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Behind the Scenes at QVC, the West Chester-Based At-Home Shopping Giant

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Photos by Tessa Marie Images

To celebrate our 25th anniversary, we revisit our 2016 story on the international powerhouse, with an update on what’s been happening at QVC since then.

25 Years of Main Line Today

Editor’s Note: This story initially ran in Main Line Today’s November 2016 issue to celebrate QVC’s 30th birthday. The following year, QVC purchased its competitor, the Home Shopping Network. In 2018, former Walt Disney Company exec Leslie Ferraro was named president, and the company debuted a new logo a year later. It also abandoned its 24/7 live broadcast in favor of 20 hours. During the pandemic, QVC remained live 20 hours a day, with product representatives appearing via Skype from around the world. Most employees shifted to remote work, though all fulfillment centers remained opened. In July 2020, despite revenue gains, QVC’s parent company laid off 450 employees.

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The UPS truck comes to a stop in front of Arlyn David’s home with alarming frequency. Inevitably, a package from QVC is among the deliveries. Depending on the week, the contents might be anything from a microdermabrasion tool to an outfit from Lori Goldstein’s LOGO collection.

David is what you’d call a nondiscriminatory QVC shopper. “I love all the products,” says the 62-year-old Bala Cynwyd resident, who’s been a loyal customer since the network debuted 30 years ago this month. “I was a stay-at-home mom when the network first launched, and that’s how I started watching. Everyone who knows me knows I’m a huge QVC fan.”

How big of a fan? Well, David scoffs when asked if she, like many, just casually flips to the station during the commercial breaks of other shows. “If I’m home, I have it on,” she says.

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Her favorite on-air personality: David Venable, host of one of QVC’s highest-rated shows, In the Kitchen with David. “I love to cook, and he’s so knowledgeable,” she says of the chef, whom the New York Times dubbed “The Man Who Helps America Cook.” “He’s so perky. He has an uplifting spirit that makes you want to keep watching.”

David has purchased countless items from Venable’s shows—kitchen appliances, cookbooks, bakeware. She readily admits that she doesn’t let a day go by without knowing what’s being offered as the “TSV.” What’s a TSV, you ask? Read on to find out. In the process, you’ll also learn more about how the West Chester-based company has worked—and, at times, struggled—to globalize, digitize and remain relevant to a younger generation raised on Google, iPhones and Amazon, all while fighting off like-minded competitors like the Home Shopping Network. Will QVC be able to hold on to its $8.8 billion piece of the pie for another three decades?

“America’s Newest Cable Shopping Channel” got off to a bit of a shaky start on Nov. 24, 1986, with host John Eastman peddling the Windsor Shower Companion, a waterproof AM/FM radio, for the unbeatable price of $11.49. Initially broadcasting live from 7:30 p.m. to midnight on weekdays and all day on weekends, the channel went to 24 hours in January 1987. Two years later, QVC acquired the Cable Value Network in a $380 million deal, which led to some fiscal losses in the few years that followed.

Doug Rose, senior vice president of brand and communications at QVC, has been with the company for 22 years and witnessed much of its growth. “We started out as a one-dimensional business. We had a live television broadcast where we took phone calls from customers,” he says. “Currently, over half of our business comes from orders placed online. Our best customers are shopping with us on every mobile device. The business has turned into a multidimensional experience.”

According to Rose, QVC has always viewed shopping as a social experience. “We were waiting for the world of technology to catch up with us so that we could extend our reach beyond television,” he says.

One thing that hasn’t changed is QVC’s target audience: women ages 35-65. Ninety percent of its viewers are female—and once they take the QVC plunge, chances are it won’t be their last purchase. Ninety percent of QVC customers are of the repeat variety.

Around the clock, 364 days of the year—Christmas Day is the only exception—viewers can see a product being showcased. In the United States alone, QVC presents an average of 773 items weekly. Internationally, the company has expanded to Germany, Italy, Japan, France, China and the United Kingdom.

QVC founder Joe Segel has been called a “serial entrepreneur,” a “business visionary” and an “utter genius,” and it’s tough to argue with any of those assessments. He’s started no fewer than 20 ventures over the past 60 years. Two decades prior to QVC, the Wharton School graduate founded the Franklin Mint in 1964 to make sterling-silver commemorative medals. The business grew well beyond its initial purpose, eventually producing currency for several countries around the world.

Segel retired from his post as Franklin Mint chairman in 1973. A dozen years later, the 1985 launch of the Home Shopping Network caught his eye. The network’s “hard-sell approach” was an immediate turnoff to Segel, and he believed plenty of viewers felt the same. “I knew their approach could be made significantly more appealing,” he says today.

So Segel set out to establish his own network. His game plan hinged on three words: quality, value and convenience. QVC’s friendly, conversational approach obviously resonated with viewers. The company’s first year in business saw a record-breaking $112 million in sales.

