Direct Sales vs MLM: Definition and Difference

What are direct sales (direct selling)? And how does it differ from multilevel marketing (MLM)?

Short answer: the main difference between direct selling and multilevel marketing is that in multilevel marketing, the distributor’s income comes from recruiting new members instead of selling directly to customers.

In this article, we’ll define both models and explain where they’re different and where don’t. Then we’ll go over the pros and cons of each type of business model.


  • Direct selling focuses on selling products directly to customers, while MLM involves recruiting a sales team to sell products and earn commissions.
  • Direct selling is a simpler business model, while MLM offers higher earning potential but requires more effort in recruiting and managing a sales team.
  • The best business model depends on individual preferences and business goals.

Direct Selling Vs Mlm: Key Differences Explained

Direct sales mean you’re directly selling to consumers. This includes companies like Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, etc. These companies typically require you to purchase a starter kit or membership fee to begin selling their products.

Multilevel marketing is when you recruit other distributors who sell the same products or services. The company provides training materials and tools to help you grow your business.

Both models involve selling products or services directly to consumers. However, there are some differences between them.

Here are the distinctions between direct selling and multilevel marketing:

1. Direct Selling – Sellers are independent contractors who work alone. They may be self-employed or employees of another company. Sell products or services directly to the consumer. No intermediaries.

2. MultiLevel Marketing – Sellers are independent contractors, too; however, their income largely depends on recruiting other sellers to become affiliates of their company. Use a network marketing structure to recruit sellers. Sellers’ incomes depend on recruiting others to join the organization rather than selling directly to consumers.

Understanding Direct Selling

Direct selling is a type of business model where manufacturers, producers, or agents sell their products directly to consumers, bypassing wholesalers or intermediaries.

Definition Of Direct Selling

Direct selling refers to the method of distributing and marketing goods or services directly to consumers, bypassing traditional retail channels.

As per the official definition, direct selling can occur in various ways – face-to-face interactions, online sales through product catalogs or e-commerce websites, demonstrating at home parties, or even network marketing.

In contrast with ordinary retail shops or big-box stores that operate from a physical location, direct selling allows distributors to present products in an individual setting which could range from a customer’s living space to virtual platforms on the Internet.

The flexibility of direct selling provides manufacturers and producers with an efficient means of reaching potential customers who might not be accessible via traditional retail methods thus widening their market reach considerably.

Advantages And Disadvantages Of Direct Selling

Direct selling comes with its own set of pros and cons that need to be considered before diving into this business model. Here’s a rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of direct selling:

Direct selling companies cater to a broad spectrum of industries, offering various opportunities.Success in direct selling requires a significant amount of effort and time.
As a direct seller, you get to flexibly manage your own business venture.Since direct selling involves direct interaction with customers, strong interpersonal skills are necessary, which might not suit everyone.
Unlike traditional retail, direct selling eliminates the need for a physical storefront, reducing overhead costs.Direct selling can be a volatile business with fluctuating income, depending on the sales achieved.
There’s no cap on earnings because income is based on sales performance.It may be challenging to build a customer base initially.
Direct selling offers the chance to enhance your skills, such as sales and marketing, leadership, and entrepreneurship.There’s a risk of direct sellers stocking up on products that don’t sell, leading to financial loss.

Understanding these potential advantages and drawbacks gives a clearer idea of what one might expect when stepping into the direct selling industry.

Statistics about Direct Selling Market (2021)

According to this stat­isti­cal­ly de­tailed re­port, global retal­l sales of the di­rect se­ll­ing mar­ket were worth about $186 bil­lion USD in 2021.

Direct selling market statisticsPin
Source: Statista

By 2021, the global direct marketing industry will generate over a third of its total retail revenue from wellness products alone. Personal hygiene and beauty products will account for nearly 25% of the market. The global direct marketing sector will generate $186 billion USD in that period.

Direct selling industry worldwide - StatisticsPin
Source: Statista

Comprehensive Look At Multilevel Marketing (MLM)

MLM, also known as multi-level marketing or network marketing, is a business structure where individual sellers earn commissions from direct sales and from the sales of their recruits, creating a tiered structure of independent sellers.

Definition Of MLM

Multi-level Marketing, commonly known as MLM, is a business model where independent representatives sell products or services while recruiting others to do the same.

Central to this scheme is the concept of earning two ways: firstly by selling products directly to customers and secondly by getting a portion of sales from those they’ve recruited termed “downline.”

It’s often compared with direct selling, but it distinguishes itself through its unique tiered structure that allows representatives to benefit not just from their personal sales but also from the productivity of their network.

The debate over whether MLM constitutes a legitimate business plan or a simplistic pyramid scheme remains an ongoing conversation in both legal and entrepreneurial circles.

Advantages And Disadvantages Of MLM

Multilevel Marketing, also known as MLM, offers a unique approach to sales and earnings that has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Let’s delve into its pros and cons with the help of the following table:

Advantages of MLMDisadvantages of MLM
1. MLM allows sellers to earn commissions from both their direct sales as well as from the sales made by their recruits. This dual revenue stream can lead to potentially high earnings.1. MLM structures can be complex, which might make it difficult for some people to fully understand their earning potential and the effort required to achieve significant financial gains.
2. Because MLMs are often structured with the specific aim of reducing intermediary costs, sellers in MLM structures often receive better profit margins on their sales.2. Due to its hierarchical structure, it can sometimes be challenging for new or low-ranking members to achieve substantial profits in MLM businesses.
3. MLMs are flexible, allowing individuals to work at their own pace and according to their own schedules, which makes it a good option for those seeking a side gig or those who want a home-based business.3. There’s a risk involved with MLMs as they tend to blur the lines between personal and professional relationships. This can potentially lead to strained relationships if friends and family feel pressured to make purchases or join the business.
4. There’s a sense of camaraderie in MLM due to its team-based structure, aiding in personal growth and development of sales and leadership skills.4. While MLMs do offer opportunities for growth, these opportunities are often contingent on the performance of the recruit’s downline, which can be unpredictable and out of the individual’s control.

