Surely, while channel surfing, you've run across them, gushing, practically breathless, about those turquoise-studded bracelets or that electronic pest repeller -- warning that it's going fast.
The hosts of cable shopping network QVC Inc. might sell sports memorabilia one hour, gardening aprons the next. Since January, the network has turned the spotlight for several hours a week on individual states and their products: buffalo jerky from Alaska, red clay-dyed T-shirts from Georgia, miniature orange trees from Florida, Seattle Space Needle pens from Washington.
Yesterday, a team of six buyers came to Maryland to interview about 150 entrepreneurs hoping to win a coveted spot on a future program. As part of the network's "Quest for America's Best" tour of 50 states in 50 weeks, buyers have been scouring the country since October, hoping to discover the hottest locally created items.
So who buys this merchandise anyway?
Plenty of people -- hundreds of thousands, in fact, who have bought $100 million worth of regional products since 1995, QVC says.
QVC buyers look for products with local flavor and mass appeal.
They hope for a big discovery, such as the Riddex Pest Repeller, a plug-in device that sends out electronic waves and scares away bugs. The invention of a former tennis pro from Florida has raked in more than $22 million since appearing on the first "Quest" series in 1995 and easily earned its place in QVC's Million Dollar Club.
Sixteen other club members, weekend hobbyists and local ventures turned million-dollar revenue winners, also came from that series.
During the tour's 42nd stop yesterday, at the Barn at Catonsville Community College, head buyer Cathy Ancora had no problem mustering enthusiasm for one more T-shirt or "make your life easier" gadget.
No matter that she's already viewed about 6,000 products in 30 states: stain removers, homemade salsa, rocking chairs.
"You may think, 'They've seen everything. They've heard it all before.' That's not true," Ancora told vendors. Later, she added, "The vendors have such a passion for their products. That keeps my enthusiasm."
For the recycling-minded, there was the "Soap Buster," the brainchild of Bruce K. Smith, president of Buster Creations Inc. of Spencerville.
Smiling broadly, like a carnival barker, he announced to Ancora that he has discovered a way to use those annoying bits of melted soap. He demonstrated, heating soap chips in a microwave oven, then molding them into colorful, hockey puck-sized bars.
"I love the idea. It's a great idea," Ancora said.
Patricia A. Sullivan of Baltimore brought her Sassy Houses pet enclosures, "the Castle of Your Dreams for Your Pet," which customers can assemble themselves to resemble a country cottage, a Victorian mansion or a guard house.
David S. Hyatt, president of Creative imaginations Inc., displayed his "MOM" and DAD" T-shirts, which also spell out parents' other roles as doctor, chauffeur, therapist, coach. It's the perfect gift for the calorie-conscious, Hyatt pointed out, packaged in a heart-shaped candy box with no calories and no fat.
Each vendor had a chance to meet with one of six buyers. They were asked about their prices, how they package items, how much lead production time they require, whether components are U.S.-made.
Buyers helped them single out their biggest sellers. On television, it's important to show a single design or style, rather than risking dividing -- and losing -- a viewer's attention, Ancora explained to several vendors.
"We find with electronic retailing, and channel surfing, it doesn't take long to change the channel," said Ancora, a buyer for Macy's before coming to QVC two years ago. "If this catches their eye, we want them to stop and focus."
Within two weeks, the team will sit down and select the 20 best from shows yesterday and today, then notify winners.
They will be featured with their products on a three-hour live broadcast from an as-yet-undetermined spot, probably in mid-October. The broadcast will air nationally, unlike last year's scaled-down series, which only got regional play.
To be selected, items must be American-made and headquartered or produced in Maryland. But the stories behind the ideas are important too, said spokesman Alexandra E. Soumbeniotis.
For many small or start-up businesses, exposure on West Chester, Pa.,-based QVC, which reaches 61 million American households, could be just the break they need.
"It could help to make us," said Geoffrey A. McClenney, president of Kemi Laboratories Inc. of Columbia, which manufactures hair and skin care products and presented natural shampoos and conditioners.
"Where else can you get that type of exposure without having to pay advertising expenses?" McClenney said. "You can't hit an audience that broad. I can't think of any other way unless you do the Super Bowl."
Pub Date: 6/10/97