“Our focus at QVC was to give customers more than they expect,” he says. “We introduced a number of enhancements and eliminated the hype. I think our original approach to delight the customer is still evident today.”

Segel wasn’t the only person with ideas on how to make the at-home model better. In the 1980s, his company was one of 19 hoping to cash in on the new shopping medium—and QVC and HSN would be the only ones to make it to the ’90s and beyond. “Of all the businesses I’ve started, none has made me prouder than QVC,” Segel says. “I’m proud of the standards, innovation and excellence that I contributed to, but the main credit belongs to the thousands of people who work at QVC and the innovative suppliers who’ve made it such a successful business.”

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Segel officially retired from QVC in 1993 but would serve as a consultant for another decade. He still holds the title of QVC chairman emeritus. Today, he divides his time between homes in Gladwyne and Boca Raton, Fla. But, even at 85, Segel is still at it. Two years ago, he called upon several retired and former QVC executives to help him with ProfilePRO, a customized system where consumers can create their own shampoo and conditioner formulas for their hair type. There’s no word yet on whether Segel will be selling his products on QVC when ProfilePRO officially launches at the end of the year, but we have a hunch that he may have an in.

What remains impressive is the network’s ability to unload a $25 eight-pack of scented Scrub Daddy sponges—one of the highest-selling Shark Tank winners on QVC—and a $498 Dooney & Bourke handbag with equal ease. That consistent knack for drawing consumers of any income level with such a vast spectrum of needs has been one of the company’s most lucrative assets. After all, when you’re shopping on TV—or by computer, phone or tablet—there is no fear of being sized up by fellow shoppers. It’s a level playing field.

Every product sold on QVC has been screened by a team of expert buyers, and nothing makes it on the air until it passes rigorous quality-assurance standards. Maria McCool, co-owner of Calista Grand Salon and Spa in West Chester, is one of a select group of local entrepreneurs to make the cut on QVC, selling her Calista Tools hairstyling and beauty products. Prior to QVC’s launch, McCool heard about the company from her client, Doug Briggs, who would eventually become its president in the mid-1990s.

Once QVC was up and running, its hosts would come to McCool’s salon because of her close proximity to the studio. She eventually gave into client demand and packaged her own concoctions for sale. With help from QVC host Jill Bauer, McCool first went on-air with her products in 2007. She now spends more time at QVC than she does behind the chair at her salon. In the past nine years, her line has expanded to 26 products, with more than 2.5 million units sold through QVC to date. “I’m on-air about 15-20 times a month,” says McCool. “QVC is the best place to sell a product because you’re teaching and educating the customer about it—it’s not just sitting on a shelf somewhere.”

A QVC veteran, Bauer joined the company in 1993. Attracting and retaining personalities is the lifeblood of the network, and it’s estimated that most have six-figure salaries, with the top sellers likely making the most money. The goal is to have viewers feel a connection to the hosts—to the point that they feel like they know them. Social media has only enabled that connection to grow stronger. The majority of the hosts have Facebook profiles, where they frequently share aspects of their personal lives, from infertility issues and adoption tales to wedding announcements and deaths of loved ones. Hosts often thank their “QVC family”—the viewers—for their support in trying times.

Delaware County native Jane Treacy was just 24 years old when she saw an ad in a local paper for hosts at a new shopping network. She applied on a whim, then panicked when they asked her to interview. “I’d never sold anything in my life,” says Treacy, who’s been with QVC from the beginning. “I never even worked in the mall.”

She recalls a pep talk from her mother, who tried to reassure her daughter by asking her to sell her a pencil. “I started listing the characteristics of the pencil and all the different uses,” she says.

The next day, her interviewer had a request: “Sell me this pencil.” Two weeks later, she was on-air selling a boombox—a QVC host never forgets the first thing they sell. In her three decades there, Treacy has sold everything from electronics to jewelry, though she found her niche on the Thursday-night show, Shoe Shopping with Jane.

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What makes an ideal QVC host? “You have to be real,” Treacy says. “How you are on-air has to be the same that you are when you’re out to dinner with a friend.”

And if you think her job is easy, it only looks that way. “We spend hours and hours each week in meetings with the [expert] buyers who bought the products, along with others,” she says. “There are more hours in prep than what you see on-air. I’m still learning something new every day, 30 years later.”

But what about 30 years from now? In this ever-changing retail landscape, it would be presumptuous to predict with any certainty what QVC’s more distant future holds. The company has undergone some growing pains in the past two years, laying off employees as it continues to streamline its operations and solidify and expand its global presence. Yet the company is still creating new jobs by the hundreds.

Spokesperson Doug Rose believes that QVC has—and will continue to have—a certain advantage over all other retailers. “When our customers tune in, they want to be introduced to a product they’ve never seen before and be shown all its features, how it works, and how it can make their life better and easier,” he says. “We do that well—and we’ll continue to do that.”

Related: Meet Embellish Beauty Concepts’ Owner and Founder

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