Armchair TV shoppers herald a retailing revolution

April 01, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Meet Jean Cave, shopper of a future that's already here.

Each weekday, the Joppatowne woman gets up at 4 a.m., turns on the QVC cable shopping network and watches it as she gets ready to leave for work at 6:30 a.m. The first thing she does when she gets home is tune in QVC on her kitchen television. If something special is scheduled to come on QVC at 2 a.m., she'll set the alarm to get up and watch it. She's even been known to schedule her vacation time around QVC's programming.

Mrs. Cave might be atypical, but she's hardly alone in her devotion to TV shopping. Millions of Mrs. Caves all across the country are avoiding the malls, staying home and spending their money in the burgeoning televised marketplace.

It's a trend with vast implications for how America lives and shops, but it's not being led by the usual trend-setters. In this case, society's usual movers and shakers are far behind ordinary middle-class Americans, including these area residents:

* Helen Snyder, a 70-year-old Timonium widow, has done so much business with QVC that she knows her UPS driver by name.

* Ellen N., an Essex retiree who asked that her last name not be used, said she spent about $800 through QVC from Feb. 19 through March 19. She owns 20 watches, 18 of which she bought through QVC.

* Marie Turc of Hampstead said she keeps the television tuned "all day, every day" to QVC. "I'm alone. I'm a widow and it's company. It's like having your neighbor in," she said.

TV shopping has come a long way from the days of fast-talking hucksters peddling cubic zirconia and off-brand crock-pots.

The merchandise is better and the presentation far more sophisticated than it was five years ago. Celebrities have built second careers hawking dolls, cosmetics and fashions. Well-known designers have created exclusive lines for television customers. Customers praise the home shopping networks for Nordstrom-class service and great prices.

Last year, Americans bought an estimated $2 billion through TV shopping networks -- split roughly 50-50 between the low-key QVC, based in West Chester, Pa., and the more high-pressure Home Shopping Network. QVC alone has seen its sales soar from $112 million in 1987 to $1.07 billion in 1992.

Small potatoes, compared with what's ahead.

Televised shopping is on the brink of a leap that will make it a

commanding force in American retailing. With 500-channel service and interactive television within the cable industry's technological grasp, TV shopping could soon surpass the $50 billion-a-year U.S. retail catalog industry, predicts David Loomis, an analyst with Thirteen-D Research in Brewster, N.Y.

Jeff Hallett, president of the PresentFutures Group in Falls Church, Va., says traditional retailers have no idea what's going to hit them. "They haven't got a clue and they pooh-pooh it," Mr. Hallett said. "It's like the whole retail industry not paying attention to Wal-Mart."

Anybody who doubts the power of television as a sales medium should talk with Mrs. Cave, who is a pension administrator at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"They have things I can't find in stores and they have fantastic prices," Mrs. Cave said. "I'm not buying for the sake of buying. It's things that I legitimately need."

Her purchases have included gold chains for her sons, exercise equipment for her daughter, fishing equipment for her husband and T-Fal cookware for herself.

Mrs. Cave could probably find identical merchandise in stores. The reason she doesn't is a flashing red light in the face of the retail industry. "It's such a hassle going to the malls," she said. "I'm getting too old to fight those crowds."

Mrs. Cave is 49 -- only two years older than the vanguard of the baby boom generation.

Heir to catalog

It's a bittersweet irony that 1993, the year the Sears catalog fades into history, will likely go into the books as the year TV shopping, its electronic heir, really took off.

That's because earlier this year, Barry Diller, ex-chairman of Fox Broadcasting and Paramount Pictures, bought into QVC and took over as chief executive after being courted by its controlling shareholders: John Malone of Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable company, and Brian Roberts of Comcast Corp., the fourth-largest. Along with his $25 million investment, Mr. Diller brought an extensive network of entertainment industry connections and an instant dose of credibility to an industry that desperately needed it.

The initial reaction to Mr. Diller's move was shock. But Wall Street promptly bet on his ability to use his Hollywood know-how to attract upscale viewers. The company's stock has shot up, climbing from $38.875 at the end of last year to $57 yesterday.

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