Tiber River abruptly cuts ties with about 800 ‘ambassadors’

Citing supply chain issues, rising costs wellness company shifts to online, in-store sales

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Winnipeg-based Tiber River is dropping hundreds of salespeople and moving to almost fully online sales, citing the pandemic and inflation.

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Winnipeg-based Tiber River is dropping hundreds of salespeople and moving to almost fully online sales, citing the pandemic and inflation.

On Jan. 4, the wellness product company sent an email and pre-recorded Zoom video link to its “ambassadors,” or contractors who sell Tiber River goods.

“We are now three years into the COVID-19 global pandemic. Unprecedented changes and adaptations have been made by people, both in their personal and professional lives,” an email signed by co-owners Michelle Lalonde and Adriana De Luca states.

They cited supply chain issues, higher shipping costs and interest rates, and changes in consumer behaviour as sparking a need to “re-evaluate our business model.”

“In our evaluation, it has become clear that the Ambassador Program in its current state is no longer sustainable,” the email continued.

As of Feb. 1, Tiber River products will be sold online and at its Kenaston shop.

“We started seriously considering (this change) in November of 2022 but finalized it in December,” Lalonde and De Luca wrote in an email to the Free Press.

Sales have dropped 30 per cent since the pandemic’s inception, they said.

“We are making this necessary change to continue to create products that our customers and community love,” their earlier mass email reads.

In 2016, Tiber River was named one of Canada’s 500 fastest growing companies. Last year, it received the Canadian Manufacturing and Exporters Emerging Award.

Since 2013, people across North America have sold the company’s soaps, lip balms and other wares at house parties, markets and online.

Friends recruited friends through the multi-level marketing program. Ambassadors got a 30 per cent commission on their sales.

As of New Year’s Day, roughly 800 people counted themselves Tiber River ambassadors. The average contractor sold $250 worth of product monthly, according to Lalonde and De Luca.

The company faced backlash from ambassadors when their email and video hit inboxes.

“They’re treating us like we’re nothing,” one ambassador, who didn’t want to give her name because she had a month of sales left, said Friday morning.

Ambassadors’ questions were directed to Tiber River’s customer service email. The company turned off commenting on its social media posts.

Later on Friday, Lalonde and De Luca recorded a live apology video on Facebook for ambassadors.

“We are heartbroken, because we did not want to have to make this decision,” Lalonde said, while De Luca wiped away tears beside her.

“The last thing on earth we wanted to do was deliver this message… and to deliver it in a way that made it worse. It was in no way meant to hurt anybody,” Lalonde added.

One ambassador the Free Press spoke to said Tiber River sales account for half her income. Another said she considered Tiber River her full-time job, though she had part-time work elsewhere.

“People were at home, they were on their computers, they were shopping, so to blame (this) on COVID… feels like an excuse without an explanation,” an ambassador said Friday morning.

One per cent of Tiber River home-based consultants earn more than $20,000 annually, according to Lalonde and De Luca. Most garner less than $1,000 per year, they added.

In October, the company announced its expansion to Walmart Marketplace.

Tiber River is adding ambassadors to its loyalty program, which includes priority shipping and early access to products.

“(It) sounds crazy,” one ambassador said, adding she won’t be buying anything.

She mentioned Not My Tiber, a social media account that surfaced in 2021 where employees alleged a hostile working environment. At the time, Tiber River said it would consult a human resources firm immediately.

The company’s restructuring comes as a recession looms, noted David Camfield, a University of Manitoba labour studies professor.

“A lot of people are feeling squeezed with inflation and higher interest rates, so that may change people’s consumption habits,” he said.

The switch from person-led sales to online is easier for Tiber River than a company with staff, Camfield added — employees are entitled to notices of termination or pay in lieu of notice.

“There’s inherently more risk to having an income that comes from being an independent contractor,” he said.

It puts such contractors — which he grouped with delivery drivers — in a difficult position, as they’re not employees, but they’re reliant on a company.

“I think we have this problem of… a concealed employee status,” he said.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce is not hearing “significant chatter” from retailers about plans to switch their models like Tiber River has, according to CEO Loren Remillard.

Still, companies are searching to save money in a period of inflation and reduced consumer spending, he said.

“(Some businesses are) fundamentally rethinking the very nature of how they operate,” Remillard said.

gabrielle.piche@winnipegfreepress.com

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché
Reporter

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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