously preyed on business-naïve communities eager for a sense of self-sufficiency.

Small-town America is built on the concept of community, meaning the psychological guilt games MLMs play are their most effective selling tool. Even Christina Hinks of Mommygyver has started positively reviewing other MLMS again, directing her readers to join consultant Facebook groups and helping MLMs with market research. Like America’s systemic class bias, it’s hard to escape.

“People need to be warned about this company now,” one anonymous woman said in a Facebook message to me in April. When I followed up a few days later, she had changed her mind. “I actually onboarded Monday with Agnes & Dora, another direct-sales clothing company. And as part of their policy and procedures, I cannot speak badly of another company.”

Wish her luck.

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