Shopping

Can a Style-Conscious 30-Something Like Me Ever Become a Fan of QVC?

The future of West Chester’s $8 billion home-shopping behemoth just might depend on it.

Popular host Jennifer Coffey, seated left, on the set at QVC. Photograph by Ryan Donnell

Item H-214501: Serta Pillowtop Mattress

I’ve been watching QVC for four hours and 19 minutes when I call out to my husband: “Hey, babe? I think we need a new mattress.”

His answer comes from the other room, concise and final: “No.”

I grumble to myself. It’s fine. We don’t need a new mattress. In the past year, we bought a new house and had a baby. Things like new mattresses can wait. I look over at our son sleeping in his swing. Priorities, I think, a little smugly.

“Now, let’s remind you that there are several reasons why you want to buy your Serta mattress at QVC today!” says QVC host David Venable. His voice is friendly and soothing, with a Southern lilt that slip-slides over consonants and stretches out certain words like Play-Doh. I glance back at the TV. A bulleted list of reasons to buy — today — appears on the screen, and David ticks through them: Free in-home delivery. Easy payment plan available. Mattresses made fresh for QVC. (I find this last bit oddly alluring.)

David keeps talking: “You can literally sleep on this for three months, and you’ll be able to still return it with no restocking fee.”

“Hey,” I call out again. “They offer free in-home delivery!”

“No,” my husband says, more forcefully this time. “Our mattress is fine.”

“The mattress will be set up in the room of your choice,” David continues. I lean forward to watch a video portrayal of the QVC mattress delivery. There are the friendly deliverymen hauling away the old mattress. There’s the happy lady signing for her Serta. That happy lady could be me.

Of course, this is all working exactly as QVC has planned. Stoking a sense of urgent need is the company’s modus operandi, and they excel at it. The network’s hosts deftly smooth over pushy sales tactics (“Only 100 — no, only 75 left! Order now!”) with a veneer of sincerity and warmth. It’s this pitch-perfect mix of information, entertainment, salesmanship and storytelling that has turned the decades-old West Chester-based business into a virtual-retail juggernaut with $8.7 billion in revenue last year. It’s a mix that has me eager to spend $1,099 (or six easy payments of $183.16!) on a mattress … without even lying on it.

Eight point seven billion. It’s a surprising number for a medium that feels, let’s face it, outdated. At first blush, you’d think the story here is whether QVC can survive the digital age. But the truth is, the company is an unlikely digital powerhouse. In terms of sales, the QVC Group (which includes e-commerce site Zulily) lingers just behind Amazon and Walmart as the third-largest e-commerce player in North America and the eighth-largest mobile retailer in the world, among mass merchants.

While other, far flashier companies have flared up and flamed out, QVC has quietly shape-shifted to stay relevant in an increasingly challenging retail landscape. Despite drooping sales in 2016 — which, QVC asserts, were due in part to viewers tuning into election and Olympics coverage — its global e-commerce business is growing, accounting for almost half of revenue in 2016. (And more than half of those transactions came from a phone.) Of course, there are other challenges — the stubborn dominance of Amazon and the inevitable flat-lining of cable — but QVC seems to be at its best when it’s problem-solving. (See: acquisitions like flash-sale site Zulily in 2015; last year’s launch of a dedicated beauty network; a pending merger with rival network HSN that will push parent company Liberty Interactive Corp. into annual revenue of about $14 billion).

The company’s biggest hurdle is more nebulous. As boomers age out of its prime 35-to-64-year-old demographic, QVC is banking on style-conscious, shopping-obsessed women in their mid-30s — so, me — taking up the reins. But before my marathon viewing session, undertaken for the purposes of this story, I’d never considered shopping there. For all its dizzying profits, QVC is saddled with an image problem: that of silver-haired grannies ordering slow cookers and vibrating belly bands from landline phones. Despite its deft maneuvering into the digital world, QVC is still best known for its TV roots. Can the very thing that propelled it to success be the thing that eventually brings it down? In a world in which image is everything, can QVC ever be cool? Or, at least, cool … enough?

My husband has walked into the room just in time to hear QVC David scatter his final crumbs of wisdom: “If your current mattress is not meeting your needs, it is never going to magically change.” My eyes have glazed over. I launch into the details of QVC’s easy payment plan. My husband, sensing that I need to be forcibly yanked from the vortex, grabs the remote and clicks off the television. The room feels weirdly quiet without David.

“Enough,” he says. “No more QVC.”

Item H-212921: Faux-Fur Throw Blanket

Dennis Basso is hunting for cookies. The 62-year-old Manhattan-based fashion designer, known for his luxe furs, has been on the air for the better part of the day hawking his faux-fur throw blankets — and he’s hungry.

