It’s five minutes to air, and I’m practicing my “card tricks”–what I’ve come to see as my greatest nemesis. I have to open a wallet, reveal a mirrored metal battery without reflecting the studio lights, yank out a stubborn plug, and slide it into my iPhone, all while aiming this electronic jumble at the camera and pretending the whole charade is effortless–in front of the late night viewers of QVC, the No. 1 home shopping network in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.
It’s a job that requires three hands, and I’ve got two. Luckily, they’re freshly manicured. As I flip open the wallet again and again, I admire the veneered absurdity of what were once my chewed up man-nails, first time in my life groomed to broadcast spec. I’m glad that I listened to the ladies at the local nail salon rather than the articles I’d read from GQ and Esquire, and opted for a clear coat of polish rather than a more subtle buff. Under the fluorescence of the strip mall parking lot, the nails had looked faux and feminine. Under the flawless, even lighting of QVC’s studios, where I’m about to go on a live broadcast that reaches 57 million American homes, their waxy glow infuses my hands with star power.
A handful of producers and brand reps skulking in the shadows say nothing. I’m a first timer, and everybody here knows it; they’re respecting my space and my process. In fact, I’m in such a bubble of self-absorption that I miss the radiant, middle-aged redhead who comes jogging across 50 yards of dim sets in high heels–dodging jib arms and stray products–all while talking energetically to the audience at home.
Suddenly she’s standing next to me, the camera light goes as crimson as her hair, and we’re live.
To many of us, QVC is a 1980s relic of grandmas and shut-ins. When QVC (which stands for “Quality, Value, Convenience”) first went live in 1986, televised sales pitches were a disruptive idea in retail–bringing products that lived in malls to a growing cable audience in search of things to watch. The network wasn’t first-to-market in its genre–HSN (the Home Shopping Network) had launched a year earlier–but QVC’s impact was immediate. QVC would set the fiscal sales record for a new public company in its first year ($112 million) by avoiding malls, while teenage rock star Tiffany would become a pop icon by performing in them. From day one, QVC’s niche was the unhip.
But if QVC’s 24/7/364 approach–they go off-air for Christmas–is a fossil, it’s a living one. While U.S. mall popularity peaked in 1990, QVC’s revenue continues to grow. The network now does $8.8 billion in worldwide sales a year, and like every other big company, it is eyeing greater expansion in its China market. While the grandma stereotypes are indeed a bit true–QVC’s audience is 90% women, ages 35 to 65–QVC quadrupled its young recruit customers between 2009 and 2013 from 3% to 12%. Maybe more importantly, over the last decade, QVC has been gracefully making the transition from landline caller to smartphone user. Forty-eight percent of its U.S. sales now come through e-commerce channels, and 52% of these are through mobile. The television channel has become the eighth largest mobile retailer in the world, and the third largest in the US. Even a hot startup like Kickstarter has learned from QVC: each product must be accompanied by a video interview with its creator.
Aside from the fact that QVC recently acquired e-commerce startup Zulily for $2.4 billion, QVC isn’t the prototypical “fast company,” gambling with big bets of venture capital. Yet to many of us, it remains a resilient piece of corporate Americana.
I recall the year my grandma moved in to our Midwestern suburban home. We’d sit together in her room on a bed as soft as hugs, turn on a shopping channel for hours on end and watch enthusiastic pitches for gold-plated bracelets and cubic zirconia diamond rings. Back then, hosts would lower prices in real time, like a reverse auction. The retail theater was always exciting–how low would that 14-karat gold-plated cubic zirconia heart pendant go?
In my favorite episode of all time, a host with a tentative southern drawl, selling something or other, confessed, “You know what? I’m probably going to get fired for this but…$29.95. There. I said it. I can’t take it back now. That’s the price. $29.95.
“Oh boy, I really hope that I don’t lose my job over this.”
“He’s not losing his job!” my grandma cackled. Grandma remains a loyal QVC fan to this day, and she’s not alone in her devotion. Ninety percent of QVC’s customers are repeat customers–the most sought after, profitable type, the same carefully cultivated by companies like Starbucks with Starbucks Rewards and Amazon with Amazon Prime.
But while Starbucks offers the promise of free caffeine, and Amazon gives us faster shipping and streamable movies, QVC has personalities–27 hosts who are each responsible for selling hundreds of millions of dollars in products a year. They’re middle-aged. Often overweight. Family types–the average American, with better makeup and whiter teeth, each a character in a retail soap opera that viewers at home can follow forever.
