Thursday, May 4, 2023

The Sad Story Behind the Tupperware Collapse

Tupperware was such a part of the mid-century landscape, but could not adapt to a new world.

It looks like the Tupperware company is going to go bust.  Sales are down and they are struggling with finances and looking for more money at a time when venture capitalists are pulling back and banks have no money to lend. It doesn't look good.  Even if they get bailed out, it may only be a lifeline to a sinking ship.  Simply stated, the world has changed, and Tupperware didn't.

To the young generation, Tupperware is probably a generic term they use for any kind of resealable plastic container - and there are many brands on the market now.  We buy these giant tubs of "semi-disposable" Rubbermaid containers (even IKEA sells this type of container now) at the wholesale club.  They are cheap and durable - for a while - and if you take a dish to someone's house for a potluck supper, you don't worry about them returning it after the party is over. If they become stained or cracked, you can afford to throw them away.

In a way, however, it is like cheap cars.  They sold millions of Pintos, Vegas, and Chevettes - where did they all go?  No one collects them, no one preserves them.  If you saw one at a car show, it would merely be an oddity.  No one would pay much for one, even if it was meticulously restored.  Good luck finding parts for that!  People just don't take care of things that are cheap.  If you pay $5 for a Tupperwear container, you take care of it, wash it carefully and put it away after drying it.  On the other hand, the cheap "semi-disposible" Rubbermaid container is abused and used and then tossed when it gets stained or dirty.

Speaking of which, what really seems to kill these things is microwaving in them, which probably releases plastic chemicals and whatnot.  They will last longer and you are better off dumping the contents into a plate or bowl before microwaving.   But even then, it seems our giant tub of Rubbermaid that we buy at the wholesale club, needs refreshing every five years or so.  That's still cheaper than Tupperware.

The way Tupperware was sold was also problematic.  Several sites say that it was an MLM scheme, where you got a 25% commission on your own sales, as well as a percentage of your "downline" and of course, you have to pay to your "upline".   According to some sources, like most MLM schemes, very few people make money at sales, and most people give up within a year or so.

But that being said, Tupperware has been around for like 70 years or so - probably longer than even Amway or even Avon.   It is a testament to the quality of the products perhaps - they do have a cult following and people are known to collect "vintage" Tupperware, which of course had BMP and other chemicals associated with it.  I have a friend who collects vintage Tupperware and he can give you chapter and verse on different pieces and their provenance.  Of special interest are "hostess gifts" which were special pieces not sold to the general public, but given as gifts by the "Tupperware Lady" to the host of the "Tupperware Party."  One such gift was the fabled olive holder, which my friend has three of.  I asked him if I could have one and he said, "No, no, you may not!"

Some argue the longevity and robust design of Tupperware is partly to blame.  Homemakers who bought Tupperware in the 1970's are still using it and thus don't need any additional pieces.  They may even give them to their children, who in turn have no need to buy more.  Once everyone in the world has a piece of Tupperware, you've saturated the market.  The semi-disposable pieces from Rubbermaid et al, seem to have a five-year lifespan, and thus you can keep selling the same items to the same customer, again and again - until the oil runs out and the landfills overflow, that is.

But MLM schemes, while continuing to flourish, are also in the decline.  Women have entered the workforce and have less time for Tupperware parties or sales schemes.  Modern MLM schemes seem to concentrate more on things like "essential oils" and other quack cures, or perhaps clothing and accessories.  People just don't store food much anymore - unless it is a take-home meal from the restaurant, in a disposable clamshell.  According to the article cited above, modern MLM schemes come and go with regularity - hitting the market, making a lot of money (for the founders) and then disappearing from view.  Old-line MLMs are dinosaurs, apparently.

Tupperware is trying to stem the tide, signing a deal with Target to sell retail in their stores, short-circuiting the MLM ladies, who will no doubt be pissed-off about the whole thing.  Tupperware may survive - as a brand that will be bought and sold out of bankruptcy and applied to a new line of products (made you-know-where) and sold in retail stores.  Somehow I doubt the Tupperware party is coming back anytime soon - but you never know.

Myself, I could never see paying such exorbitant prices for plastic storage bins, which today are a commodity item sold cheaply.  They even have them at the Dollar Tree.

Is this the end of Tupperware as we know it?  Probably.  Probably someone will buy the Trademark and slap it on some inferior goods you will see on the shelf at the dollar store.  Sort of like what happened to Bell & Howell (no relation, but my Dad did work there, briefly, as he tended to do).  But plastic, it seems, will always be with us - in more ways than one.

Is this another sign of the recession and the end of the world as we know it?  Not really.  Yes, in a recession, companies that were teetering on the brink may be pushed over the edge.  We saw Bed, Bath, and Beyond enter bankruptcy to alleviate itself of debt.  Closeout reseller Tuesday Morning is actually liquidating.  Sears finally died a couple of years ago - and no one noticed.  Times change, people change, habits change.  The malls went away and no one really noticed that, either.  Tailfins no longer adorn cars, and the "chrome" such as it is, is actually a mylar plastic film.   Styles change, people change.  What will disappear tomorrow?  Giant ungainly SUVs?  Could be - particularly if gas went to $10 a gallon.  Which it will, eventually.

No, Tupperware home parties are not going to be a thing with 20-somethings in the near future or anytime.  People today have different values and different needs.  Tupperware was a chapter in the history of America - a chapter that is closing for good, I'm afraid.

Remember this song?