Scoff if you want at QVC, the world’s preeminent television shopping network, but those folks know how to move some product. Whether you believe (incorrectly) that their audience is only composed of shut-ins and Murder She Wrote fans, there’s no denying that the network is both an arbiter of taste and a barometer of the vox populi.
What is amazing is the degree of trust that they engender within their customer base that has made them more than twice as large as all the other home shopping networks combined. Consider this: last year QVC sold $280 MILLION in perfume to individuals who had no opportunity to test or even smell the products. I don’t know about you, but I won’t buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s without a free taster spoon.
The QVC empire is the dominant force in multimedia shopping in terms of both sales and reach, with over $8.3 billion in revenue in 2011. And they do it all without slick hucksterism or questionable sales pitches. How do I know this? Because as of last Sunday, mine is one of those products that they sold.
A little background: last year I finished up work on a restaurant/travel guide and cookbook from 100 of the best restaurants in the South, called The Southern Foodie.
As with any book, the project was a labor of love — but also one that both I, and my publisher, wanted to turn into a hot-selling item. Traditional distribution through Amazon and bookstores was negotiated, but the big boost came when I heard that we had been accepted for a release on QVC, specifically on their Sunday flagship kitchen and cookbook show In the Kitchen with David.
While you never want to write a book for one specific audience at the exclusion of others, when this possibility arose, certainly some recipe choices were made to appeal to QVC viewers. As traditionally big fans of Southern food, they were right in the wheelhouse anyway. So already, there’s an example of how the network and their customers can shape views of consumer preference as well as product design decisions.
As the date of my appearance at the company’s West Chester, PA headquarters approached, I took an online course and an on-campus training session in the QVC philosophy of selling. Instead of tips and tricks that I expected to reveal, the work of a roomful of behaviorists tracking consumer reactions of a focus group, the tenets of QVC are very straightforward.
Be very conversational with your on-air host as you explain your product as if he or she was a good friend and the audience behind the camera was just a third person in the conversation. Strive to build trust and credibility with your potential customers by only telling the truth and admitting that you don’t know if a puzzler of a question comes in the form of a phone call from a viewer. Tell your customers how your product might help to improve their lives.
That’s it. No “active selling words” or “channeling the conversation toward a positive buying decision” like you might hear in a Zig Ziglar selling seminar. Just be friendly, be accurate and have a great product, and the world will beat a path down the phone lines and the internet to your door. Oh, and don’t wear white, black or red when you appear on-air because those look bad on camera.
Now, that’s not to say that QVC doesn’t have a genius group of marketers to help achieve these massive sales numbers. First of all, by the time they select a product for an on-air appearance, they already have a relatively solid expectation that it will sell well enough to earn its keep. Their staff of merchandisers is well aware of the trend information that helps to determine whether a particular product is appropriate for QVC and their buying audience. From the second that a product is first teased on one of their shows, merchandisers start a clock to track the all-important metric of revenue: dollars per minute.
The hosts manage to keep up an easy conversation with the guests and the audience while the segment producers stream real-time information about sales in their ear. “Phone calls spiked when you bit into that brownie. Go back to the desserts!” That feedback loop and the host’s comfort with driving the process was really extraordinary.
Almost all of the cameras on set are controlled remotely from deep within the guts of the massive building that hosts the operation, so the set is fairly empty during shooting. This is fortunate because David Venable, the host of my segment, roamed the set from product demonstrations to food features to my spot in “The Cookbook Corner” — if there had been more people on set he would have trampled somebody as he traveled.
Yet, without cue cards or teleprompters, Venable made every transition smoothly and revisited features and benefits of products he’d demoed earlier in the show without missing a beat or losing his breath. Plus he ate at least three pounds of food, tasting and moaning and doing his “happy dance” when he sampled a particularly delicious morsel. This quasi-orgasmic display is the goal of anyone appearing on his show. I got two. [Edit note: Click the video tab to see Venable and Chambers in action]
After waiting a couple of hours in the green room, watching other guests pitch their products and the resulting spikes of analytics on the monitors scattered all over the area, it was my turn to go on. After a quick coat of lipstick, powder and paint to lessen the glare off of my fivehead, I was ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.
QVC has a talented team of food stylists, and I’d like to think I got the best one. Lisa managed to prepare 10 dishes out of my cookbook without the benefit of actually seeing the book or the dishes, since it was delivered directly from the printer just a few hours before my appearance. Working off of a PDF, she created delicious-looking versions of desserts and main dishes that did not depend on any of those food stylist tricks to make them more attractive, except maybe a quick spray of Pam to add a little shine to a few items.
In fact, we ate every single item on the display table except for the Broiled Shrimp from Doe’s Eat Place in Greeneville, MS that had been sitting out a little bit longer than we’d have liked. I did have to fly home that night after all.
Venable bounded over to my table and introduced me as being one of the luckiest people on earth because I get to travel and eat for a living. I can’t say that I disagree. From the initial tease, which totaled roughly 26 seconds on camera, the book had already sold an astonishing 1,000 copies. When I wrote it, I would have been happy with that sort of production from a two-week book tour.
Once Venable started asking me about the dishes and the recipes, the purchase graph took off. When he dug into a heaping bowl of bubbling mac and cheese from The Lifesaving Station in North Carolina, sales spiked like Super Bowl ratings during a wardrobe malfunction. David is known for being a fan of bechamel pasta, and he’s from North Carolina, so I had a good feeling about that one. But once he began to oooooh and ahhhhhh and gyrate his 6 foot-6 inch frame about, the phone lines caught on fire.
We even answered a phone call from a nice lady named Inez from Colorado who wanted to chat with David. She didn’t want to talk about my book at all, but instead took up a few minutes of my valuable on-air selling time just talking to Venable about how much she loved him and bought every book he recommended. You’d think that this interruption would have been a concern to me, but I was very pleased to get a phone caller since QVC has learned that testimonials from viewers actually stimulate sales more than almost anything the host or guest can say. It goes back to the concept of trust and community that QVC works so feverishly to create and protect.
My eight-minute segment flew by. with David tasting almost all the dishes while I gave shout-outs to each restaurant and tried to explain that the book is both a cookbook and a travel guide. In the end, I probably could have just spoon-fed the host, stayed quiet the whole segment and sold a ton of books. The final sales totals were an astonishing thousand books per minute!
Can I claim the credit for these results? Well, I think I wrote a pretty good book full of recipes from everyone from James Beard Award winners, Iron Chef and Top Chef contestants to BBQ pitmasters and line cooks in hole-in-the-wall Southern juke joints and fish shacks. The restaurant profiles are full of insider tips and menu advice, and the recipes are specially edited to be cooked in home kitchens with ingredients you can find in your own pantry. But 1,000 books/minute? I couldn’t accomplish that myself if I was selling them for 10 bucks with a $20 bill included as a bookmark.
That was all the great QVC juggernaut, and buyers and sellers alike had better pay attention to them and their voracious audience if they want to know what America is really eating and buying.
You can read Chris Chamberlain’s year-long series on Food Republic, A Year In Barbecue.