Last summer at Super Saturday, the massive annual Hamptons yard sale that benefits the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, Kelly Ripa, Kerry Washington, Barbara Walters and Rachel Zoe shopped alongside the East End’s poshest residents for Louis Vuitton handbags and Donna Karan dresses. Prada and Dior also had booths at the event, as did Judith Leiber, Calvin Klein and Emilio Pucci—though no company had as big a presence as QVC, the plucky purveyor of Quacker Factory sweaters and flameless candles. The tony resort enclave and a TV channel that’s shorthand for Quality, Value and Convenience may seem like strange bedfellows, but QVC has been front and center at the high-end philanthropic event for three years running, sponsoring Super Saturday, broadcasting live from the event and donating more than $2 million to the charity.
What few people realize is that QVC and its chief competitor, Home Shopping Network (HSN), have spent the past few years trying to shake off their bargain-basement images. They can now boast of carrying some of the biggest names in the beauty industry—like Bobbi Brown, Clinique and Lancôme—and the strategy is paying off, with increasingly upscale consumers who extend far beyond middle-American hausfraus and insomniacs.
“People seem to think it’s really downmarket,” says Terry Darland, president of Parfums Christian Dior North America, who partnered with Sephora to offer Dior best-sellers like DiorShow mascara on HSN and who previously brought Prescriptives to QVC. “What I learned is that it’s every [income] level across the U.S. that shops on television—including myself, I have to say.”
That wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, peddling skin cream and lipstick on TV was verboten for a respectable line with coveted department-store space and a sophisticated clientele. Now petite and powerhouse brands alike want to get in on the action. Because, for one thing, the numbers don’t lie. “A one-hour show does more volume for our brand than a U.S. department store in a year,” says Maureen Case, president of Bobbi Brown, who adds that it’s not unusual for Brown herself to do $20,000 a minute in sales when down at “the Q” in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Initially it took Brown a year to convince her team that they should sell on TV, but it’s a risk that has proved worthwhile. “We were one of the first luxury brands to sell there,” says Brown, who first went live on QVC in 2007. She refuses to do what’s called “the hard sell,” an aggressive sales tactic that bullies viewers into picking up the phone (“Only 125 bronzers left! Act now!”) and that is still employed on the channels, though much less frequently than it used to be. Instead, she prefers to focus on sharing personal stories and makeup tips. “It’s really changed,” she says of on-air business strategies.