WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- At the Holiday Inn here in the hometown of QVC, two businessmen with their hair spray-sculpted a la Trent Lott are having breakfast. A Muzak version of "Silver Bells" tinkles in the background, but the air around these two clangs with greedier gold. There is terse talk of "units," and "half a 'mil' of," and "just gimme a price you can live with" until both men smile and shake hands. Ding-dong! Done deal.
"You know this hotel is crawling with celebrities," one then whispers to the other. "From what I hear, Joan Rivers practically lives here."
This might be news to Rivers, who actually resides in considerably grander digs on Manhattan's Upper East Side. His point was only slightly exaggerated, however, as lately everyone from Sophia Loren and Cal Ripken Jr. to Marie Osmond and Pete Rose has made pilgrimages to this town 30 miles west of Philadelphia. And, Rivers was, in fact, around that weekend to promote her Classics Collection of jewelry on a "marathon weekend sale event."
With its 24-hours-a-day, 364-days-a-year programming schedule -- you guessed it, QVC takes one holiday: Christmas -- the network burns through nearly 1,500 product demonstrations a week, 200 of them never seen before. So, not just boldface names, but hordes of salesmen like the "Trents" are descending on West Chester, too, hoping to sell millions of units of everything from Faux Nails Kits for 'Tweener Girls ($14) to Chesapeake Bay Gourmet Frozen Crabcakes (four 6-ounce cakes for $51). Good luck to them. Of 13,000 inquiries made last year by potential vendors, only 2 percent to 3 percent were taken on by QVC.
And, oh yes, fans are arriving, too. For the shop-'til-you-drop set, a consumer that's overwhelmingly female and usually over 40, West Chester is now a popular travel destination with visitors from all over the world (QVC has operations in the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan) who come for the QVC Studio Tour. Imagining that during the pre-holiday season, West Chester must be busier than Santa's Workshop in the North Pole, I'd decided to join them.
"This is our fourth quarter, both in the calendar and like a football game. As the weather gets colder, people spend more time at home watching TV, so they see us more," said Doug Rose, QVC's vice president of brand development. "This is unquestionably our highest velocity time of year."
Third biggest network
QVC -- the letters stand for "Quality, Value and Convenience -- began broadcasting in 1986 and now reaches about 96 percent of homes with cable. It was the brainchild of Joseph Segel, who earlier had founded the Franklin Mint, maker of coins and other collectibles such as Faberge-inspired eggs and porcelain dolls.
An immediate success, QVC over the past 18 years has shipped more than 740 million packages to nearly 26 million customers and in 2003 had net sales of more than $4.8 billion. This makes QVC not only a significantly larger retailer than either Bloomingdale's or L.L. Bean, but in terms of revenue, it is the third biggest television network, after CBS.
Such self-congratulatory statistics are served up often during the studio tour. At times, it almost feels like our guide, Jennifer Rosa, is a cheerleader boosting team spirit. Go QVC! There's even a shrine of sorts, commemorating Dec. 2, 2001, QVC's best single day ever, when it sold more than $80 million worth of Dell Intel Pentium IV personal computers.
The tour's centerpiece, though, is an opportunity to watch a show being broadcast -- and if you can't resist buying something, you'll be brought a telephone.
As we enter the 20,000-square-foot studio, Christina Carlino, CEO of Philosophy, a line of beauty and skincare products, says, "I just can't get out of the shower in the morning unless I've had a Senorita Margarita!"
Carlino stands before a bank of four television cameras, talking with a QVC hostess, Patti Reilly, an excitable woman whose pink sweater sprouted an enormous knitted flower at one shoulder. Because both women speak in such complete, polished sentences, it's a surprise to learn that all dialogue on QVC is extemporaneous. There are no cue cards or scripts.
Because the robotic cameras are unmanned, quite the only stage direction comes from a digital clock rushing in reverse that shows exactly how much time is left to sell "The Cocktail Party" collection of shower gel.
It's live television
This operation runs smoothly -- almost eerily so -- this is, after all, live television with no seven-second delay. If there's a wardrobe malfunction or any other catastrophe, it will be broadcast. On-air goofs, however, only serve to make the product demonstrations more credible. Such, at least, is the opinion of Kim Maguire, QVC's executive vice president and chief merchandising officer.
"At QVC, we make it easy for the customer. An expert from Hewlett-Packard comes on, and he or she talks to an extremely knowledgeable host. They then take as long as they need to show exactly what, say, a computer or digital camera does, and 8 or 10 million viewers learn this lesson simultaneously. Our hosts are salespeople, educators and entertainers."
Maguire also admits another key to QVC's popularity is the "testimonials" from people such as Nedra, who's on the telephone from Des Moines, Iowa, extolling the wonders of Philosophy's "State of Grace" perfume.
"I affirm absolutely everything you've shared. You are my soulmate, Nedra," Carlino replies.
"You can see sales spike during testimonials," Maguire says. "Believe me, we wouldn't be taking these calls if they didn't."
As the tour continues through the elaborate sound studio, our guide explains that the building is supposed to resemble "a renovated Pennsylvania farmhouse. There are even centuries-old beams!" This venerable wood wasn't immediately apparent on sets designed to look like kitchens, bedrooms, garages, all so various products (nonstick fry pans, linens, car-wash liquid) can be demonstrated in situ.
At nearly every turn, video monitors show what we're missing on QVC. A "Countdown to Christmas" graphic slides off the screen to reveal that Patti Reilly is now selling Jingle Bell Charm Bracelets (set of three for $17.75).
Trust in the company
All too soon, the tour ends, and we pilgrims find ourselves standing before the gift shop, where many of the items we'd heard about earlier are for sale. Maryann and Susan Malin, a mother and daughter on a day trip from Mountain Top, Pa., are grinning and clearly elated by the tour. Because she's been watching QVC "steadily" for 10 years, Maryann says she trusts the company. Her daughter Susan, concurs. "Nothing you see is faked, it's all real," she said. "And, they use models that are normal-sized, not like these itty- bitty girls in the magazines."
I ponder this while looking over sweaters encrusted with sequined Christmas trees, foot- massage machines and boxes of frozen barbecued pork ribs. After seeing similar products gorgeously lit up, petted and fawned over onscreen, it's disappointing to see mere boxes, bottles and bags. It occurs to me that QVC's genius is its utter banality. Televised items appear reassuringly commonplace ("nothing is faked"), yet because they're dangled just out of reach, they are invested with a nearly magical allure.
A group of girlfriends heads to a rack where persimmon-colored suede fringed jackets are for sale ($89). An ample woman tries one on. Her pals coo and assure her she looks "super-stylish."
"No, I don't," the woman replies, morosely. "I look like a fat Indian."
If she'd been at home, watching QVC, however, she wouldn't know this yet. What's more, she'd probably be on the telephone, reciting her credit card number.
Your product could be next
QVC will conduct a Product Search Discovery Tour next year, in hopes of finding 100 new items to sell on-air. The first of four tour stops will be on Jan. 31, in Arlington, Va., at the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel.
Think your product or invention might be a candidate? Then, bear in mind it must:
Demonstrate well (in eight minutes of air time).
Solve a common problem or make life easier.
Appeal to a broad audience.
Have unique features and benefits.
Be topical or timely.
Sell for $15 or more.
To learn more about the Product Search Discovery Tour, visit the QVC Vendor Web site (www. qvcproductsearch.com), or take the QVC Studio Tour. Information: 800-600-9900.