Selling like wild fire Blaze: Buyers from the Home Shopping Network discover that some products are hotter than others, such as "Jean's Flame Thrower."

March 19, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

LAUREL -- Caveat emptor cayennet pepptor. Buyers for the Home Shopping Network beware the hot pepper sauce from Jean Carson's kitchen. "Jean's Flame Thrower" -- stationed next to the automatic seat-lowering toilet -- makes Tabasco sauce taste like a snow cone.

Maybe one night we'll see Jean Carson's mug and pitch hawking "Flame Thrower" on the Home Shopping Network. This Washington woman's midlife hobby could grow from five, sample bottles inside Laurel's National Guard Armory to 50,000 bottles sold on national TV. But until then, Carson needs a few brave mouths.

Hot sauce, automatic toilets ("No more middle-of-the night porcelain surprises!"), cat-dish liners (because cats never lick up all their canned food), indestructible mailboxes, sprinkler systems that "walk on water," tasteful fish clocks and personalized diapers. Those were just a peck of products from 200 inventors who lugged their wares to the Home Shopping Network Institute Product Fair.

Home Shopping Network went shopping in Maryland yesterday. "Companies with a finished prototype or later-stage consumer product" were invited. Walk-ins, too. HSN is on a 19-city tour trolling for "easy, simple, direct and demonstratable" products, said network buyer Debra Shirley. Laurel; today, Harrisburg, next week New York.

They are looking for the next Ab Roller or Smart Chopper inventor. With roughly 165,000 people calling daily, Home Shopping Network has become an electronic retail giant. For instance, the makers of the Ab Roller sold 300,000 of these especially torturous pieces of exercise equipment.

"There's a market for everything," says Shirley, 26. "Now, my brother would love this," she says, pointing to the "Water Walker," a kind of rolling sprinkler system. "This will do well."

Easy, simple, direct, and "Water Walker" can easily be demonstrated on the air. People like to see something work on TV, Shirley says. So, what about "The Gentleman" -- a Maryland-born product "that for many women, is the perfect gift," according to the toilet literature. The seat automatically lowers after use.

"No toilet products on the air," Shirley said. Some kind of network rule.

Row by row, she and four other buyers took five minutes to chat up every hopeful inventorinside the Armory. There were no promises from the electronic retailer, which has a worldwide audience of 70 million households. That's a lot of gemstones, collectible dolls and cubic zirconium.

No, don't call us, we'll call you -- in about six weeks, the buyers told folks such as Jean "Flame Thrower" Carson and, from southern Maryland, Charlie and Anita Bland. The Blands have cats, which partly explains their invention called "Kwik-Kleen Pet Food Dish Liner." Based on their bar-graph display, cats are very popular; based on the Blands' experience, cats don't lick up all their canned food.

"Dry food, they do," said Charlie. Go figure. So for $10.80, you could buy 180 cat-dish liners. "It really saves a lot of time," Charlie said. Or was it Anita? Well, they both believe in their home-made product, which is also hoping to hit the tube. As one HSN guy told the group, "we have an insatiable appetite for newness!"

A Home Shopping Network product fair is a testament to American entrepreneurship. Of the 200 inventors in Laurel, maybe 70 will get a shot on TV, Shirley estimates. Imagine your next-door neighbor harboring a secret recipe for crab cakes or inventing pruning sheers that will revolutionize the lawn maintenance industry. They show up on Home Shopping Network...

Then they retire from their day jobs.

"If they have an early-out, I'm gone," jokes Carson, who works as a customer services officer for the District. She can't wait until a Home Shopping Network buyer drops by her booth -- and not some reporter who nearly gagged to death after dipping from a $4.99 bottle of Flame Thrower.

Being the humanitarian she is, Carson offers yogurt chasers for the segment of the population not tough enough to ingest Flame Thrower on chips, burgers and eggs, as Carson's granddaughter does. This is one hard-core family.

"One day we were having a cookout, and my daughter says, 'Ma, this is really good. You ought to bottle your sauce,'" said Carson, who replied: "Nobody wants to eat this but you all."

But she hit the sauce. For two years, Carson has bottled and sold Flame Thrower from her home. All in preparation for this moment: when HSN buyer John Pinocci steps up to the plate. Pinocci has been around the shopping block; he remembers tasting a hot sauce called Kick My Ass.

So, what could this sweet older woman create that could be hotter or better?

"Oooooh. Oh my God. There it goes. Oh my God. I-t i-s h-o-t,"

Pinocci said through his tears. Carson quickly hands him a yogurt chaser. Fifteen minutes later, Pinocci still has trouble forming words.

Buyer Don Gardner strides up. Now, this boy's from Louisiana. They eat gators and stuff, don't they? Gardner sucks down a gob of Flame Thrower. Then, another. Show-off. Like a fine wine, Gardner seems to slush the sauce around in his Cajun mouth.

"This is great! I feel it in the back of my throat, but it's not overpowering. It's a different taste," he says. "It doesn't jump on you and hurt you."

Jean Carson ate it up.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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