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What’s a little shopping among friends?

Gold parties. Chocolate parties. Man cave parties. In search of extra income, people throw at-home retail bashes and invite the neighbors.

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By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / April 8, 2010

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STONEHAM — One thousand dollars. That was Lauren Cotter’s number. The amount her guests needed to spend so she could earn the jewelry on her wish list. A $118 linen bracelet with Swarovski crystals that’s a real conversation piece. A $98 rope chain necklace that can also be worn as a bracelet, a belt, and a headband. (Yes, it’s that versatile!)

It was a Wednesday evening, and the stylish and bubbly Cotter, 33, was hosting an old-fashioned home-selling party at her mother’s house. A program manager for a nonprofit, she threw the party as an excuse to get together with pals, but also as a way to score accessories. The more her friends, family, and colleagues bought, the more Cotter got for free or at discount.

The lousy economy has brought back not only the Tupperware party and the Avon Lady, but their spawn: parties at which guests can purchase virtually anything: exfoliating body scrubs, scrapbooking materials, bamboo salad claws, chocolates, even meat. As the variety of parties has grown, so has the number of people doing the selling.

At Cotter’s party, Stella & Dot jewelry was for sale. It’s a mid-priced line that’s enjoying buzz thanks to fans like Jennifer Love Hewitt, Kara DioGuardi, and Paris Hilton. Between sipping wine and gossiping about Tiger Woods’s mistresses, Cotter’s guests agreed that while they did not like Paris Hilton, they definitely liked the $79 Stella & Dot hand-painted turquoise enamel necklace she was spotted wearing on a beach.

Cotter’s cousin, Melanie Wall, 30, a vivacious registered nurse, decided to buy two necklaces. She was motivated to shop in part because she loved the jewelry, in part to help her cousin earn her hostess reward, and also for the most basic reason anyone does anything.

“One hand washes the other,’’ Wall said, explaining that she plans to host her own jewelry-selling party, and figures that if she buys at Cotter’s party, Cotter will buy at hers. “Of course,’’ Cotter said sweetly.

Think of it as the retail version of the circle of life.

The Direct Selling Association reports that the number of independent sales representatives who hold parties and sell door-to-door, reached 15.1 million in 2008, up from 15 million in 2007, according to the most recent figures available. Cash-for-gold parties, where friends gather at a pal’s house to sell their gold, are also growing in popularity. Sales figures, meanwhile, were down slightly, from $30.8 billion in 2007 to $29.6 billion in 2008.

Many people getting into the direct-selling industry are those who’ve been laid off or need additional sources of income, said DSA spokeswoman Amy Robinson. Hosts like Cotter generally earn no money — their rewards are in free or discounted merchandise. Independent sales reps, however, earn a commission on sales.

Carrie McGraw, of Wellesley, started as an independent rep for Stella & Dot seven months ago. Her husband is in the financial industry, she explained, and with the economy the way it is, she decided to bring in money so the family could “continue life as we know it.’’

So far her commissions have paid for her children’s hockey, ballet, and gymnastics activities, an upcoming trip to Disney World, and the mortgage, gas, and groceries. The job gives her the flexibility to pick up the kids after school and also allows her to spend some pleasurable time socializing in the evenings.

McGraw was working Cotter’s party in a pleasant, low-key way, but sales weren’t far from her mind. “That is such a great piece on you!’’ she gushed as Wall tried on a necklace. “With your hair color, the turquoise is stunning.’’

Women have dominated the home-party industry since the Tupperware parties of the late 1940s. But men are starting to get involved, too, and perhaps none are more visible than those working for Man Cave, a year-old firm whose sales representatives sell meat, barbecue tools, camouflage hats, and beer mugs at MEATings.

“This is a way for guys to get together and their wives not to say this is just about hanging out and drinking some beer,’’ said John Ladue, a Man Cave salesman from West Springfield who has a day job selling advertising space.

At his parties, Ladue grills, talks sports, and does “what guys do.’’ He earns a 25 percent commission on purchases made at MEATings, which translates into a couple of hundred dollars per party, he said.

“When your job is to hang out with your buddies for a couple of hours, and you get paid to do that, it’s like living the American dream, as bad as that sounds.’’

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about home parties. For some, such invitations feel more like obligations to spend money than an opportunity to socialize. Many unwilling guests take the easy way out and simply make an excuse, but Trent Hamm, the author of “365 Ways to Live Cheap,’’ and his wife sent a preemptive e-mail asking friends not to invite them to social-selling parties. In turn, he promised not to inflict parties on others.

“Why don’t you just give your friend two dollars and everyone is happier?’’ he said.

Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, blames societal changes for the bitterness some invitees feel. She recalled that her mother and her friends loved home parties because they presented a chance to get out of the house and to buy products not otherwise available.

“But every element of that equation has changed,’’ she said, noting that women no longer need an excuse to go out with friends, and that purchasing any product at any hour of the day has become routine.

“A good rule of thumb,’’ she added, “is to avoid taking PayPal or credit cards from your friends.’’

But home parties are back with a vengeance. Carolann Killinger, a stay-at-home mother from Rockland and an independent sales representative, or “chocolatier,’’ for Dove Chocolate Discoveries, says that people seek her out asking her to throw parties at their homes. She serves brownie kabobs or chocolate martinis while guests shop for fondue equipment or ingredients for white chocolate smoothies.

But even as she tries to bring in money by selling at house parties — she earns a 25 percent commission on sales — Killinger says she understands well the pressure felt by those on the other side of the invitation. When it’s her turn to be a guest, she said, she often finds herself searching her mind for someone — anyone — she knows who needs a gift.

“I already have enough spatulas,’’ she said, “I don’t wear jewelry, and my husband’s a firefighter, so candles are out.’’ But she buys anyway. What are friends are for?