For each segment, QVC pairs a host with an expert. It might be the product’s inventor, a paid spokesperson, or even a celebrity like Rachel Ray or the late Joan Rivers. And every product expert–even the celebrities and supermodels, I’m told–has to go through QVC’s one-day TV bootcamp to be certified to go on-air. Out of an allegiance to my grandmother, an obsession with this piece of corporate Americana, and a bit of my own curiosity if I could bullshit with the best of them, I negotiated my way into the class, with one stipulation: If I passed, I got to really sell something that night on air.
Imagine my surprise when QVC said yes.
QVC’s $100 million complex is a wooded business park sitting a few miles outside of West Chester, PA, an idyllic American town with a main street that’s straight out of a 1950s Christmas card. Every building and tree has been dusted with a fresh layer of snow overnight, and I’m driving through the strip just two weeks before the holidays. I even turn on the radio station to tune in good cheer.
Little do I realize, the Christmas spirit has only been amplified inside the halls of QVC. Walking through the building’s white terrazzo atrium, I’ve entered what appears to be the world’s last living mall–decorated in full holiday livery. Christmas trees, mocked up with gifts, sit in every corner. A holiday station plays over the speakers. An on-site Starbucks serves up egg nog lattes. The only thing that would complete the mall feel would be Santa sitting near two ferns around a water feature.
I tell John Kealey, QVC’s director of TV Production, who guides my tour of the television studio, that I didn’t feel like it was Christmas until I came into town. He laughs, saying that it’s felt like Christmas at QVC since October. Actually, July, he corrects himself. “We start Christmas in July.”
QVC’s main building boasts 60,000 square feet of studio space. At the heart sit three production booths, two of which are actually just backups that sit in near perpetual darkness, there in case of emergency. But even the active booth managing the live broadcast is remarkably quiet. A director controls cameras, not by shouting through a headset at operators, but by aiming a panel of joysticks. Most of the cameras inside QVC are robotic and work remotely, like drones.
This automation, coupled with the fact that only one set is generally in use at a time, creates a Santa’s Village-at-Potemkin vibe. I snake through endless sets that are fully decorated with trees, garland, and lights, some dark, some fully lit for broadcast, one even glowing with the flames of a working fireplace, all devoid of life.
There are LCDs on every set, always on, that glow with the 24/7 broadcast of hosts, like a last transmission sent out before zombies overrun the suburbs.
At the end of the labyrinth, I hear two faint voices–QVC host Antonella Nester and fashion designer Susan Graver giving a live broadcast that’s reaching more than 100 million American homes. These two are on their game. Inside a cavern of darkness and silence, these QVC veterans are laughing as if they’re having the time of their lives. Gerald Bradley, a muscular male studio coordinator, walks into the frame wearing a Santa hat, bearing a big wrapped gift for the duo. His teeth gleam. They pull out a coat from the box, then pretend to fight to claim it. Graver lays on a bit of postmenopausal sexual tension, quipping about Bradley in comparison to her husband. The coat is delivered and Bradley’s job is done. He walks off set, and his smile dissipates to sullen boredom. He’s left the exuberant bubble of live television broadcast–a literally brighter world where everyone is happy–and is standing on the sidelines with a few stagehands who, with robots manning the cameras, have little to do other than pace and sip coffee.
As staged and silly as the whole scene had been, I couldn’t imagine summoning the energy to perform such jovial theater inside this deserted studio vacuum. And for the first time since coaxing my way into this strange experiment, I felt my stomach churn. I couldn’t be like that, I realized. It just wasn’t in me. I find my charm as many of us do–not through enthusiasm or smiles, but through a sarcasm that skips through life one potshot at a time.
Nine years ago, Mark Lubragge was the owner-operator of a successful hardware store in West Chester when he saw an ad in the local newspaper. QVC was holding open auditions for an on-air product specialist with knowledge about tools. On a whim–he didn’t even tell his wife–he stopped by the auditions on his way home. The next day, he received a call. He had the job. Lubragge was shocked.
He shouldn’t have been. Standing in front of our classroom now, I can see Lubragge’s appeal. He has both the aura and the v-neck/plaid shirt combo of an ‘90s sitcom dad, exuding the humor and empathy of a toned-down Tim Allen. Today, Lubragge doesn’t go on-air anymore, but in a way, he has a harder sell than ever: as a talent manager, he has to convince those of us sitting in this room that we can do what he did.