“Hmm, I’m not sure where they took those cookies,” says Jennifer Coffey, a striking 42-year-old who’s been a QVC host for six years, and who reminds me of Kelly Ripa. I’m trailing her on a tour of QVC’s vast Studio Park headquarters, a 727,000-square-foot facility that houses 2,220 of the company’s 17,000 employees. The building is a labyrinth of offices, control rooms, warehouses of display products, and 28 sets, ranging from a living room to a fully working kitchen. Somewhere around here is a table of Cheryl’s Cookies, which have just come off-air, but Dennis Basso doesn’t have time to search for them. He’s on again in three and a half minutes.

“We sold 46,000 of them already,” Basso says of the blankets. His voice is gravelly, like someone took sandpaper to it. “Only 50-something-thousand to go.” He throws his head back, sighs dramatically, and walks back to his set, where QVC host Carolyn Gracie is waiting to help him sell.

To most retailers, even one of Basso’s stature, selling 46,000 of something in mere hours is impressive. But this isn’t luck. QVC has the art of the sell down to a science; mass sellouts in minutes are its specialty. Above the set, nestled among a thick warren of cameras and lights that dangle from the ceiling like spiderwebs, is a platform. Here, a line producer watches a wall of screens and monitors that track everything from phone activity to order volume, and relays helpful information to hosts via an earpiece.

“You never really feel like you’re alone out there,” says Coffey, nodding to the live show filming below us. “You always have that line producer who is equal parts show producer and sales analyst. It’s up to them to read the numbers and make adjustments in the moment.”

I watch as the line producer notices a spike in call volume. Viewers — or “she,” as QVC employees refer to their customers — seem to be particularly interested in the size of the blanket. “Why don’t you go back to the couch and maybe pick up a blanket and wrap it around both of you, to show how big it is?” he quietly suggests to Gracie via his headset. On the set below, Gracie leads Basso over to the couch, picks up a blanket, and wraps it around them. It feels natural (nothing in QVC’s live programming is scripted), yet it’s all meticulously calibrated to maximize sales.

As Gracie and Basso untangle themselves from the blanket, an assistant producer corrals live call-ins and combs through QVC’s social media platforms to see how customers are reacting. Meanwhile, in a separate control room, five people queue up different camera angles. Down a hall, in the DART room (Data Analytics Response Technology), technicians monitor the macro-level online conversation, analyzing Google data, competitor and trending searches, customer engagement, even news programs and the weather. This? I think. This is QVC?

“The people running the live show are awash in data,” says Alex Miller, QVC’s senior vice president of digital commerce. “We want to react to where the customer is and how she’s feeling about a presentation and then customize it in real time.” But they avoid automating the system entirely. QVC’s secret sauce is a blend of data and insight, of product and personality.

“We like to brag that we were a social media company before there was anything called social media, because we’ve always been live-interacting — phone calls, learning in real time what you want,” says Coffey. “Now more than ever, we have the ability to do that with actual social media.”

It’s a smart play: Instead of bristling at new platforms and could-be competitors — if not vying for a consumer’s money, then for her time — QVC has harnessed their power. It was one of the first companies to simulcast live on Facebook; it now offers more than 100 hours of content on Facebook Live each week. And as cord-cutting threatens to kill cable, QVC has stoked a relationship with Roku, the leading maker of streaming media players, with an app that serves up QVC’s three channels. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

But while I know the live show beneath me isn’t entirely off-the-cuff — that there are CIA-esque command centers dictating those camera angles and buzzwords — I also know it’s not fake. I know that Dennis Basso’s blankets are soft. I know that they’re just as big and fluffy and shiny in real life as they look on camera. I know all of this because, well, I have one.

Item A-296752: Faux-Suede Moto Leggings

My Dennis Basso blanket is folded at the foot of our bed, a gift from my late mother-in-law, one of dozens of QVC items she bought me over the years. My mother-in-law, Christine — Mom — was the quintessential QVC customer. She was squarely in its core 35-to-64-year-old demographic, a homeowner with discretionary income who considered QVC shopping entertainment, and who also shopped at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. (The QVC customer is 2.2 times more likely to shop at Saks than the average U.S. woman.) And she was loyal. (The average QVC shopper orders about 25 products annually; last year, 93 percent of global sales came from repeat shoppers.)

For almost a decade, the gifts came. Rings. Bags. Bracelets. Scarves. Sheets. RFID-blocking credit-card holders. Cookies. Meat. I’d listen as she’d regale me with the product information, twisting a ring to point out its craftsmanship, parroting key phrases the hosts had used to sell it to her. She’d flip to a dog-eared page in Town & Country. “See this Bulgari ring? That Cartier bracelet? This is just like it,” she’d say.