What’s the best business model?

There is no one business model that is better than the other in an absolute sense. They are two systems that partly replicate each other and partly differ.

Depending on the individual characteristics of the distributors (ability to work in a team, personal aptitudes, network of contacts, product sector in which it operates), one system may be more suitable than the other.

How to Evaluate Direct Selling Vs MLM

Direct selling and MLM have key differences in their business structure, earning potential, and legal considerations.

Business Structure

Direct selling and MLM have distinct differences in their business structures. In direct selling, the company typically appoints independent distributors who sell products directly to consumers.

These distributors may earn commissions based on their personal sales volume and sometimes from the sales of their recruits as well.

On the other hand, MLM has a tiered structure of independent sellers where each seller earns commissions not only from their own sales but also from the sales made by those they recruit into the business.

This multi-level structure allows for potential earnings through building a downline organization. While both models involve direct selling, direct selling companies usually have multiple levels of distributors within their organization, whereas MLM relies heavily on recruitment efforts to expand the network and increase earning potential for its participants.

Earning Potential

The earning potential in direct selling and MLM can vary significantly based on an individual’s sales skills and recruitment efforts.

In direct selling, representatives primarily earn commissions based on their personal sales, allowing for a more straightforward and predictable income structure.

On the other hand, MLMs offer additional opportunities for earning through recruiting and building a sales team. With MLMs, representatives have the potential to earn commissions from the sales made by their recruits, creating the possibility of passive income and residual earnings.

It is crucial for individuals considering these business models to thoroughly research and understand the compensation plans and earning potential associated with each option to make an informed decision about which path aligns best with their goals.

Legal considerations play a crucial role in both direct selling and MLM businesses.

Both operate under specific regulations set by government bodies, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Protection Office of the Attorney General.

These regulations ensure that companies adhere to ethical business practices, maintain transparency in their operations, and protect consumers from fraudulent schemes. It is important for direct selling and MLM companies to have clear and compliant commission plans, avoiding any resemblance to illegal pyramid schemes or deceptive practices.

Additionally, they must provide proper documentation related to income tax reporting, state, and federal revenue agencies requirements, as well as abide by laws governing product claims and disclosures.


What is the main difference between direct selling and MLM?

The main difference between direct selling and MLM (multi-level marketing) lies in the structure of their salesforces. Direct selling typically involves independent consultants or distributors who sell products directly to consumers, earning profits from their personal sales. On the other hand, MLM companies not only rely on direct sales but also encourage distributors to recruit others into their downline, earning commissions from both personal sales and the sales made by those they recruit.

Are there any legal distinctions between direct selling and MLM?

While direct selling is a legitimate business model, some MLM companies have faced regulatory scrutiny due to concerns about pyramid schemes. Legitimate multi-level marketing companies should primarily generate revenue through product sales rather than recruitment fees paid by new recruits. It is important for individuals considering joining an MLM company to research its track record and ensure it adheres to legal requirements.

Is Direct Sales A Pyramid Scheme?

No, direct sales is not a pyramid scheme. In direct sales, revenue is generated by selling products or services directly to customers, whereas in a pyramid scheme, revenue is primarily generated by recruiting new members into the scheme.

How Does Direct Selling Differ From Traditional Sales?

Direct selling differs from traditional sales because it involves selling products directly to customers in a non-retail environment, such as in-home parties or online platforms. In contrast, traditional sales typically involve selling products in a retail setting, such as a brick-and-mortar store.

What Is An Example Of Direct Selling?

An example of direct selling is Avon, a company that sells beauty, household, and personal care products through a network of independent sales representatives who sell directly to customers. Customers can purchase products from an Avon representative at in-home parties or through their online store.

Are All Direct Sales MLM?

No, not all direct sales companies are MLMs. While MLMs do fall under the umbrella of direct selling, there are many direct selling companies that operate using a different business model where sales representatives earn commission solely based on the sales they make.

What Are The Weaknesses Of Direct Selling?

Direct selling can be a good business for individuals who enjoy sales, have good interpersonal skills, and are willing to put in the effort to build a customer base. However, like any business, success is not guaranteed and depends on various factors such as market demand, competition, and personal commitment to the business.

How Do I Start A Direct Sales Business?

To start a direct sales business, you will need to research different direct sales companies to find one that fits your interests and goals. Once you have chosen a company, you will need to become a sales representative by signing up and purchasing a starter kit, which typically includes training materials and product samples.


In conclusion, direct sales companies offer products directly to consumers through their own retail stores. They often provide training and support materials to help new representatives succeed.

On the flip side, multi-level marketing (MLM) companies sell products through distributors who earn commissions based on the volume of products sold. Some MLMs also have additional compensation plans, such as bonuses and incentives for recruiting new members.

Both direct selling and MLM companies require hard work, but each has pros and cons.

For example, direct sales companies tend to be smaller than MLMs, which means that reps may have better job security. However, MLMs typically pay higher commissions.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.

Do you like working independently, or would you prefer to build a team around you? 


  1. Investopedia: Investopedia is a widely recognized website that covers a broad range of financial topics, including direct selling and MLM, as well as many other financial and investing topics.
  2. The Wall Street Journal: The Wall Street Journal is a highly respected and reputable financial news source that covers a wide range of financial topics, including direct selling and MLM, as well as news and analysis of the global financial markets, companies, and economies.

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