We’re a hodgepodge class, positioned in a U of tables around Lubragge’s PowerPoint presentation. We are here to sell. Sasha invented a 50% organic Nutella alternative that she formulated in her kitchen with her husband and a blender. Lulu, who gives off a wealthy bohemian vibe, is the creator of a line of gold foil temporary tattoos that look like jewelry. Tricia is an L.A.-based ex-marketer who created Sole Serum luxury foot cream. Eric is an international makeup artist with a Michael Kors affect; he has developed a device that taps foundation onto your face. Michelle, a boisterous mom who radiates a self-effacing cynicism, created the Easy Greasy Strain & Save Kitchen Colander to trap oils from ground beef. And Lara, who acts sheepish but has appeared on air before, presenting a popular Barbara Bixby line of QVC jewelry.
“If you go up there with the intent to sell, it’s all going to come crashing down around you,” Lubragge says. The real goal of QVC, he clarified, was to feel like a conversation between the host, the product specialist (us), and “Her”–the woman age 35 to 65 who is sitting at home watching television.
Lubragge shows a slide, with no sense of irony, of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor talking to Wilson over the back fence. We are on one side of the fence. The audience on the other. The ideal QVC sales pitch is really just a conversation about a product with your neighbor.
“Don’t memorize,” he urges us. Instead, the secret is to practice answering questions that the host might ask. This is the opposite advice I’d been given earlier by a brand representative for the product I’d been brought in to sell–a portable smartphone charger with the saintly branding of “Halo.” You won’t see Halo products on the shelves at Best Buy, but the QVC audience has bought over three million units; Halo is one of QVC’s best-selling product lines of all time. The model I’m shilling, the Halo 3000 Personal Charger, fits in a pocket, features a mirrored finish for checking your makeup, has an integrated wallet for credit cards, and blocks RFID signals from credit cards and other IDs, so your identifying information can’t be sniffed by nosey retail stores or garden-variety hackers.
The Halo brand representative who tutored me earlier had pages of slogans written in a notebook that he’d shared: The Halo 3000 Personal Charger was ”power in your pocket,” a “halo of protection” that played off “the number one fashion trend: ultra slim wallets.” “The cords are on-board” he continued, and it was “a great gift.” I’d copied these lines, verbatim, from his notebook into mine.
Lubragge has an entirely different philosophy–one that more closely mirrors QVC’s internal ethos. “Focus on Her,” Lubragge insists. What does she want? What is the emotion at the core of a product that she will find enticing?
Lubragge pulled up a slide with two photos of Charlize Theron. In one, Theron is Oscar-bait ugly, from the movie Monster. In the other, she has the sharp cheekbones of a high-fashion model. “It’s aspirational that Charlize Theron can go from Monster to lingerie model,” Lubragge says, without a hint of a wink. Attainable aspiration is the core of QVC’s sales pitch.
My first practice pitch is a mess. Standing on a fully lit set inside QVC studios, alongside my classmates, I’m given one minute to sell them the Halo. I bomb. My classmates don’t fare much better. We mumble. We refuse to smile. We’d spoken so casually to one another at class, but the cameras mutate us into shy grade schoolers whispering their first book report. Michelle slams her grease colander against the podium in disappointment.
I was the worst. I had already decided the Halo 3000 Portable Charger was a product I’d never, ever buy. It was bulky. Hideous. And I’d read the product reviews online–people had rated it an average of one star on QVC.com. On top of that, the threat of a camera in front of me compounded my personal insecurity. How was my hair looking? Why didn’t I buy Crest Whitestrips last week? What was I doing with my hands?
That dreaded tagline–“power in your pocket”–tumbled out of my mouth within seconds, which ended up being about as good as I got. I didn’t articulate what the product actually was, let alone why it was important. After half a minute, I just turned to the instructors and said, “This is really hard.” I was urged to keep going. “Live TV doesn’t stop!” someone called out. I tried to recover, and bring the Halo back to personal experience as I’d been instructed.
I positioned Halo as the perfect solution when you’re out at the bar with your girlfriends and didn’t want to ask the bartender for an open power plug. “Good save,” I thought. If nothing else, I’d discovered my Her–young women at bars who didn’t want to be tethered to the walls.
Mistake. The core QVC shopper–the Her–is a mom, not a bar patron, says Jayne Brown, who was watching nearby. Brown is the first full-fledged QVC Host we’ve met all day. Her voice flows out of her throat like a saxophone, and she telegraphs authority despite her constantly clattering QVC-brand beaded earrings. Like all the hosts I would meet through the day, she has a massive smile and a penchant for gab.
