Inside QVC: The Semi-Scripted Reality of the $8 Billion Business Next Door


Parts talk show, reality TV and mega-money enterprise, the shopping network has an obsessive fan base, major celebrity pull and a round-the-clock pace.

Last month, 50 Cent found himself in rural Pennsylvania, wandering around a gigantic warehouse television studio. He was bobbing in and out of different sets, chatting with professional talkers who went giggly upon the appearance of a rapper who has sold more than 30 million albums and become an iconic performer. At one point, live on air, he kissed a perfume saleswoman. He tweeted later that night that he sold $177,000 worth of his signature headphones by appearing on QVC.

It might seem like an anachronism in the digital age. But this multinational, multiplatform, broadcast retail network, launched in 1986, is only growing larger, mixing reality TV, talk show and infomercial to create its own mini-universe of big business.

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QVC -- run for a short time by Barry Diller and now owned by Liberty Media -- broadcasts live 24 hours a day, seven days a week, selling a wide range of consumer goods primarily on a TV network that reaches 100 million homes in the United States and 100 million more in eight international territories. It deals in most major categories -- electronics, food, cookware, clothing, jewelry and home furnishings -- and has become a sort of living catalog of the shopping mall’s greatest hits, a mixture of high-end and value products. It is the biggest of the home shopping channels, reporting $8 billion in yearly revenue, with its closest competitor, Home Shopping Network, claiming to be a $3 billion enterprise.

That behemoth sits on an 84-acre park in the woods of southeastern Pennsylvania, minutes away from a downtown settled in the 1700s. Rising from beyond US Route 202, the network boasts 18 ever-changing sets in the 165,000-square-foot broadcast center.

Here, QVC sells about 1,150 different items a week, with more available via digital platforms -- everything from Sachi tote bags and Smithfield glazed hams to iPads. Each product gets a short segment, typically six minutes, with the salesperson often boasting of having used the moisturizer, Spanx or laptop with great results, with anecdotes to prove it. Those experiences are real, but the purpose of the conversation is more than just friendly banter.

QVC's executives say inviting on a product’s designer or creator -- from the small entrepreneur to the major CEO -- allows the network to sell by telling a story, something big-box or online retailers can't reproduce. There are 60 or so nonstaff vendors on-air per day, pitching to an audience that is 85 percent-90 percent female and predominantly 35-plus years old.

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Theirs is not a hard sell, but instead a friendly approach that re-creates on television the sort of door-to-door retail and Tupperware party model of quaint small-town America on a mass scale. Their hosts are in everyone’s living room -- with a seemingly personalized pitch -- simultaneously. The network has developed an expertise in creating the friendly environment, the kind of place where one might want to cozy up with family while wearing a comfortable sweater and drinking hot chocolate. It’s one-stop living and shopping, like throwing a holiday party in a storefront that displays price tags on the sample furniture.

"The QVC host, they’re the unique personalities that have the relationship with the audience. They have that trust and relationship," Scott Crossin, the network’s vp production and an 18-year veteran of the company, told The Hollywood Reporter during a studio visit. "[The vendor] may be an unknown entity, yet you’re the most credible person in the universe for your product and your brand. It’s the hosts’ job to bring that to life. They do it in a very inviting way, as if they were talking to their girlfriend about this super-cool product or brand that they just came across and they’re psyched to tell their girlfriends about."

The average customer buys 14 items per year, while the more avid buyer -- as the network calls them -- might purchase something once a week. It began with a 800 number but has been selling on since 1996. A mobile app came in 2009, and the iPad app was introduced in 2010. Today, 39 percent of sales come from digital sources, with 22 percent of that segment from mobile. In fact, though it would seem that Amazon and other online wholesale retailers would have eaten into the network's sales, domestic revenue went from $3 billion to $5 billion between 2000 and 2011; international channels add another $3 billion.

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And QVC is working hard to turn what was a fundamentally solitary experience into a social one, making real what it had long tried to simulate. For decades, the host-to-shopper communication was a one-way stream; unless a buyer was lucky enough to get a call on-air, he or she largely watched alone. Now, like many networks, QVC hosts live online chats during programming. In some instances, they take it a step further.

