It’s my first week of work, and I’m standing in a walk-in fridge that’s bigger than the entire kitchen back in my apartment, blowing hot breath onto my stiff fingers and trying to find the fresh herbs. There’s plenty of other food in here: zucchinis and lettuce, chicken breasts and beef cuts. Finally, I see a bag of sorry-looking rosemary tucked between boxes of onions, the stalks browned at the tips. My breath misting in front of me, I rip a few sprigs off and re-hide the bag.
I leave the fridge and walk into the fake kitchen. Well, that’s not entirely true: Everything in the kitchen is real. The brushed steel sink and the flattop range work. The orange granite countertops are gorgeous and perfect for the cook who wants to put dishes down without using a hot pad. Even the bottles of wine in the wine rack are real, although they’re covered with a thick layer of dust.
This is one of two QVC kitchen sets, the one used only during a cooking show, when Kansas City Steaks and Lock and Lock food storage containers are on one after the other — both require a pre-set kitchen with lots of food. I give the rosemary to my coworker, a sassy lady whose favorite word is “fuckwad,” and she puts it neatly on the side of a lobster dish. She then proceeds to coat the entire thing with a generous layer of PAM spray oil.
“Disgusting, isn’t it?” she asks me. “All of this food looks like crap.”
But with a generous layer of slick PAM, the lobster looks delicious. Even the rosemary has perked up a bit.
I’ve been on the job two days, and I’m already seeing the first of what I believe will be a long line of TV shopping half-truths. But thankfully, the food isn’t what’s on sale here. We’re instead filming a promotion for brightly colored Dutch ovens, which provide an even heat to food whether the pots are used in the oven or on the range. The skinny kid who’s directing the shoot says he needs someone to ladle evenly heated chili from one of the Dutch ovens into a bowl. The sassy lady asks me, “Do you have nice hands?” The answer is no. But they let me do it anyway. At least with oven mitts on.
I am secretly gleeful. My first week at the TV shopping network and I am going to be on TV. I ladle again and again while the skinny kid gets takes. While he’s working with the cameraman to adjust the angle, I look up and see that a QVC studio tour is going by, and the people on the tour are staring down at us in our little fake kitchen with the cookbooks that are never used. I smile and wave at them. They smile and wave back.
To them I must be the face of TV shopping. But I feel like kind of a slime bag for taking this job.
QVC is the world’s largest multi-channel retailer. I can’t help thinking that they use the phrase “multi-channel retailer” to hide the stigma that comes with “TV shopping network.” Even if you do call it a TV shopping network, QVC isn’t to be taken lightly: All those cheesy sparkling-jewelry shots and yolk-front pants have made “The Q” the second-largest television network in the US. Since being founded in 1981, QVC has grown to a $7 billion behemoth, broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 364 days a year (Christmas is the only day off, when the network features pre-taped holiday messages from the hosts). QVC has arms in the U.K., Germany, and Japan. It has a thriving Internet business. It has rabid fans.
QVC is, in short, stronger than you might think. QVC has muscles you’ve never even dreamed of. Know how if you do some really weird physical activity and those tiny muscles on the front of your shins hurt? QVC’s shin muscles could pull a truck. And that truck would be full of Hummel figurines.
I got my job at QVC when I was fresh out of college, armed with an undergraduate degree in fiction writing. Not surprisingly, QVC was the only company I applied to that extended me an offer. After spending so long working on stories and tutoring in my college’s writing center, I assumed I would go in to the noble world of publishing. Instead I agreed to write on-screen product information, cue cards for the hosts, and one-paragraph show descriptions like: “Western fashions that are at once sexy and simple, incorporating trends into wearable designs that give any woman an affordable taste of the American ranching lifestyle.”
In short, I took the QVC job because I had to, because I had $300 in savings and no desire to move back in with my parents in northern New Hampshire.
It wasn’t easy for me. When I told my friends about the job, they would stick out their arms, tilt their wrists at an angle normally reserved for stereotypes of gay men, and ask, “Are you going to be a hand model?” And yes, the part of me that loves attention, that loves ridiculousness, was thrilled. But morally, I was disgusted: I was going into marketing? And worse, marketing at a TV shopping network? I knew all I needed to about home shopping — it sold unnecessary crap to people who couldn’t afford it. And there was certainly nothing that QVC sold, absolutely nothing, that I wanted.
Yes, I thought I was better than QVC. But there’s so much you can’t know about yourself until you make your own money, and you have that money to spend.
Here’s one thing I do know about myself: Against my better judgment, I get an inexplicable thrill from seeing famous people. I don’t know why. It’s not like celebrities are going to do anything if they see me, except maybe get annoyed that I’m staring at them. Still, there’s something in me that feels like these people are just so gosh-darn special.
That’s why, when I look up one day and see that QVC host Rick Domeier is holding the door for me, I want to swoon. Rick has the rugged good looks of a Scandinavian lumberjack, but with less flannel. He also once had a bit part in the cult horror film Evil Dead II. I have a tiny, embarrassing fantasy where we start talking about zombies. It then goes to the place that most fantasies go.