Brown has the class in a pow-wow, and singles me out, unaware that I’m a reporter. (Later she’d warn others, privately, that I didn’t seem very enthusiastic about my own product, before someone explained that I’d been invited for the day as a journalist.) I might hang out at bars, she says, but QVC shoppers do not. And how did I miss fashion meets security, she asks. I had a huge opportunity to promote the Halo 3000’s RFID protection–what I considered an esoteric, nerdy feature–as an essential part of personal security.
I don’t think QVC shoppers will know what RFID is, I counter. QVC customers know about RFID, she assures. She sold RFID products all the time. (Paranoia moves product, I realized.)
My criticism finished, Brown stands up. She calls to one of my classmates, and tells her to waltz. Brown starts kicking up her knees, Vanilla Ice style. This the key to the rest of our experience, she says. We have to learn how to do “the Dance” with our hosts. We have to trust them and follow their lead, matching their energy along the way, to create a marketable conversation.
I’m not sure if it’s watching a QVC host do a high step or my embarrassment for my practice performance, but right then my defensiveness appears in clear relief. I can continue to be a half-invested spectator too hip to risk my own reputation for a mediocre product. (I probably wouldn’t be certified to go on air, and the whole experiment would end.) Or I can take a breath, soak it all in, and commit.
Maybe it’s all the Christmas decor leaching charity into my subconscious, but I realize that everyone around me is selling their dream. It may have been as simple as a grease colander or a bottle of foot cream, but those products are born from someone’s passion and ambition. I was amidst a group of friendly, nervous, middle-class people who were about to take their big shot–an opportunity to have the consumer universe call their bluff on national television. Was there anything more awesomely American than this? Is the free market ever more free?
I’m in. Really in. I am going to smile like Gerald Bradley wearing that Santa Claus cap, and if Brown literally does the cha-cha on live TV, I’m going to cha-cha right alongside her. And if I bomb, so be it. I have to admit I am not cooler than QVC. If I fail, it will be because my best effort isn’t good enough for the masters of mid-day marketing.
A week earlier, QVC mailed me a dress code and grooming guidelines for appearing on-air. Most of the content was what you’d expect–iron your clothing, wear a belt–but there were also some quirks: one’s nails must be manicured; print shirts weren’t to be worn. Blue, green, pink, and plum solids were the only approved colors. In my entire closet, formalwear included, I own zero shirts that meet their specifications, so I spent $65 on a royal blue button down shirt from Nordstrom that, fates willing, I’ll only wear once.
“Love the fact that you’re in blue,” Kimberly Green, Manager of Talent Casting, Development, and Image, tells me as she counsels me about my look that evening. “Blue always bodes well on television. It’s inviting. It really draws the customer in. And it bodes your face well. It’s bright. It’s friendly.”
The two words that keep coming up are “pristine” and “polished.” I don’t envy Green’s task, and I suspect that’s why she keeps repeating herself. Neither word applies to my day-to-day jeans + t-shirt + sweater-if-you’re-lucky look–nor does it apply to my curly pile of hair or my seldomly trimmed beard. Wipe my shoes down inside the studio. Press my pants to “show condition.” And don’t roll up my sleeves.
“I don’t get the rolled sleeves thing at all,” I tell Green. “I’m a big sleeves roller.”
“If you do roll your sleeves, you want to roll them very carefully, so they look pristine and polished,” Green says. “What happens is you’re on television, and there is a hip factor about people and their style that doesn’t always translate. You want to make sure everything looks very polished and pristine,”–she switched it up this time–“because you want to exude a very confident, a very credible aura.”
“In terms of your beard… Are you planning on having your beard for the airing?” she asks. This, I know, is a hot topic. The guidelines stated I “must be clean shaven.” And indeed, not a single QVC host sports facial hair of any stripe. But like most beardos, I have an extreme affection for mine.
“Yes,” I respond.
“Is it okay?” I ask.
“You just want to make sure it’s very,”–is that what swallowing bile looks like?–”clean,” Green says. “Like keep it…I would…what you want to make sure is it’s very polished-looking. I would trim it up a little bit. It’s fine for you to have the facial hair. I just want it to be very polished, very pristine for on air.”
“I have a razor with me. I can try to clean it up,” I say. “I might take a chunk off though.”
“Then you’re gonna take the whole thing off!” [earnest maniacal laughter] “Are you a shirt tucker inner?”
