TV, on-line services propel shopping


It's hip to shop at home in 1994.

Evidence is the test-marketing by MTV Networks of half- and full-hour shopping programs on MTV Music Television, VH-1 and Nick at Nite. The initial show didn't feature zirconium rings or collector plates, but trendy memorabilia, such as dog tags from Woodstock '94.

Television shopping at home, in existence less than a decade, has ballooned into a $2.8 billion annual business with an audience that is mostly female.

The newer field of computer on-line shopping is pulling in about $200 million from the sale of merchandise each year and is expected to grow by leaps and bounds. Its users are primarily male.

Most popular items are jewelry, clothing, collectibles and electronic gear.

At their best, these sales mediums offer convenience, entertainment and, because of lower overhead, value as well. Drawbacks, of course, are much the same as those associated with print catalogs, in that the consumer can't touch merchandise, can't try on clothing and may find actual colors don't exactly match what was seen on the screen.

The television shopper can't seek out specific merchandise at the moment he or she wishes it, but must wait for it to appear on the program. While computer interactive services offer the ability to go directly to the merchandise sought, technology in most cases isn't yet good enough that items can be seen as well as they would be on TV or in a catalog.

"TV shopping requires being a savvy shopper and paying close attention to detail, but it's a nice way to do comparison shopping, especially if you're dealing with brand names," observed Lois Wright Morton, senior extension associate in consumer economics at Cornell University.

Try not to buy on impulse because of the high-pressure tricks some channels use, she counseled. When you buy, keep a file card of the details and date of the transaction so you can track it.

"The larger services feature very good, legitimate return policies, though you have to pay the freight going back," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., a research firm in Bethesda.

Players in this field are impressive, with Home Shopping Network Inc. and QVC Network Inc. the giants among a number of TV shopping operations.

Clearwater, Fla.-based HSN has the original Home Shopping Club 1 on cable television, Home Shopping Club 2 on UHF and low-power broadcast stations, and Home Shopping Spree on broadcast and cable channels late at night and early in the morning. The company acquired the Internet Shopping Network, California firm that sells mostly computer equipment over the vast Internet repository of shared information. It also has a service on the Prodigy on-line service selling closeout items, another on CompuServe for men's shoes and other products, and a CD-ROM service for shoes.

West Chester, Pa.-based QVC, whose initials stand for "quality, value and convenience," operates the original QVC, which broadcasts live 364 days a year, and Q2, being used to develop distinctive shopping services that could become stand-alone channels. Through QVC Interactive, it will launch a computer-based shopping service early next year that will alert consumers to specific items they've indicated a preference for in questionnaires.

A current disadvantage of on-line services is that they reach only about 5.5 million U.S. households and require equipment and fees, but they are the wave of the future. America Online, through CUC International's Shoppers Advantage Club, sells 250,000 items. In addition, Prodigy features merchandise from 125 companies, including Sears and Spiegel. CompuServe offers 125 sellers such as J. C. Penney and Land's End, as well as Shoppers Advantage Club merchandise. All three services have additional arrangements with partners for items such as flowers and travel.

Tips for TV and on-line shopping include:

* Know your prices in advance so you can determine whether an item is a good buy.

* Add up total cost of the purchase with shipping and handling.

* Determine whether customer satisfaction with the product is guaranteed.

* Find out refund and return policy, as well as delivery time.

* Decide whether you really need the item or are responding to a great job of salesmanship.

* Look at your monthly credit card balance and consider whether you should really be charging up more.

* In using on-line services, be careful about giving your credit card number. Larger firms take security precautions, such as requiring that passwords be used by authorized employees before they can view card numbers.

Under the Federal Trade Commission mail and telephone order merchandise rule, orders placed by telephone, facsimile machine or computer modem are subject to delivery requirements. The seller must meet its deadline, or, if no specific delivery time is given, must ship within 30 days.

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