Kendall, an 18-year-old in New Jersey, approached the massive Berkeley Heights mansion sitting at the end of a driveway so long and winding it almost made him late. Before getting out of his beat-up Corolla, he nervously re-tucked his green Polo shirt into his jeans, took a deep breath, exhaled and found his inner confidence. This wasn’t his first rodeo, after all, and it wasn’t like the older woman waiting for him inside was a stranger; she was a friend of his aunt’s.
Whether he knew it at the time or not, the next 45-minutes would prove to be a pivotal moment in Kendall’s career. So long as he stuck to his training and pressed all the right buttons, he’d soon be unloading high carbon, surgical-grade steel all over the cavernous kitchens of New Jersey housewives for thousands of dollars. If not, he’d be back in his Corolla, winding back down the long driveway empty-handed.
“I must’ve done a pretty good job,” Kendall, now 25, tells me. “Because I went on to sell Cutco knives for another three or four weeks of my winter break and made probably $1,500 before heading back to school.”
For the uninitiated, selling Cutco knives — or knowing someone who sells Cutco knives — is a high school and college rite of passage in the U.S. (Technically speaking, the company Kendall worked for was Vector Marketing, the marketing and sales arm of Cutco Cutlery since 1985.) Similar to Tupperware and Avon, Cutco knives are sold via “direct selling,” wherein the salesperson purchases products from the parent company, and makes money selling them directly to other people. What sets Cutco apart from the Doterra and Avons of the world, however, is the young men who sell their products.
To be sure, there are countless articles that condemn Cutco, arguing that the company, among other things, misleads naive young people into applying for the job, can be purposefully vague around payment and pushes its salespeople to aggressively harvest contact information from their customers. However, most reporting concludes that the company’s actions, while often subject to litigation, aren’t illegal.
Nevertheless, throughout the decades in which the internet has completely revolutionized how people purchase kitchenware, Cutco has stood by its tried-and-true sales operation: sending in high school and college-aged reps like Kendall to put their hardened steel on display for housewives (and sometimes their husbands, too) throughout this great land of ours. In speaking with the New York Times, the late psychologist Bob Levine explained that Cutco’s reliance on young salespeople’s relationship with their customers is where the process borders on manipulation. “They’re not selling the trustworthiness of their brand,” he tells the Times. “They’re selling the trustworthiness of their friends.”
In 2019, Business Insider estimated that 60,000 college-aged independent contractors are hired to sell Cutco knives on an annual basis. In an email, a Cutco representative says that before the pandemic moved their sales operations online, their sales force was “predominantly male-dominated.” In the summer of 2019, for example, male reps made up 57 percent of the sales force, while this past summer, they made up 46 percent of it. Compare that to the direct-selling industry overall, where men only make up 25 percent of the salesforce.
The Cutco representative didn’t say whether the company specifically targets men in recruitment, but Kendall argues they don’t have to. “I think it’s just the knives,” he explains, “so many of my female friends on Facebook are in MLMs selling makeup or leggings, but high school and college-aged guys who want to try their hands at sales don’t want to get into that. And so, Cutco is by default the most attractive direct-sales job for dudes.”
For what it’s worth, the Cutco representative pushed back on that idea as well. “When you think of military-grade KABAR that we make, it’s likely that dudes come to mind,” he writes. “However, our product line is diverse — from kitchen knives and gadgets, to outdoor items and gardening tools. Anyone can relate to the product and sales rep position that we offer, not just guys.”
When it comes to their intended customers, however, the company is quite clear in who they’re targeting. Per a sales training video sent to me via a former Cutco sales rep who wished to remain anonymous, it’s often reiterated, strongly, that men aren’t who they should be selling to: “If you’re gonna show one spouse, do you think you should show Mr. Jones?” the man leading the Cutco sales training Zoom begins. “The answer is ‘no.’ Alright guys? […] If you just show the husband by himself, you are absolutely 100 percent going to hate this job, it’s a waste of time. At the end of the demo, he’s going to say, ‘These knives are great, I love them, but I need to ask Mrs. Jones.’”
