Even if you’ve never purchased a single item from a shop-at-home television network, odds are good you’ve killed a little time watching one — maybe lured in by a famous face you never expected to see, you know, there. Or maybe by a killer deal on a product or brand you thought was only sold at multi-story department stores or sniffy boutiques.
Or just maybe because it was more entertaining than anything else on the tube. After all, says Doug Rose, senior vice president of multichannel programming and marketing for QVC, when it comes to on-air retailing, that’s a large part of the bargain.
“It’s hard to convince people who don’t watch QVC; they have an old perception about what our form of entertainment really is,” Rose explains. “But more and more people are coming to recognize that shopping can be a very pleasant, very legitimate alternative to conventional entertainment. Ask any woman who enjoys window-shopping: It’s an absolute hobby. For some, it’s a sport. For others, it’s just a pastime that allows you to relax and, for a moment, not fret about controversies or terrorism or scandal.”
For the growing number of brands that sell their wares on the networks, it’s just good business.
Now in its 24th year, QVC reaches more than 166 million cable and satellite homes around the globe and has sold products to more than 50 million buyers, accounting for more than $7 billion in annual sales — making it more profitable than many brick and mortar retailers.
“From the brand side, why someone like Philosophy would come to QVC is because it gives them that rare opportunity to tell their story in a real, low-key, conversational way,” Rose explains of shopping networks’ unique ability to free sellers of the hit-or-miss nature of conventional advertising and stores that often do as much to frighten away potential buyers as to court them. “You can buy a TV spot, but you know everyone is muting it or channel surfing past it. No one wants to watch an ad!” Watching Philosophy’s approachable CEO Cristina Carlino chat about creating her skin care brand after growing tired of the cost of prescription potions, on the other hand, can be every bit as interesting as what you see on other how-to nets. And score you good-smelling lotion, to boot.
Here’s what else Rose had to say about why more folks than ever are skipping the mall and shopping from their sofas.
QVC has experienced stunning growth in less than 25 years in existence. Could you briefly discuss that boom and why you believe shopping networks are hotter than ever?
We are blessed to have one foot in the world of retailing and the other in the media space. Being right in the intersection of those two worlds is a really interesting place to be. And perhaps what has been happening over the years is that more and more people are coming to recognize that shopping can be a very pleasant, legitimate alternative to conventional entertainment. It’s a harmless escape. And more and more people are gravitating to that.
From the brand side, why someone like Philosophy would come to QVC is because it gives them that rare opportunity to tell their story in a real, low-key conversational way. And, wow, that’s hard to find in retail. And it’s really hard to replicate in advertising. To have the founder of a company be able to come on and speak from her heart?
If you think of Cristina Carlino from Philosophy, she is their very best representative –because who better to come on and talk about what inspired the company than the woman who founded it? So it’s a rewarding experience for the brands to come to QVC. And as they come to QVC and our product mix gets bigger and better every year, it makes it that much more satisfying and entertaining for our audience.
There’s a high fidelity brand environment here. That might sound like a lot of marketing gobbledygook, but brands that come to QVC, that’s what they appreciate is the ability to get beyond all the filters that they have to deal with in traditional retail. If you’re a brand who wants to convey a message, what are your options? You can buy a TV spot. But then you know everyone is muting it, channel surfing past it. No one wants to watch an ad!
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about shopping on TV?
Maybe the biggest thing for people who don’t know much about us don’t quite understand is that when a Philosophy or a Bose or a Dell or someone like that is on the air, it’s not like you’re watching an ad. You’re really learning about what inspired the creation of a product or what makes a product really unique. And it can be very engaging whether you want to buy the product or not. It really is a legitimate form of entertainment and engagement and it can just be good company, too.
How do you make sure you continue to have products and personalities that will attract viewers, whether they’re intending to buy or not?
In that sense, QVC is much more like a traditional retailer than some folks might imagine. We have a buying staff of 100 or so people, who are professional merchants. Many of them come from traditional retail backgrounds. We have people here from Macy’s and Saks and Target — all of whom we admire. But the reason they’ve been hired here at QVC is that they are really, really good at finding great, great products in their categories.
The head of our beauty division [Allen Burke] is a gentleman who is an icon in the industry — he’s recognized as being one of the greatest brand-building minds in the beauty world. And he chose to come to QVC and make his career here. He’s been here about 14 years. And he’s just an example of many who have pride in their craft and are not interested in buying the cheapest dumb-dumb product. They are interested in finding products that have stories and have a really interesting point of view and that would make for good entertainment.
We don’t buy just any products. We look for products and stories that are really, really special. Put yourself in the shoes of a merchant here at QVC. They can’t just buy the item that’s the cheapest. Because what are you going to say for the next six minutes? There’s no story to tell. “Boy, this is a really cheap item!” And then you’re done. What else are you going to say?
You have to be very careful to select products that have a very unique demonstrability, or have a unique story or romance behind them, or a great personality that can make them come to life. And so it’s a challenge for the merchant in that sense. They have to really dig deep.
I’m on a roll now! [laughs]
But you also free them from having to rely on whomever retailers hire to sell their products — people who can frequently be off-putting to the consumer.
Absolutely. I’ve been here 15 years, and I would say that’s the biggest change during my time here. The retail environment has become terribly daunting for the consumer as well as for brands.
One of my favorite examples going back to beauty is Bobbi Brown, who is a brilliant icon in the beauty world herself. For years and years she sold her cosmetics at great high-end retailers like Saks and Neiman Marcus and those sorts of places. But it’s rare that she gets to tell people herself why she designed this eyeliner the way she designed it. Or what inspired her to create this particular palette of colors. She does that here in a way that she could not do anywhere else.
