Tupperware: Pricey but still popular
Published 12:00 am Friday, August 26, 2011
By Leanne Italie
Cindy Hallman-Morris grew up with Tupperware’s burping bowls, gelatin rings and pickle keeper, but she considered herself a casual buyer of the brand once she had her own kids.
Until this year, when she was sucked — happily — into the Tupperware vortex.
“I attended a party and then hosted a party and then it seemed everyone I knew was giving a Tupperware party,” said the 44-year-old high school math teacher in Asheville, N.C.
“It’s never ending!”
Tupperware, it seems, is enjoying a renaissance 65 years after it first hit the market with Wonder bowls, Bell Tumblers and Ice-Tup molds for homemade frozen treats.
Long gone is the signature burp, that whoosh of air from pressing on the center of a lid to tightly seal in the goodness. Also gone is the color goldenrod, fussy floral accents and the soft pastels of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Today’s Tupperware is drenched in edgy shades of “purplicious” and “fuchsia kiss,” or crisp in greens dubbed “margarita” and “lettuce leaf.” You can buy contemporary takes on Wonderlier bowls and those little salt and pepper shakers, but Tupperware Brands Corp. also sells an appetizer tray that looks like a caterpillar, fancy chef’s knives, bakeware and heavy stainless steel pots and pans.
The company has choppers, whippers and microsteamers. Updated FridgeSmart containers with the two familiar vents are embedded with dishwasher-resistant charts recommending how much air to let in for various fruits and vegetables. Broccoli’s a heavy breather, for instance. Asparagus isn’t.
The Orlando, Fla.-based company has acquired a sense of humor with a set called Thatsa Bowl and Thatsa Mega Bowl, but left the Jel-Ring Mold pretty much alone while aggressively modernizing, diversifying and pursuing emerging markets around the globe.
A few years ago, the company boasted that a Tupperware party was held somewhere in the world every 2.3 seconds. Now it’s 1.7 seconds, driven by a direct sales force of 2.6 million — still mostly women — in nearly 100 markets, said Rick Goings, the chairman and chief executive who arrived 20 years ago from Avon.
Worldwide sales last year totaled $2.3 billion, including beauty and personal care products.
“I got here and found out the company was in trouble,” Goings said. “The headquarters was for sale. They had just written off $100 million. Everybody loved it but they loved it in a historical sense, like the Model T.”
One of the first things he did was hire Susan Perkins, the company’s first woman chief of design, to replace generations of stuffy industrial wonks who likely never had to use Tupperware at home.
Also on Goings’ plate: making products more appealing to young people, and ceding ground to lower cost plastic containers and bags — which, according to him, are lousier than Tupperware for the environment because they don’t last as long or work as well.
The company has had more than seven straight quarters of positive sales growth and expanding earnings, due largely to markets outside the United States, but nothing quite so explosive as the early decades.
The “party plan” for selling in homes to friends and neighbors was put in place by inventor Earl S. Tupper’s right hand, a divorced mom from Detroit named Brownie Wise, after Tupper’s failed attempts to sell in stores. Home parties remain the way most consumers scoop up their Tupperware, though there’s an option to host online parties and Tupperware itself sells from its website.
Admired by House Beautiful in 1947 as “Fine Art for 39 Cents,” Tupperware today is functional, fun and fashionable, but it isn’t cheap. The microwave SmartSteamer, for example, goes for $139 and a seven-piece Vent ‘N Serve set for $130.
“It IS quite pricey, but it lasts forever,” Hallman-Morris said. “It really does.”
Pricey, that is, in today’s palooza of plastics. There wasn’t much by way of comparison back in 1938, when Tupper first got his hands on a sticky black glob of polyethylene slag, then figured out how to turn it into squishable kitchen storage and cereal bowls. Plastics of the time were hard, brittle and smelly, prone to leaks and easily breakable. Without lids, homemakers used moist towels, tin foil or shower caps to make food last on the counter and in ever-improving refrigerators.
Tupperware’s success is a study in perfect post-war timing, a period of rapid growth in consumer products, consumption and the rise of suburban living after women were sent home from wartime factories.
