"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 3 November 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Basket Case


American businesspeople can make more money than can be spent in a lifetime and for all of that effort and excess remain gloriously anonymous. It is only when they offer some innovation to the model of basic mercantile exchange — or at least convince enough people they've done so — that they have a chance of entering into the realm of imagination. Before it settled into its dotage as a proto-Walmart with more tires and shoes for hipsters who couldn't afford Doc Martins, the Sears and Roebuck company enabled a nation's first binge into gleeful consumption with its "wish book" catalogues and mail-order homes. The Joseph Smith and Brigham Young of 20th Century business, Amway founders Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel, mixed belief system and family structure in a manner all but guaranteed to destroy both over time. In many ways, we live in an age of celebrity-innovators. The starry-eyed entrepreneur-to-be can receive life wisdom from mad franchiser Howard Schultz, bid for a limited edition Barbie of first Avon Lady P.F.E. Albee, or hound Jeff Bezos for an autograph. The mythology of consumption can only grow more rich. In 500 years, studies will compare Joe Isuzu to a coyote trickster-god; famed ad-man Leo Pearlstein's ability to enlist Abbot and Costello as pitchmen for eggs will be taught as a political feat of Machiavellian scope and drama.

If initial signs are any indication, the latter-day Thomas Bulfinch who records all this will almost certainly devote a chapter to the Longaberger Basket Company, America's number one maker of quality, custom-made baskets and a prime progenitor of creepy new business paradigms. Like the empty, attractive vessels it offers as totems for organizing and transforming the home, Longaberger has utilized a lattice-work of time-tested strategies in a way that says "This can hold anything one desires." The hundreds of millions of dollars the company has made to date, the potential billions to come, are chump change compared to the Longaberger dream of transfiguring lives through shared participation in the collective's march to worldwide basket dominance. The great thing about baskets is that they can carry anything from cheese for grandma to a baby prophet. And perhaps only Moses has enjoyed the confluence of full-on modern assaultive sales techniques enjoyed by Longaberger's Market Basket.

Like the prophet leaders of the Old Testament tribes of Israel, Longaberger depends on an army of adherents with varying levels of belief. Longaberger's first great appropriation of strategy is the home sale model — baskets and other items are not sold in stores but from one woman (the Independent Longaberger Sales Consultant) working in the home of another (the Longaberger Host). The festive, tea party atmosphere of a Longaberger party is designed to show off the enjoyment Longaberger items have brought both women and to garner for each bonus perks up to and including free items. A sales technique popularized by Tupperware queen Brownie Wise, these parties make temporary orphans of family members and stars of particularly convivial women, especially those with access to large numbers of potential customers through existing social connections. With the Hosts and Consultants at the height of their domestic appeal, swathed in seductive home-item gatekeeping mystery, the parties also serve as recruitment tools for future Longaberger party-givers and catalogue-explainers. Encountering a hosted party in progress is like stumbling into a prayer meeting or a coffee break made up of nametagged participants taking part in the Landmark Forum. Through its combination of home meeting and person-to-person recruitment, Longaberger has managed to romanticize the process of buying hampers and toilet paper holders.

Longaberger's success is all about that kind of greater whole from time-worn parts. Like teddy bear companies, Olympic pin distributors, and comic book publishers before them, Longaberger features a product aimed squarely at the collector, such as specialty items available only at specific times, from certain locations or for limited times. Longaberger no doubt adds to its bottom line via completist compulsion-buying, but its real strength is in the very fact that it selects its sales force from this type of buyer. The Consultant/Host sales force is really a witnessing team comprised of a particularly zealous salesperson and a distinct sort of lifestyle-icon.

One can best witness Longaberger's awe-inspiring ability to mix and match to its own benefit by visiting the company's hometown of Dresden, Ohio, and the nearby Longaberger Homestead complex. With a main street, supplementary alleyways, and six solid blocks of stores selling items that don't violate the sacred space of the hosted party — liners and lids, for example — Dresden has shed its own distinguished non-Longaberger history and come to resemble a transformed Springfield in a basket-happy episode of The Simpsons. The town's Guinness Book-approved working basket is as large as an insurance office. Dresden's Indian casino vibe gives way to the Homestead's history-warping idolatry of homecraft and get-ahead business know-how. Room-by-room breakdowns of available items, a barn with basketmaking displays, and a factory tour combine to make Homestead a Disney World of comfort items. While both Dresden and the Homestead certainly exist as profit-making centers with a farmer's market/Niketown mix of spectacle and sales, Longaberger makes even better use of the locations as a Mecca for its present and potential sales force. On a late Wednesday afternoon in September no fewer than nine buses sat idling near Dresden's Longaberger College square, their occupants perusing the stores, stocking food into coolers, and absorbing the atmosphere of basket-making's promised land. Leaving west, a tour bus pilgrim may find his or her heart swelling during a drive by the corporate office — a massive building constructed to look as much as possible like a multi-story basket. The rest of us may simply be thankful Larry Flynt didn't have that idea first.

How much should we forgive a company that affords people a role they enjoy, even if it's as one of an army of salespeople? Longaberger adherents certainly don't seem to mind that the company claims an almost-century-long history despite officially starting in the early-1970s (a decidedly non-craft-heavy decade); they seem to notice neither the silliness in the Kennedy-like treatment of the Longaberger family drama nor the foibles of the first family of baskets. And they rarely — at least not vocally — begrudge the start-up fee for consultancy of a general type the Federal Trade Commission legally declared was definitely not a pyramid scheme about the same time Dave Longaberger decided to try selling some of his dad's homemade baskets. In fact, except for a few low-level consultants who pointed out the size and weight of the women one finds touring Dresden as a potential reason for their own lack of sales success, one can spend weeks tromping around the Midwest hearing nary a bad word — which indicates either a job incredibly well done or some sort of kick-ass code of silence specialty item. More likely in the case of the Longaberger Basket Company, it's some combination of factors we've hardly considered. The basket-ignorant among us are doomed — call your local consultant to host a party today.


courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black