Mary DeAngelis is a former flight attendant and customer service call-center worker who made the move to the live production team in 2009. Now she's charged with bringing more interactivity to one of the network’s biggest primetime shows, In the Kitchen With David.

As David Venable, a 19-year veteran of the network, demonstrates various cooking supplies and kitchen goods, DeAngelis sits at a computer on the kitchen set. Venable has developed a loyal following in his nearly two decades at QVC, building 220,000 fans on Facebook, and DeAngelis hosts an interactive discussion on the page during the broadcast.

A typical chat will garner thousands of posts, with many fans now regular participants in the twice-weekly event. DeAngelis appears on camera as she monitors and participates in the conversation, reading comments on air and relaying requests for information (anything from Venable’s height to what a guest smells like -- Paula Deen, she told fans, smells like sugar cookies -- to warranty info). The show averages about a million viewers per showing, which helped power Venable’s new cookbook to presales of 245,000, many of which came from the Facebook page.

DeAngelis can rattle off the names of the more frequent chatters like they’re old friends -- Kathleen loves Keurig coffee products, while Kim is big into Temptations cookware -- and marvels at their devotion to both Venable and their fellow fans. In addition to personal anecdotes, the chatters shared product recommendations and recipes and a discussion about the 12-12-12 concert on TV that night. There have been instances of charity, as well, especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. They’re more than aware that they’re being sold to, but it doesn’t cut down on their devotion to the hosts.

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“ ‘Mary, where did you get your nail polish? Did you get a haircut? You look skinny!’ That one’s my favorite” she says, rattling off common questions and giggling. “They talk about anything -- hot topics, shows that they saw on QVC earlier in the day. They talk about things going on with their own family. It can get real personal.”

The friendliness is not all generosity, of course. This is a business; the phone line and pricing information never leaves the screen, and the topic of conversation never veers far from the item for sale. Doug Rose, the network’s senior vp programming and marketing, says the key is engaging a customer so that they return, both to the TV broadcast and websites.

"Any host, a part of their job is to gradually work away at any distrust that you might have," he explains. "Our customers really do trust QVC."

Lisa Robertson has been with the network 18 years; she began by hosting 3 a.m. cooking shows in which she’d have to contend with drunken callers and buy her own ingredients. Now, she hosts several style shows (and sells her own recently launched line, called G.I.L.I.) and admits that not every product she sells is a personal favorite.

"I think it is a responsibility, and I try hard to honor that,” she says. "When I’m on the air, I try to be specific about my connection with the product. There’s a difference between ‘Oh hey, I tried this last night, and this is what I think about the texture and consistency,’ versus ‘Oh my God, I love that and I’ve used it for the past 15 years.' I think we try to be very clear about what something is and what it’s not, so when you get home, you’re happy with what it is."

Robertson boasts a wry sense of humor and keen fashion sense pieced together since she was a Miss America contestant two decades ago. Her audience, she says, largely follows her taste, but it’s a two-way street; she has to be honest about what looks right on her viewers.

“I think we interpret the trends in a way that makes them wearable, because there are a lot of trends that look great if you’re a 12-year-old supermodel,” Robertson says. “But most grown women, who are old enough to have their own credit card, cannot wear that. I think the things we do really well is to take the aspects that make it fun and new and put it in a way that makes it wearable.”

This also is something that the stars taking the long trip out via town car or train to the studio must realize. Robertson says that celebrities with clothing lines -- including Nicole Richie, Jennifer Hudson and Joan Rivers, who invites Robertson over for every Jewish holiday -- are very engaged in their styles, far more than other star endorsers had been in the past. Selling on QVC is another kind of act, but one that requires deep knowledge and the ability to connect with the real world.

“One of the things that I’ve found about our customers is that if you put your name on something and you don’t know it when you walk in here, they will not have you,” Robertson warns. “They are not stupid. If you ever walk in front of that camera and think you’re talking to someone that doesn’t know, you are wrong. Because they will read you, and they will call you on it. I think it used to be that people would just put their names on things and that was it. But that hasn’t worked for us. So if you’re going to bring a line in here, you better know that line.”

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