Lockdown is a feeding frenzy for door-to-door salespeople

Getty Images / WIRED

You’re just about to tuck into dinner when all of a sudden, there’s a ding-dong at the door. In the before times, it might have been a politician or a canvasser, or a friend – remember those? But if it’s an unexpected knock on the door today, more often than not it’s somebody claiming they can save you money on your utility bill.
Door-to-door salespeople are a nuisance at the best of times, but as a pandemic rages on, it has become harder to pretend you’re not at home. One late afternoon last week, Rachel Charlton-Dailey from South Shields was busy putting away her washing when she got a knock at the door. “I thought it must have been a parcel or something, but there were these two women and they had full face shields on,” she remembers. She assumed that because of the equipment, there must have been an important reason for the visit.


There wasn’t. “They were telling me that I could get faster broadband and were wanting to do a broadband test. And I was just thinking that there’s no way I’m letting you in my house to do a broadband test during a pandemic,” says Charlton-Dailey. “They went to knock on my next-door neighbour’s door and I said she works in a care home, so she’ll probably not be in or she’ll be sleeping. And they went, ‘Oh, do you know when’s a better time for her then?’”
The agents knocking at her door were from a company called Money Expert, a service that claims to help people save money on their energy and broadband. The company says it suspended its door-to-door operations on March 20, just before the UK went into lockdown. On June 1, Money Expert began trialling operations with a small number of team members. The company says that it provides its agents with either a face shield or a face mask, depending on the their preference, as well as hand sanitiser, which the agents are advised to use after every interaction.
The company says it provided team members with additional training in line with government guidance before door-to-door operations resumed fully on June 15. This included training on showing care around the elderly and vulnerable and social distancing. “We only resumed [operations] in a limited way when certain lockdown restrictions were eased and the infection rate had reduced considerably,” says Jason Smith, chief executive officer at Money Expert. “Before we did so, we formulated a vigorous health and safety policy and made sure all our team were trained to keep customers safe. Nothing is more important than the safety of our customers and agents.”
In Richmond in London, a woman who wishes to remain anonymous says she was visited by two young salespeople one evening in mid-June, claiming to be from consumer website MoneySavingExpert. One of them, she recalls, had a mask pulled on, while another had his mask pulled down so that he could talk.


As soon as she opened the door, the agents, who she says were attempting to keep socially distant, immediately asked her what utility company she was with. “My instinct was to try and close the door, but then I thought, ‘Well, I’ll tell them that I’m on the MoneySavingExpert Energy Club and that I’ve switched providers recently’,” she says. “But when I said I was in the MoneySavingExpert Energy Club, they said, ‘That’s us, that’s us’,” whilst holding up their badges.”
She remembers thinking that their story didn’t add up, since she wasn’t aware that Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert, was in the business of selling on the door. In fact, she was right. Lewis explains that he isn’t in that business at all. “These cold callers are nothing to do with MoneySavingExpert and nothing to do with me. I’ve never been a fan of energy cold callers of any variety, and that’s heightened now, when there are social distancing concerns and people still shielding,” Lewis says. “It’s totally inappropriate.”
Lewis says that he has been hearing complaints and confusion about affiliated door knockers for years. “We know most people understandably confuse them with us, due to the name similarity. Though it’s hard not to think some of the individual salespeople like to push the connection, including one story of someone wearing my picture on a badge,” says Lewis. “If unconfirmed reports are true, that some cold callers either use mine or MoneySavingExpert’s name, or deliberately don’t deny the association when asked – that’s a disgusting attempt to mislead people.” He emphasises that he has never heard categorical evidence.
Money Expert denies that its agents imply that the company is affiliated with MoneySavingExpert. “The similarity is a coincidence and we do not attempt to pass ourselves off as another brand. We always have lanyards on show with our logo and information visible,” says Smith. “As part of the process of any switch, we tell the customer implicitly that we are not affiliated with MoneySavingExpert as we are aware of the similarity of our names.”


While Money Expert has been operating since 2003, and began door-to-door operations in 2015, it is one of the very few companies still in the declining business of door-to-door operations, along with smaller energy firms like Octopus Energy. Door-to-door sales, however, have been waning for years, helped along by the six largest utility companies – British Gas, Scottish and Southern Energy, Scottish Power, nPower, EDF Energy and E.ON – taking the decision to stop selling on people’s doorsteps in the early 2010s. In May 2012, Scottish and Southern Energy was fined £1.25 million for using misleading sales tactics to try and push people into switching from their existing energy provider.
Still, it’s important to remember that selling door-to-door hasn’t always been the exclusive domain of the energy company. The history of door-to-door selling goes back more than a century in the UK, when travelling salesmen would go around to houses, trying to flog the latest innovations. In 1950s, the travelling salesman’s object of choice was sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica and in the 1960s, the previously male dominated profession had turned into a socially acceptable role for the suburban housewife, who sold Tupperware and Avon cosmetics and perfumes up and down Britain’s streets. Avon is still around today, but like many of the catalogue-based companies, a large portion of its operations have moved online.
Since the Covid-19 crisis began, the Direct Selling Association, which represents Avon and The Body Shop at Home, has recorded sales from its members grow by up to 30 per cent as vendors for retailers such as The Body Shop at Home and Neal’s Yard Remedies Organic take to Zoom and other video conferencing platforms to sell their wares instead.
As online shopping becomes more widespread, many people admit to having become weary of door-to-door salespeople. In 2011, Consumer Focus surveyed 1,878 people on their attitudes to doorstep sellers and 82 per cent of respondents said they had a negative view of any form of doorstep selling.
“People are massively distrustful of people knocking on their door, and that’s born out of the fact that there are too many scams out there,” says Catherine Shuttleworth, chief executive officer of the retail consultancy firm Savvy. “We know less people in the neighbourhood. In the old days, door-to-door people often worked in your community. The pools man came and took your pools money, you might have the Provy man [from Provident Financial] come and take your Provy money – that was how life worked.”
And over the pandemic, the business of door-to-door selling has been invaded by fraudsters. Back in March, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute warned that people were going door-to-door pretending to be health workers, offering home testing kits for the coronavirus. National Trading Standards warned of criminals going door-to-door offering to do older people’s shopping for them or offering to disinfect driveways and doorways.
Even if the company is legitimate and conducting business above board, with doorstep sellers wearing face masks and social distancing, Shuttleworth thinks that experience can still be quite scary. “It’s quite frightening, particularly if you’ve not been out of your house for six to 12 weeks and then somebody turns up at your door dressed in PPE looking quasi-official,” says Shuttleworth. “I would argue that all of these people could work from home when they could do telephone calls.”
Still, Money Expert thinks that there is still a place for door-to-door selling, even during the pandemic. “Like other companies in our sector, we help companies switch providers on the internet and by phone,” says Smith. “Face-to-face provides an additional way to reach some of the less savvy and disengaged members of society with the opportunity to pay a fair price for their must-have utilities.”
The company says that since it launched its door-to-door service in 2015, it has helped more than 550,000 people and has saved them over £45 million. “The energy and broadband industries tend to penalise loyalty, with monthly rates typically increasing over time, so door-to-door allows for the benefit of switching to reach more customers,” Smith continues. “This pandemic has hit people hard financially, so the comparison service can be deemed more relevant.”
Whatever the circumstances, the business of door-to-door is currently on its knees. Shuttleworth thinks that the door-to-door model is bust, but that’s not to say it can’t come back. “The model that could come back is more doorstop delivery but from businesses that you recognise. There’s been a massive rise of the milkman during lockdown”. That she says, is “your original doorstep salesperson”.
Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL
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