Kendall says he remembers every appointment with “every single one of my aunt’s friends and every single one of my friends’ moms.” “You weren’t allowed to make appointments with men, only women — women or married couples together, who were over 30 and homeowners,” he says. “And 99 percent of the time I was there when their husbands were at work, so it was just me and these rich housewives who sat alone in their giant houses all day.”
As an 18-year-old, standing doe-eyed in a mansion’s foyer with 40-foot ceilings, Kendall appeared as if he had been created in a Cutco salesman laboratory. “[The friend of his aunt] knew that I was kind of new to everything,” he says, “but she said she was going to buy a set no matter what, so she just invited me over to practice the demo.” During training, newbies like Kendall are told that their fumbling newbie-ness is an asset: “People don’t want a smooth salesperson. I remember when I was a new rep I didn’t want the customer to think I’m dumb, but the customers are going to think it’s the most adorable thing ever.”
After fumbling through the demo before the blonde, fortysomething, Kendall says she bought “a small set for $900, then another $900 set for her beach house, then one for her friend. It was like $2,000 worth of knives in one appointment, it was mind-blowing.”
Of course, being a new Cutco salesman, Kendall only received a 10-percent commission on the massive order. But after another hour of chit-chatting and filling out all of the paperwork for three orders, he was determined to make as many more appointments as he possibly could. To that end, Kendall recalls having competitive sales marathons with the other salesboys in their knife-laden office space above a strip-mall bagel shop. “Our office was all guys, and it was really fun,” he says. “Everyone was really supportive of each other whenever one of us got a big sale.”
Over the course of his winter break, Kendall became a natural Cutco salesman. “You were always very polite, starting with asking whether or not you should take your shoes off,” he says. “After that, she’d usher you back to the kitchen, where you’d compliment her on her home, and always, always say yes if she offered you a glass of water. From there, the first thing I always looked for was a knife set. If they had knives on display, it meant they were probably going to buy because they wanted to show off their knives.”
That said, not all appointments were a slam dunk. Kendall recalls being summoned to another empty house in a wealthy neighborhood only to sell a $200 set. “The commission was barely over the $18 Cutco gives you if you don’t make a sale,” he says. “I was expecting to make a lot of money given the size of her house and how trash her knives were.”
Standing in the empty kitchen, Kendall performed the entire demo and all the “tests.” “Cutting leather, a piece of rope, everything,“ he tells me. “Her knives couldn’t even cut through the leather, but then she goes, ‘Oh, I’m actually just going to buy a set of steak knives.’ I was glad I made the sale, but I wondered why she had me do the whole demo in the first place.”
It was around this time that Kendall realized Cutco’s oft-repeated sales motto — “the knives sell themselves” — wasn’t exactly true. “They know what they’re doing — you send a couple guys to housewives, they make a little commission, but the majority all goes upline,” he says. “So it’s clearly not so much that the knives sell themselves, but it’s getting female family members and friends of family to feel bad or guilty enough to buy something.”
The more this realization set in, the less hotblooded Kendall felt about slingin’ steel. “I reached a breaking point after I reached out to the mom of my best friend through elementary and middle school,” he says. “I hadn’t talked to either of them or been in their house since I was probably 12 or 13, but there I was trying to sell her knives in the kitchen. That was when I started to realize like, ‘Wow, this has changed me.’” The final blow came when his friend texted him, “Dude, why did you come to my house and try to sell knives to my mom?”
“I just thought, Yeah, I can’t do this anymore,” he says. “It pushed too much of a boundary at that point.”
And while he looks back on his time at Cutco as a good opportunity to realize he wasn’t cut out for a career in sales, he’s still haunted by memories of standing in all those kitchens, stabbing leather and sweet-talking fortysomething women. “It’s one of those things where specific things you said or did bubble up in your head at 2 a.m. and keep you up at night,” he laughs. “But at the same time, I got a sweet Cutco pocket knife — and that almost makes it all worth it.”