Mom knew her stuff. She was stylish — a slick of red lipstick, splashes of leopard print, an armful of gold bracelets, tissue-thin silk scarves worn at first around her neck and then, when the chemotherapy took her hair, around her head. QVC was her entertainment, as it is for many women — always on in the background, the lulling repetition of prices and product numbers fading away to white noise. (QVC broadcasts live 24/7, every day of the year except for Christmas.) She spoke about the hosts as if she knew them personally, as though they were friends.

“Our customers are joining us for entertainment and for connection as much as they are looking to make a purchase, if not more so,” says QVC CEO Mike George, a bespectacled 56-year-old who’s helmed the company since 2006. In fact, the entertainment aspect of QVC is its biggest differentiator, setting it apart from the Amazons and Walmarts and shopping malls of the world. Though “content marketing” — creating valuable, authentic, informative content to build a loyal following and, eventually, sell product — is a buzzword now, QVC pioneered it decades ago.

“I’m always in awe when I walk back [to the show production area] and see what our content creation capability is, and the quality of content that we can just create on the fly,” Alex Miller says. “It’s amazing.” And it’s not easy to replicate. Take, for instance, Style Code Live, Amazon’s foray into televised shopping, live-streamed for free on Amazon’s site. The show was canceled after just 15 months.

“There are a lot of retailers who do a great job for people who are looking to find something that they need,” says Miller. “Amazon, obviously, is an expert at transactional retail. But we don’t try to shove the commerce part of it too far up the funnel, because sometimes she really is just coming to be educated and entertained.” I ask host Coffey to describe her job. “First and foremost,” she says, “I’m a storyteller.”

QVC’s own story begins with West Philly native Joe Segel, a serial entrepreneur who founded nearly 20 businesses before launching QVC (Quality, Value, Convenience) in 1986. He was inspired by the success of HSN, which had launched four years earlier, but was less impressed with its unrefined hard-sell presentations and closeout merchandise. So he painstakingly trained his hosts and secured top-rate products, finagling an exclusive deal with Sears to carry its goods. The first live broadcast — selling a shower radio — was on November 24, 1986. A year later, the network was carried in 10 million homes and had nearly $100 million in sales, and Segel was musing over the concept of “video malls” in this very magazine — several shopping channels adjacent to each other on the tuning dial, so a viewer could switch between them easily.

Fast-forward 30 years, and QVC has branched out into seven countries with 15 channels, three of which are in the U.S.: the main channel, QVC2, and year-old Beauty iQ, a multi-platform network devoted to beauty products. This last one is a way for QVC to snag a foothold in the trending — and lucrative — world of beauty vloggers. According to CEO Mike George, QVC is tailoring its approach to attract a younger audience by “leveraging influencers with large followings on Instagram and YouTube as on-air talent and streaming that content to Facebook Live.” The transparent play for younger shoppers is evident in the Beauty iQ set, which looks like it’s been plucked from Pinterest: faux-rustic wood beams, blush throw pillows (a shade tantalizingly close to “millennial pink”), brass accents.

“Isn’t it great?” says Cameron Silver, the fashion director of H by Halston and a regular presenter on QVC. We’ve been led onto the Beauty iQ set for our interview, and after giving it an appraising nod, he sinks his six-foot-three-inch frame — which appears taller thanks to a swooping mini-bouffant — into a chair across from me. He looks very L.A., not surprising given that he’s the founder of Melrose Avenue’s famed Decades boutique, a luxury vintage shop that outfits A-listers (Adele, Amal Clooney, Angelina Jolie) for red-carpet events. But since Silver “lost [his] QVC virginity” two years ago, he’s abandoned much of his splashy West Coast lifestyle, trading it for an apartment in West Chester, a PennDOT ID, and a fashion line that had one of the biggest apparel launches in QVC history.

Silver’s Hollywood background combined with Halston’s revered name lends QVC a jolt of fashion credibility. It’s a perfect pairing, he says: “QVC is luxury. There is nothing more luxurious than time and engagement.” He tells me that his jet-setter friends — the ones who can afford to drop $12,000 on a vintage Dior gown at Decades — now shop on QVC. Maybe he notices my cocked eyebrow, because he grabs his iPad and swipes through some images. “I’m going to show you pictures from a shoot we just did,” he says. “Look. This is what we sell on QVC. That is H by Halston. How chic are those pants?”

The pants he shows me are the color of cabernet, faux-suede leggings with moto detailing at the knees. “These are, like, really chic clothes. You would wear this,” he says.

He’s right. I would wear that. But the million-dollar (or, rather, 14-billion-dollar) question isn’t really whether I’d wear it, but whether — without my mother-in-law’s QVC eye — I’d even know it exists.

