By Micah Maidenberg
Life has gone from the party at Tupperware Brands Corp.
Revenue and profits have been sagging for years, leaving investors sour on the future of the company that has been selling food containers for 74 years.
On Feb. 24, Tupperware said it would delay filing its annual report to conduct a probe into accounting issues. Shares fell by nearly half the next day and closed Friday at $2.60, a fraction of the $96 they traded at more than six years ago.
Overseas, Tupperware's bets on markets like China and Brazil have left it exposed to choppy economic growth. In the U.S., it hasn't been able to arrest a yearslong decline in the size of its sales force. The company's efforts to draw in customers and sellers with new kitchen items, e-commerce investments and other initiatives haven't taken root.
"People just don't have connection with the brand anymore," Patricia Stitzel, Tupperware's former chief executive, told analysts in October, explaining why the company was sponsoring a pop-up store in New York City for the holidays. She stepped down from her post in November.
Tupperware drummed up sales over the decades through an army of independent dealers who plied their sales pitches for plastic food-storage kits and other kitchen products at home parties. Now, like Avon and other direct-selling brands, Tupperware faces questions about whether it can remain relevant as consumers migrate to shopping online and socializing has moved from living rooms to apps like Instagram.
"Everyone still thinks of the burnt-orange or mustard-yellow color wheel, like in the 70s, because that's what their mom had and their grandma had, " said Brittany White, a 33-year-old event manager in Indianapolis who stopped selling Tupperware in 2018 after about six months.
Mariam Lively, who lives near San Antonio, has sold Tupperware items for around 15 years but has scaled back her activity. She hasn't hosted a party in five years.
"The home parties aren't as popular," she said. "I think a lot of it is people don't have time to gather."
Christopher O'Leary, Tupperware's interim chief executive, said the company has a powerful brand in food storage and preparation, a global presence and the ability to create innovative new products.
"Tupperware Brands is well-positioned to capitalize on what consumers want and need," he said.
Tupperware products became available in 1946 when chemist Earl Tupper first offered a plastic container with an airtight lid. But sales didn't take off until the 1950s, after he hired Brownie Wise, a secretary, to build a network of mostly suburban women to host patio parties. Mr. Tupper sold the business in 1958. It had several corporate owners before going public in 1996. It expanded overseas and now gets about three-quarters of its roughly $2 billion of annual revenue outside North America.
The Orlando, Fla., company had roughly 546,000 active salespeople around the globe as of September. But its active sales force in the U.S. and Canada fell to about 184,000 -- less than half the number it had a decade earlier. New, premium products will help excite the company's sales force, Mr. O'Leary said.
Last month, Tupperware said it had to delay filing its annual report as it investigated accounting practices in a beauty business in Mexico. It expects its overall annual sales for 2019 to fall by at least 12%, and for this year to fall by at least 10%.
The company also has endured executive turnover. Rick Goings stepped down as chief executive in 2018 after nearly 21 years as its top leader; Ms. Stitzel, who replaced him, spent about 18 months in the job. The company is searching for a permanent leader.
"I don't think there's anyone there who understands direct sellers," said Douglas Lane, an independent analyst who followed the company for years and dropped his coverage last month, citing its challenges.
The Tupperware leadership teams have extensive experience with direct sales, Mr. O'Leary, the interim CEO, said.
At an investor conference In December, Mr. O'Leary said the company must find new ways to reach consumers, noting that less than 5% of sales occur outside its direct-selling force. "I think we're just starting to scratch the surface," he said then.
Consumers haven't stopped buying reusable storage containers. U.S. shoppers were expected to buy $1.44 billion of food containers last year, according to estimates from consumer-research firm Euromonitor -- an increase from $1.35 billion in 2014.
But other companies, including Newell Brands Inc.'s Rubbermaid unit and Clorox Co.'s Glad business, have staked out turf with their own storage offerings. Both brands are sold in stores and on websites like Amazon.
Pampered Chef, the direct seller of kitchenwares owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said in September it gets more than half of its business from its digital operation, up from 10% in 2014.
Consumers' options are plentiful. Discount retailer Dollar General Corp. sells a range of containers starting at $1 each, according to its website; Amazon.com Inc. offers a set of 24 containers for $42.99 made by the owner of the Pyrex glass brand.
"If you go to the younger age group, you have to teach them, because everything is so cheap and so available," said Michele Womble, who has sold Tupperware for more than a decade and runs a showroom in Marietta, Ga.
Some sales agents say their businesses are growing. Beth Rosa, 59 years old, who has been selling Tupperware in Connecticut for about eight years, said her network generated about $600,000 in sales last year and the goal is to double that amount in 2020. She lauded newer products from the company, like a grill designed for the microwave.
Tupperware has broadened its offerings to include beauty products and tried different strategies to generate better results. But finding new ways to stand out won't be easy, former sellers say, given the company's association with its core products and old-school parties.
"You can get so many types of Tupperware products on Amazon now. It's hard to distinguish why this is better," said Ms. White, the former Tupperware saleswoman.
Write to Micah Maidenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
This article was corrected at 8:37 p.m. ET because the original version incorrectly spelled Newell Brands Inc. as Newell Brand Inc.