Amway exports the American Dream to China

For most of her 20s, Tang Shaoping worked at a Nike shoe factory in China. The repetition and long hours left her exhausted. Sleep deprivation and irregular meals took a toll on her health.

Then, four years ago, her sister introduced her to Amway, the American direct-sales company that offers would-be entrepreneurs a chance to earn big by selling vitamin supplements, makeup and dishwashing soap door to door.

Amway is booming in China — and this month it is sending about 13,000 of its top sellers on an all-expenses-paid trip to Southern California. Tang, now 36, is one of the “independent business owners” who earned the perk with annual sales of at least $160,000.

“Since joining Amway, my health and confidence have improved so much. I see Amway as a career for life,” she said on the Universal Studios tram as she and her husband, fellow Amway rep Wu Jiayun, 37, snapped photos of a “Jaws” attack and a simulated earthquake.

Amway broke into the China market in 1995, but three years later the government cracked down on direct sales, calling the business model an illegal pyramid scheme. The Michigan-based company changed its approach, opening actual stores, hiring some employees and eliminating its practice of paying direct commissions to sales reps on the sales made by their new recruits.

These days the Amway brand is a favorite among China’s fast-growing middle class. An army of at least 200,000 peddles more than 200 products, and Amway’s approach works well in a society that values personal connections and word of mouth.

The tourists visiting Southern California this month are the top 5% of Amway’s China sales force. They are the faces of a wealthier, more confident and cosmopolitan China.

Zhou Fanyang has worked for Amway since 1995, earning many an award trip. “I’ve been to more than 40 countries,” she said.

This year she used her own money to bring her 5-year–old daughter on the company trip, whose highlight is a visit to Disneyland. In fact, thanks to her recruiting, her entire family is here. Her husband, parents, brother and sister-in-law all have become ace Amway agents. Even her 76-year-old father and 74-year-old mother have built a strong customer base, introducing nutritional supplements to their buddies in a senior-citizen dance troupe.

“People are always resistant at first,” said Zhou, waiting for the start of a 3-D Terminator show at Universal Studios. “But they don’t say no to health, they don’t say no to beauty and happiness. That’s what we try to offer to our customers.”

Amway sellers are arriving here in waves all month; each group of about 2,500 is spending a week. Experts say the trips add up to a $10-million boost for the local economy. And with some of the top sales reps earning $100,000 or more a year, shopping is an important part of the itinerary.

But many in this week’s group complained about the shopping trip that organizers had arranged. They had been bused to the Citadel Outlets, which they deemed not sufficiently high-end.

“I want to buy Apple computers, Lakers Outfits,” said Zhen Guoguang, after a three-hour stop at the mall. “They didn’t have any of that. Not even Nike or Adidas shoes.”

“Many of us still have a lot of money left in our pockets,” said his wife, Yuan Baoe. “I know people who came to buy diamonds and Rolexes. I want to buy Dior, Chanel. But all I got was some glasses from Guess. It seems so cheap.”

Still, many of the reps bought up Guess bags, Levis, Reebok sneakers, Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts, Samsonite suitcases and pretty much anything that said Calvin Klein — mostly to take home as gifts.

“I already bought six bags to give to friends and customers,” said Wang Baohua, 45, trying out various Guess bags in front of a mirror after repeatedly asking the Chinese-speaking tour guides if there really was no Coach store at the outlet.

“We have everything in China. But we want to spend money here to support the American economy,” said Cai Jun of northern China.

In the checkout line at the Reebok store, Ping Jie recalled how he and his wife used to live in a two-bedroom apartment before they joined Amway 15 years ago.

“Now we own a stand-alone house, two cars and several other real-estate properties,” said Ping, as his wife held a bright blue polo shirt against his back to check the size.

On the Southern California trip, Amway reps eat mostly American food, with only one Chinese meal. For that meal, groups are split up among an array of San Gabriel Valley restaurants so as not to overwhelm any one.

“Western food is very hard for us to get used to,” said Zhen Guoguang, as he ate a Cantonese banquet including stir-fried lobster and suckling pig at Mission 261 in San Gabriel. “I can’t eat cold food. They serve a lot of cold food on the trip. Salads. Drinks. What do I do? Stay hungry all the time.”

Even the Chinese food let some down at Mission 261. “I polished off three plates of chili sauce and it’s still not spicy enough,” said Zhang Defang, from Sichuan, the Chinese province famous for its numbingly hot cuisine.

The trips here are mostly vacation, but one day is reserved for corporate training at the Anaheim Convention Center.

This week’s reps listened to Amway success stories from an illiterate farmer, a retired volleyball player and a former medical doctor. They watched instructional videos on how to give a winning pitch and why the customer is always right. They also learned about new products, including what is billed as a state-of-the-art air filter system.

“The market for this product in China should be huge,” said Mathew Du, 48, an American-educated former civil engineer who reinvented himself selling Amway products in China. “Every family can use one, especially with so much home renovation going on and babies in the house.”