Our ability to become selective has absolutely increased. And it’s because of all the things we’ve been talking about.
You’ve also attracted a growing legion of celebrity sellers — Joan Rivers, Heidi Klum, Dana Buchman, Elton John, James Taylor — and many folks people thought they would never see on a home shopping network.
In the old days of TV shopping you would often run across people that were, ohhhh, personalities that weren’t necessarily at the top of their career any longer. And now you see Ellen DeGeneres and Rachael Ray and Paula Deen and all these people that are at the top of their game and feel that this is the right place for them.
It’s fun! And we’re very careful not to take in just anybody that has a talent agent and a big resumé. For us, it’s about at the end of the day what products are they personally engaged with, part of the design process for, have a personal passion for? So it’s not phony. It’s not a cash-in sort of strategy. It’s about “How can I convey a message and a story I believe in?” We’re proud of giving them a platform to do that.
Think about Isaac Mizrahi. For years he was at Target and he did great stuff and everyone admired it. And yet, I can’t recall a time where I would have been in Target and met him and had a chance to understand why he loves this particular handbag. So you go back to why are so many brands finding their way to us? It’s because we can connect them directly to the products they’ve created in a way that traditional retail can’t do.
Consumers are a huge and constant part of the QVC experience thanks to your live testimonial lines — something retail stores don’t have to deal with. How much of a challenge does that present?
That’s another thing about the merchants at QVC is that they’re not buying products for just anybody. They are buying products for people — and, yes, mostly women — who are really engaged in shopping and they are smart. They know what a value is. And they know what a value is not. And boy, they tell us that every day. Believe me, there are a lots and lots of meetings at QVC to review that form of feedback. We pay a lot of attention to it and we work really hard to learn from it.
They tell us if we’ve done our job right. If we’ve found a really great item and we’ve offered it at an honest value, they respond. But when we underestimate our customers, boy they let us know, too. We will routinely be humbled by customers that tell us we were not sharp enough on this item. You hear it on the air. You see it more and more online. Very vocal groups! And they have a very, very powerful effect on our decision-making.
Look at the product ratings — WOW! I think when we instituted product ratings, everybody here was nervous. Like, oh wow, what if you have a few people that for whatever reason don’t care for a product — won’t that poison the experience for people who really like it? It’s amazing how quickly we got through that, and now, man, if we didn’t have product ratings, it wouldn’t be the same experience.
We need the customers to help us build a great shopping experience– because that makes it more fun and more interesting and a better customer service experience for our other customers. And I think you’re going to see more and more of that as you get deeper into this decade. You’re going to see more customer-generated content driving what you see and the products you find on-air and at QVC.com.
We’re live 24/7, 364 days a year and it’s not scripted. We don’t want it to be scripted — what comes out of the mouths of our customers either on-air or online. Yes, that’s a scary thing sometimes because you’re not sure what they are going to say. But there’s power in accepting that when it is a positive experience, viewers know it’s credible — we’re not paying anybody to say that.
The customer is not just shaping opinions about whether or not a product is worth it — it’s shaping opinions about whether QVC is for real.
Do you think that builds a sense of ownership and loyalty among QVC viewers — that they are allowed to participate on such an immediate level?
I think that’s a piece of the puzzle that most people may not be aware of is how the whole business is built around customer service and making sure that when you do get up your nerve to place an order, that you don’t regret it.
When you compare QVC to other people in the world of direct-response TV — people who are primarily in the business of getting you to buy something — we think we are in a whole different business. We think we are not just in the business of selling you an item. We are in the business of making you happy. If you take that mindset to work with you every day like we do, it changes every decision you make.
We don’t care so much to cajole you into purchasing something, because then you’re going to regret it and never come back. So if you think of it in terms of how QVC has become such a player, such a large retailer in terms of sales and customer base and all that good stuff, it’s because we approach our business the way any great retailer does: You have to make sure that customer has a really good time and wants to come back.
It’s such a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but it’s overlooked by so many people who think they understand what business we’re in.
How do you ensure that the QVC experience stays fresh for longtime customers — and attracts new viewers at the same time?
Every year, we present about 13,000 new items. If we don’t keep that pipeline of newness flowing, we will suffer the consequences.
We are absolutely a slave to new, great products. We’re also more than ever keeping things fresh with our programming. We’re doing more than we’ve ever done before — going on the road, doing live remotes, taking people to big events. Our fashion week events last fall and in February. We took viewers live to the Oscars red carpet in March. We’re really trying to keep things fresh by making sure our programming links to all things pop culture. We’re more aggressive there than we’ve ever been before in the past.
And you do some great charitable events as well — something which people might not be aware of.
FFANY Shoes on Sale is probably our finest hour of every year. We’re so proud of everything we’ve done with that cause. To date we’ve raised over $30 million dollars to fight breast cancer. We think that a really important thing — not just to impress our customers, but it’s something our employees are really invested in, too. They tell their friends that that’s one reason they’re so proud to work here.
How much decision-making goes into how and when to spin off into other media formats — the web, social media platforms, etc. — with all its unedited commentary?
We think that there are so many mega-trends in our favor! Start with the fact that we’re not completely defined by television. Yes, we’re on TV. We’re live 24/7. But you look at the future of our business and it’s online business. And mobile business.
We have a new iPhone app that our customers love. We have over 100,000 fans on Facebook in just our first year of trying to build that audience. With not a lot of energy, frankly.
The community is really taking shape organically without our having to force anything. They’re running the show on that one. I think a lot of retailers and media outlets are still struggling with this idea of surrendering control to our viewers and to our customers — we are all about that.
QVC is a creature of our customers. We go where they lead us!