It’s almost midnight in Douglasville, Ga., and Kandice Baxter is in her bedroom, shucking oysters on Facebook Live.
With hundreds watching the Internet video, Baxter works her way through a pile of mollusks in search of pearls — and with them, big sales.
The party is the product of Mansfield-based Vantel Pearls, a direct-marketing firm whose business is not Tupperware or toiletries. It’s inexpensive pearl jewelry. Settings for the gems are sold online ahead of time, and Facebook crowds log on for the thrill of watching an oyster pried open, just for them. Others tune in for the fun of it, chiming in with comments as Baxter unveils a peach-colored pearl for “Joyce” from Eustis, Fla.
“It is huge, and it is beautiful!” Baxter gushes as her feed comes alive with viewer reaction.
Some parties last for hours, boast 1,000 or more page views, and draw comments by the hundreds.
Barely eight months old, Facebook Live is reinventing the Tupperware party for a modern audience, with a growing number of marketers using the platform to hawk everything from clothes to jewelry to fake nails. While women still gather to guzzle chardonnay at sales parties in a neighbor’s living room, the direct-selling industry has found a new home in the virtual living room, where Facebook Live offers them an opportunity to present their pitch to its 1.79 billion active monthly users.
Vantel, a relatively obscure Massachusetts company with an unusual gimmick, appears to be in the vanguard of using Facebook Live to make fast cash. The company’s associates have been hosting in-home parties for 27 years in a multilevel-marketing format, but the advent of Facebook Live has driven their popularity sky-high. The company now hosts about 150 in-home and online parties a night in the United States, and its consultants have gone from shucking an average of 5,000 oysters a month in 2015 to 50,000 in August alone, Vantel founder and president Joan Hartel Cabral said.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” Cabral said. “We’ve been able to share the experience in ways we’ve never been able to before. Everyone wants in.”
It works like this: Vantel customers select jewelry from an online catalog offering a bevy of products, such as a $36 “Angel By My Side” keychain and a $69 silver-plated “Heart Rope Wrap Ring,” and receive one to four free oysters to be shucked at a party, depending on the style of the setting.
Each oyster is virtually guaranteed to contain a pearl, company representatives promise. The element of surprise comes in the size and color of the gems, which is part of what gets people hooked. You aren’t just buying jewelry, you’re buying an experience, to be had from the comfort of your couch.
Based on Vantel’s prices, the pearls are hardly Mikimoto quality. The company doesn’t disclose the value of the pearls to customers, but Cabral said some are worth up to $114. When asked about the pearls’ sourcing, she gave conflicting responses. In an initial interview, she described them as Akoya pearls from Asia, a claim Vantel party hosts have echoed. But in a follow-up conversation, Cabral said the company sources freshwater pearls, which are less rare and often far less valuable.
Party hosts mail the shucked pearls to Vantel, where they are set in the prepurchased jewelry. The company also sells a $49 mail-order kit with pearl jewelry but no shucking spectacle.
Vantel is far from the only company to deploy Facebook Live sessions in the quest for customers. Behemoths from Dunkin’ Donuts to Zappos are using the platform to market their products or extol their company culture. But the medium is especially well-suited to party-style marketers like Vantel that have long relied on word-of-mouth to sell.
The company has found its way into a space inhabited by friends and acquaintances, said David Schweidel, a marketing professor at Emory University.
“It sounds utterly absurd,” Schweidel said of the pearl-party concept. “But I think what we’re seeing marks a start among companies to make a lot more use of video as a way of communicating with customers directly.”
Vantel was founded by Cabral, a Hyde Park native and former yoga instructor who said she got inspired on a 1980s vacation in Hawaii, where she saw vendors shucking oysters for tourists eager to find a pearl.
Later, as co-owner of a jewelry shop on Martha’s Vineyard, she decided to host her first party. It brought in more money than a day of business at her shop. So she formed what is known as a multilevel marketing company, with independent consultants who entice friends and acquaintances to host pearl parties. Those consultants have the opportunity to rise up through the ranks, receiving a percentage of party sales hosted by others they recruit. Within three years, Cabral had 14 sales consultants arranging parties, she said.
That now seems rather quaint.
The company recently outgrew its Easton headquarters in a nondescript office building, where postal crates filled with orders were stacked 5 feet high outside of Cabral’s office. There were as many sales in the first two weeks of September as there were all of last year, Cabral said.
The company had previously experimented with social media video. But when Facebook Live debuted earlier this year, it brought increased exposure for a business that sells not only a product but a minor thrill.
Vantel soon began coaching its army of sales consultants on how to use the tool. While Cabral will not disclose revenues, the 50,000 shucked oysters she cited as the August tally come with a minimum purchase of $36 on jewelry, though some settings hold multiple pearls.
Lynn Bardowski, author of “Success Secrets of a Million Dollar Party Girl,” said the sales party scene on Facebook Live is growing fast for companies like Jamberry, which sells “nail wraps,” and Thirty-One, a bags and home-goods purveyor.
Bardowski has achieved a measure of industry fame, having sold more than $1 million worth of candles and accessories for Norwell-based PartyLite.
She said people like buying from the everyday folks who film themselves in front of a cluttered mudroom or kitchen trash bin. She called them more real and relatable.
“This is the future of how people buy and how they connect with brands,” Bardowski said. “You don’t have to be a glossed-up perfect person. In fact, at the end of the day, that may be why people buy from you.”
Stella & Dot, founded in 2003 as Luxe Jewels, targets a more upscale demographic, selling jewelry and accessories available only through in-home and online trunk shows hosted by independent “stylists.”
In recent years, the company has harnessed the power of social media to help promote the nearly 800 sales events it hosts every day in six countries, founder Jessica Herrin said.
All stylists use Facebook, she said, and about a quarter of them currently use Facebook Live.
“Technology does a lot to separate us,” she said. “Facebook Live helps with conversion, turning a person who’s interested into a sale.”
Experts said the scope of the direct marketing phenomenon on Facebook is difficult to pinpoint because most of the companies are not public and guard their strategies closely.
Tammy Bakalarski, a nursing instructor in rural Biglerville, Pa., said she is on track to earn about $120,000 in Vantel income this year, between sales, commissions, and bonuses.
Bakalarski said she had about 40 sales consultants working for her last January. The 53-year-old now has about 282 consultants.
“I think Facebook has gotten the Vantel name out there in a much faster way,” Bakalarski said.
Cabral said she focuses on the way her business has empowered women, and she gets teary talking about those who use the money they earn to pay down debt or buy their first home.
But like that of any fast-growing operation, Vantel’s sales strategy comes with risks. The company says Kandice Baxter, the consultant shucking pearls late at night in her Georgia bedroom, is not a traditional spokeswoman, with her unmade bed in the background and her fiance, Mike, belching off camera.
Laurie Langill, national director of sales at Vantel, said she is working with many to help refine their approach.
“Anybody can do this,” she said. “It’s also one of the scary things.”
A Harvard Business School marketing professor, John Deighton, likened the sales pitches on Facebook Live, as well as on YouTube, to the advertisements that have long filled late-night television, complete with offbeat personalities.
“The abundance of inexpensive media is producing troves of weird content,” Deighton said. “The pearl company is early to the party.”