Not bad for a New Hampshire farm boy and failed tree doctor who barely graduated high school. Tupper’s base material and introduction to the business came at DuPont during a year’s stint in its plastics division in Leominster, Mass. But it was the flamboyant Wise, not the all-business Tupper, who refined the party plan, allowing the company to soar to 20,000 dealers by 1954, a golden year.
Stanley Home Products used the party plan before Tupperware came along, but Wise refined it, whipping women into a frenzy for selling the newfangled plasticware. She first peddled Stanley, adding a bit of Tupperware to the mix and later switching altogether, catching Tupper’s eye with an impressive sales network in Detroit, then Florida.
Appointed vice president and head of sales, Wise promised real money and recognition for hard workers, without the need for formal education or job experience.
The company’s lifetime guarantee that products won’t chip, break, crack or peel remains in place. So do big-ticket incentives for top sellers.
“I basically was able to walk away from not knowing where my next paycheck was coming from,” said Kevin Farrell, a Los Angeles actor who dons Daisy Dukes, crazy makeup and a blonde wig to sell Tupperware in drag as the brash southern trailer-dweller Dee W. Ieye.
He sells a lot of Tupperware — six figures’ worth most years. Farrell’s a regular recipient of big Wise-inspired prizes, a Pontiac G-6 convertible for one.
“It feeds me better than doing television work. There’s a joy from going into people’s homes and bringing them a great product and having fun at the same time,” he said.
Wise, an admirer of positive thinkers like Norman Vincent Peale, put on splashy Homecoming Jubilees every year for hundreds of Tupperware Ladies. Held at the company’s swank headquarters, the jubilees were equal parts circus and revival meeting, with themes like the Gold Rush-style “big dig” in 1954. Wise buried about $50,000 worth of mink stoles, diamond rings, gold watches and little cars that the faithful could redeem for the real thing after they dug them up.
Wise had her own rags-to-riches story: a meager Georgia childhood and a desperate need to support son Jerry after a bad marriage to an abusive alcoholic whom she divorced in 1941.
“Brownie made it clear, if you’re divorced, married, single, disabled, Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, Christian, it doesn’t matter. Tupperware is an opportunity for you,” said Laurie Kahn, who wrote, produced and directed the 2004 PBS documentary “Tupperware!”
“These women were very traditional, yet they were subverting the system from the inside,” she said. “They could earn more money than their husbands if they were successful, and be able to put their kids through college and buy houses.”
Some made millions through their own sales forces. Husbands quit jobs as firefighters, factory workers or truck drivers to help when their wives’ Tupperware businesses took off, Kahn said.
Wise, often photographed in her favorite peacock wicker chair amid fawning male Tupperware executives, was the first woman to make the cover of Business Week, in 1954, well before Mary Kay, Martha Stewart or Oprah. But four years later, she was unceremoniously dumped by the quirky, paranoid Tupper after seven heady years with the company.
The falling out was complicated, fed by Tupper’s disdain for Wise’s excesses and his desire to sell the company to avoid heavy estate taxes in the event of his death, by some accounts. According to Kahn’s film, Tupper felt that suitors for the company would have no interest in taking on a female at the top.
After receiving a paltry $35,000 settlement, slightly less than her annual salary, Wise was unable to make her Tupperware magic reappear. She dabbled in real estate, took up pottery making and died in relative obscurity in 1992 at age 79.
“She was living the life she wanted to, but Tupper held all the cards. She poured her whole life into Tupperware,” said Bill Kealing, who wrote the 2008 book “Tupperware Unsealed” (University Press of Florida).
Tupper’s patent for his famous air-tight, leak-proof seal, modeled on an inverted paint can lid, expired about a year after he fired Wise. He sold the business for $16 million to Rexall Drug Co., renounced his U.S. citizenship and wound up living in Costa Rica. He died in 1983 at 76.
As for Tupperware parties, Rexall, with access to thousands of drug stores, could have sold the products off shelves but kept the home party plan in place. Tupperware Brands has since spun off as an independent once again.
Goings chalks up the party plan’s success to the power of the demo.
“It still works. People still have the same values,” he said. “We’re sensing people want to get reconnected.”