Item RT367: Antelope Hand-Tufted Rug

Chanel, 1983. The once-coveted brand had become stuffy, tweedy, uncool. “Nobody in their 20s or 30s wanted to wear Chanel then,” says Cameron Silver, crossing his legs so I see a flash of his crocodile A. Testoni shoes. “But Karl Lagerfeld came in and whipped it up, because it was all there, and now … ” He trails off, but I see where he’s going. Chanel needed a reinvention. “Now my friends’ grandchildren want to wear it, their mothers want to wear it, their grandmothers want to wear it.” He pauses. “Why can’t we be the Chanel of home shopping?”

But pleasing customers across a great age divide isn’t an easy feat. “Talbots tried to do that,” says Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at Wharton. “Their demographic was aging and they couldn’t bring the younger people in, and they ended up antagonizing their older customer. Trying to be everything to everyone doesn’t make sense.”

That’s why, according to Miller, QVC doesn’t see millennials as a critical segment to target. Eventually, he says, they’ll find their way to QVC. The company now owns Zulily, that trendy flash-sale site aimed at young moms; shoppers will begin there and, as they go through the life cycle, eventually graduate to QVC. It’s a strategy of segmenting and acquisitions that, Kahn explains, helps companies stay relevant, nimble, cool.

“Millennials and the Gen Z generation are rebelling against and disrupting legacy companies in bolder ways than we’ve seen previously. But the legacy companies aren’t standing still,” says Kahn. To wit: Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club; Walmart acquired Jet.com, which in turn bought indie-clothing e-tailer ModCloth and trendy men’s apparel company Bonobos. “There are ways to buy cool,” she says. But I don’t shop at Zulily, or at HSN, which the QVC Group is expected to acquire this month. Despite its acquisitions, there’s still no link that would funnel me through to QVC. Or so I think.

A few days later, I’m shopping online on Ballard Designs. I’ve ordered an antelope-patterned area rug. I scroll down, and that’s when I see it: a box at the bottom of the screen where they list their partners. Garnet Hill. Frontgate. Grandin Road. HSN.

HSN’s sister company, Cornerstone Brands, owns each of these companies. QVC’s deal includes them all.

And just like that, I’m in.

In any case, the cool factor isn’t everything. Even once-buzzy fashion darlings (Gap, Guess, Abercrombie & Fitch, BCBG Max Azria, True Religion) are fizzling, either closing stores or filing for bankruptcy. But QVC continues to chug along, gently shifting its 14 million loyalists into a more digital experience. And though QVC’s television model seems like a relic, younger customers are catching on to its appeal. The former CTO of Hulu recently launched Packagd, a series of mobile apps geared towards millennials and Gen Z that centers on “unboxing” videos, a genre popularized on YouTube in which “experts” take products out of their boxes, explain how they work, and offer reviews. Sound familiar?

“We need to embrace the uncool coolness of QVC, the way Target became so cool,” says Silver. Back on-set, his enthusiasm is infectious. I want to embrace QVC in all its uncool coolness — but I’m still skeptical. A monitor behind us broadcasts the current live show: a host, breathless, is selling a weird-looking exercise machine. One step forward, two steps back.

“Seeing a younger woman in clothing purchased from a home-shopping network, that’s so cool to me. That’s punk-rock,” continues Silver. “You know what’s not punk-rock? Going to the mall.” He pauses, glances at another monitor, and then, perhaps realizing the disconnect between punk rock and the 2017 equivalent of a ThighMaster, laughs. “I drink the Kool-Aid, though.”

Item J-351702: Sterling Silver and Gold Crocodile Ring

I’m trying not to be obvious, but I can’t stop looking at the TV monitor behind Silver. A ring on QVC’s main channel has caught my eye. It’s big and bold and shaped like a crocodile. Jennifer Coffey is the host, and she twists her finger back and forth so that the crocodile’s agate eyes sparkle. I can’t hear what she’s saying, but the ring reminds me of a crocodile necklace my mother-in-law once bought me. I wonder if she can see me here, behind the scenes at QVC.

A week later, I remember the ring and search for it on QVC’s website. I find it — $119.98. There’s a video of the presentation. I click play.

“What a crazy-awesome gift this would be,” Coffey says. I think of my mother-in-law. She would’ve bought this instantly, had it wrapped before Thanksgiving. The spokesperson for the brand pipes in.

“This is that maternal protection,” he explains, referring to the ancient symbolism of the crocodile, something I didn’t know. “This is, No matter what, Mama’s with me, no matter where in the world I go.”

I don’t register QVC’s optimized website or its high-quality streaming videos. I don’t think about the DART room, where analysts are furiously crunching data, or about the line producer who’s probably telling Coffey to move her hand a little to the left. I just scroll and click:

Add to cart.

Published as “The Art of the Sell” in the December 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.