“I will tuck for this.”
“Thank you!” [more laughter]
I’m given a slot at 9:15 p.m. on QVC Plus–QVC’s recently launched, online and DirecTV channel that reaches 57 million homes instead of QVC’s 100 million. It’s no doubt QVC’s way of hedging their bets if I go insane on live television.
Lubragge insists that I spend the few hours between class and going on air doing anything other than practicing my pitch. So I grab dinner in downtown West Chester. While most of the product specialists on air that evening sit in a common area laughing and catching up with one another, I’ve been reserved an embarrassingly large room to get ready with a giant sectional couch and a vanity mirror. I hit the lights on the mirror. I feel like a diva, and I like it.
I trim my beard, get dressed, and perform repetition after repetition, plugging my Halo into my phone. A pager buzzes me to get my makeup done. I walk a door down from my room to a mini salon, where I get eyeliner, airbrushing, and a liberal dose of concealer. I almost don’t recognize myself without the honeycomb of gaping pores and spooky circles under my eyes. Sitting here, in my bold blue shirt, groomed to broadcast spec, I see my QVC alter ego. I’ve been transformed into the company’s most important product: a spiffy, product-selling, pristinely polished personality.
I’d like to tell you that this was the moment I knew I was ready, that I was fully weaponized into the ultimate broadcast machine. Because I am—until I meet Albany Irvin, the QVC host I’ll be on air with tonight. She is one of the fastest talking people I’ve ever met. I tell her this, and she laughs, “And I haven’t even had my coffee yet!” It is clear that the casual conversations I’d had with QVC hosts Jayne Brown and Alberti Popaj wouldn’t be possible with Irvin unless I mainline a cocktail of Red Bull and matchheads. People like Irvin simply have a different verbal metabolism than mere mortals. How do I have a conversation with someone who communicates at warp speed?
I’m left sitting alone in my room. How will I pull this off? Why did I pitch this stupid article? Right on sitcom script, cool dad Lubragge knocks on the door to ask how I’m doing. As a passion project, he’s been teaching in his free hours at a local college, and he’s just finished his last class of the semester a bit early to swing by and check in on me.
“I don’t know what to do,” I tell him. “I can’t match her energy.” (QVC me is very dramatic.)
“Don’t worry about matching it,” he says. And then he says something sensei-like which was so soothing I’ve forgotten it completely. I brew a Keurig coffee and chug it. I pace around the embarrassingly large green room. I compulsively open and close the Halo wallet, plug and unplug its cords, more prayer beads than practice. My pager goes off again. It’s time for me to get mic’d and go on air. Lubragge walks with me, like a retired NBA player escorting a rookie, greeting everyone courtside like an old friend.
I did it. I’ll let you watch it, judge it, and narrate it for yourself. At first I felt like the whole clip was me fighting Irvine for my own time on-air, trying to jump in to get a word into the “conversation.” I did get in an embarrassing anecdote about mushrooms stuck in my teeth, which I considered a personal victory; it was a very QVC story to tell. In retrospect, Irvine had a sales quota to meet. It was two weeks before Christmas, during an 8-minute segment out of hours of live TV she was hosting that night. And after kindly saying hi to my grandma (and by the looks of Facebook, securing me title of grandson of the year), Irvine repaid me all the courtesy she didn’t owe me in the first place.
Together, we’d sell 105 orders of Halo 3000 chargers–a pittance compared to the 380,000 sets sold on QVC when the model was featured as a Today’s Special Value (QVC’s heavily promoted daily deal)–but not necessarily considered a failure on the 9 p.m. programming of QVC Plus. I’ll admit that, as absurd as it may seem, I wish we had sold more.
A week later, I reconnect with Lubragge on the phone. He’d promised to give me a no punches pulled review.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Lubragge says. “Your enthusiasm seemed to go up a notch. It didn’t seem forced.”
I had that dance, he says. I also proved that I knew the product. What went wrong? I could still use some work on handling the product itself, and even more importantly, translating what I knew about the product to matter to Her.
“I’ve come to say this: New guests focus on themselves, and the host, because we say follow your host,” Lubragge says. “Our experienced guests tend to focus on the product. But our best guests are focused on the viewer. Is this for the viewer? Everything goes through that filter. And if you do that, everything comes out more naturally.”
“But again, it was your first time on air. We remind everyone, their expectations of their performance, they’re not going to be happy with what they do,” he says. “We’d absolutely invite you back.”
Beard and all.