By Caroline Hudson News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.
Stillettos click-clacked down the hallway. Perfectly pressed suits walked past. Everyone was dressed to the nines.
A roar erupted from the arena.
The air was hazy from fog machines.
Welcome to the Market America International Convention, an annual gathering of more than 20,000 people with entrepreneurial dreams.
The Greensboro Coliseum arena on Thursday was filled to the top with guests. Colored lights flashed, and people could feel the excitement in the air.
But behind the glitz is a family of entrepreneurs who, 22 years ago, birthed the idea for an Internet retail business inside a home in Greensboro. The company runs the website Shop.com, which features about 40 million products from business owners around the world.
Today, that business still has its headquarters here, and its convention -- which runs through the weekend -- pumps more than $21 million annually into the local economy.
And each year, Market America revels in its success with a convention at the coliseum that has the trappings of a rock concert.
On the arena floor Thursday, audience members roared and became rapt in attention as speakers took the stage.
Distributors lined up to get samples of new product lines.
And no Market America convention is complete without a celebrity sighting -- or three. Past conventions have featured Kim Kardashian and former Chicago Bulls' star Scottie Pippen.
This year, actor Jamie Foxx is in the house.
The company didn't always operate on this scale.
JR Ridinger founded the company in 1992, along with wife Loren Ridinger and Marc Ashley, who is her brother.
Ashley, who is Market America's chief operating officer, said the company started small with little to no money. They drove all over the country to sell their products.
"We didn't have any money to fly," Loren Ridinger, who is the senior vice president, said with a laugh.
It started out as a direct-selling company. Think Avon and Mary Kay.
Things started out rocky. The products the company sold early on -- mainly relating to weight loss -- were not very good.
The company invested in hiring scientists to make better products that would eventually catch consumers' interest. Some customers loved the products so much that they wanted to sell them.
And then there was the evolution of the Internet. The company went from doing home parties to going global.
The company bought Shop.com nearly four years ago. It operates a 200,000-square-foot headquarters and fulfillment center on Pleasant Ridge Road in Greensboro.
Market America now boasts over 3 million customers worldwide.
"It's really an American success story," Ridinger said.
But not just for company founders.
"We work really hard for all those people out there (in the arena)," said Ridinger, a graduate of Page High.
Each year, Market America unveils new products and technology at the convention.
This year, the company introduced its green coffee bean weight loss supplement and a new dry shampoo, among other wares.
Ridinger said one of the company's goals is to capitalize on social media.
But despite plans to continue growing the business, the company's founders have never forgotten where it all began.
That's why they come home to the Greensboro Coliseum every year to hold the convention.
"We want to keep it," Ashley said, "where we started it."