In the last few posts, we looked at arguments Amway apologists might make when the issue of pyramid schemes are raised. In the first case, the hypothetical Ambot set out to prove Amway wasn't a pyramid scheme. In the second, he attempted to prove everything was a pyramid scheme, including Amway. As I mentioned, these two cases are often made within the same conversation. Some might call this "talking out of both sides of one's mouth", but that is of little consequence. Ambots care little about rules for proper argumentation.
If you've rebuffed his effort to show that "sure Amway's a pyramid, but so is everything else," you'll often see him argue in some fashion that pyramid schemes don't sell a product. There are several spins on this, including the title of this post. How could a pyramid scheme generate x billions in sales??? Many of my occasional readers and 2 regular followers (thanks Joecool and Annabanana!) already understand the concept of product-based pyramid schemes (PBPS), but for those of you who don't or those who want to brush up for your conversations with Amway apologists, here's a PBPS 101:
I'll refer you to my first post, in which we considered a hypothetical chain-letter, in which recipients were promised wealth if they sent $5 to 5 names on a list, added their own name, and then propogated the list to 5 new recipients. Chain-letters are illegal pyramid schemes, as defined by the FTC. However, as the FTC notes, "Some schemes may purport to sell a product, but they often simply use the product to hide their pyramid structure."
To easily conceptualize this, consider my chain-letter, but now instead of sending $5, each recipient pays $5 to receive something with no value. Or to better approximate Amway's example, each recipient pays $10 to receive a product worth five retail dollars (for example, five dollars worth of soap). Effectively, you're still transferring $5, but you're hiding by moving a product.
The same FTC report goes on to give us "tell-tale signs" of a PBPS: "inventory loading and a lack of retail sales." They elaborate, "Inventory loading occurs when a company's incentive program forces recruits to buy more products than they could ever sell, often at inflated prices." As for lack of retail sales, they say "Many pyramid schemes will claim that their product is selling like hot cakes. However, on closer examination, the sales occur only between people inside the pyramid structure or to new recruits joining the structure, not to consumers out in the general public."
These two factors were the reason the FTC established two rules to govern the MLM industry. First, there's the "retail sales rule", wherein 70% of distributor purchase must be retailed to customers outside the pyramid. Second, there's the buy-back poilcy, wherein distributors may return unsold inventory for their money back, avoiding inventory loading. Amway has never been in compliance with the retail-sales rule, avoiding its enforcement with a powerful political lobby. Though Amway does offer buy-back, inventory loading is still a rampant problem for reasons we'll look at in a future post.
I think the "tell-tale signs" are really symptoms of the same problem, which is that the products in a PBPS have little to no real world market, generally because they offer poor value to consumers. They're simply too expensive for their quality. Many Ambots will tout the quality of their products, but consumer reports have generally found Amway products to perform average or below in comparison with leading brands, which can often be purchased at half the cost. Furthermore, Amway sells many consumer goods through their catalogs that are branded products (e.g. progresso soup, sun-maid raisins) which can be directly compared in per unit pricing with the same brands in grocery stores or wholesale stores like Costco. To be fair, one should compare with wholesale, since Amway generally offers products in wholesale quantity. When I was recruited, my would-be sponsor gave me catalogs (which they're advised against) which I used to compare prices with my local grocery store. I found a 70% price-hike on about 60-70 same brand or roughly identical products on a per unit basis. There are many excellent and thorough pricing comparisons online which have found even worse price-hikes at Amway. Product pricing, and further the fact I was promised I'd "save 30% over Wal-mart!" was the reason I didn't join. The 30% savings has been known online as the first "little white lie" of Amway.
Another aspect of these PBPS's is that some of their products will touted as superior quality, which is an argument Ambots frequently use to explain away the increased costs. Refer them to consumer reports comparisons. Also refer them to pricing comparisons which use identical brand products, which often don't even include shipping costs. Remember that PBPS like Amway aren't about providing value to consumers. The products simply confer legitimacy to the underlying money-transfer scheme. In a future post, we will look at reasons the products are over-priced, which may not all be apparent at first blush.