What actually happens is that I am eating a piece of cake when Rick holds the door open for me. He says, “Good cake, huh?” In a moment of unsure panic, I give the only response I can think of: a childish, frosting-covered grin that screams “baby’s first birthday.” He walks away, which is fine. I don’t think I’m quite prepared to take my fantasy to a place where the man is turned-on by cake face.
It’s strange to work with celebrities. And I’m not just talking about the hosts. The network also has scores of non-QVC celebrity spokespeople. You can tell how famous celebrities on QVC are by what products they’re selling. The people who are doing well, like Paula Abdul, get to sell their own jewelry, beauty, or clothing lines. On the other side are people like Anson Williams, best known as Potsie on Happy Days, who get to hock things like a microdermabrasion kit that uses tiny “pearls” to slough off dead skin.
Since I am a writer at QVC, I work mostly at a desk. Thus it’s easy to forget that I’m in the same building as famous people until I see Marie Osmond, seller of creepy dolls, looking pissed and talking on a cell phone. Or when I give cheerful celebrity make-up artist Mally Roncol the wrong directions and send her off to who-knows-where in the cavernous QVC building. Or when I see Joan Rivers’ unabashedly fixed-up face right in front of me. My coworker leans over and mentions that Ms. Rivers regularly drops the F-bomb during commercial breaks, which I find awesome. In all honestly, I like Joan Rivers.
What I don’t understand is what makes people want to buy from her, or from any other celebrity. Take Joan Rivers’ beauty line. What makes her nail polish different from anybody else’s? Only the fact that her name is on the front. So then what makes her a style guru? The fact that she made fun of people on the red carpet before the Oscars? She may be interesting, but I don’t know why she makes anyone want to shop.
Then again, I’m still not quite sure what makes anyone want to buy anything off of QVC, ever.
The thing that finally makes me want to buy something from QVC, it turns out, is a good old-fashioned rash.
Everyone in my department has TVs on their desks. The TVs pipe in QVC: QVC with backstage headset chatter, QVC as seen only from certain cameras, and a four-way split of QVC in different time zones. We can also see the competition: ShopNBC, the Home Shopping Network, and the Jewelry Network. There’s even a four-way split of QVC, the Home Shopping Network, ShopNBC, and the Jewelry Network for the ADD-addled among us.
I don’t have a TV on my desk at first, and I don’t want one. It’s enough for me that I have to write the stuff; I don’t want to spend my entire day listening to product pitches, too. I don’t want women with well-coiffed hair and men with crisply ironed shirts extolling the values of the Ab Chair to me while I’m trying to write about the Ab Chair.
Still, I recognize the importance of being able to feed myself, and I know that if I’m going to be successful here, I need to adopt the “QVC voice.” So eventually the TV comes to my desk, and the TV goes on. Like everyone else in my department, I keep it on all day at a low volume. Instead of the air conditioning, we hear the constant hum of on-air talent looking at Basketville baskets, cooing over Veronese bracelets, and smacking their lips on Corky’s Ribs.
The QVC voice, I discover, is an exercise in overemphasis. QVC products aren’t “pretty,” they’re “gorgeous.” Instead of “tasty,” they’re “succulent.” Rather than “popular,” they’re “trend-right.” Moreover, almost every item of clothing or home décor can be described as “casual” or “elegant.” And if it’s not clearly one or the other, that usually means the item has “casual elegance.”
Around the time I’m developing my QVC voice, I also develop an eyelid rash. What would a smart person do? Stop wearing eye shadow, which is obviously causing the problem.
But what do I do? I see the answer on TV: Bare Escentuals mineral-based eye cream. I buy it. I smear it on.
Does it solve my problem? No. But it does give me a certain amount of excitement. I’ve read that shoplifters steal because they love the thrill of it, doing this thing they aren’t supposed to do. Me, I’m not supposed to shop. I tell myself that. I have student loans to pay. Heck, if I’m going to be frivolous, I should at least save up for a vacation. But spitting in the face of my own laws, I buy eye cream. A really nice, expensive, practically useless eye cream.
I rush with adrenaline and guilt, telling the anti-shopping part of my brain to piss off.
And I buy more. I buy eye shadow, memory foam pillows, and a UFO toy that makes me squeal with glee when it shoots up 40 feet in the air.
Then, six months into my time at the Q, I get sent to a two-day team-building event focused on how to be a better employee by focusing on the values of the “QVC Difference.”
At lunch I sit across from a woman who works in the Global Sourcing department. She’s in her 40s, with fluffy blond hair and a pink argyle sweater.
“What is global sourcing?” I ask while poking at oily pasta salad.
“I go to the factories where our clothing lines are made and make sure QVC is getting the best price.”
I look up at her, surprised. I know that getting goods made in other countries is necessary if QVC wants to stay competitive and keep its prices low. I’m not that naive. But what I realize I don’t know is how ethical or unethical QVC is in getting those goods made. I imagine this lady haggling over cost at a factory where women are paid $1 a day to sew pants for 16 hours. I don’t know what to say to her.
“I don’t think I could ever do that,” I finally reply, quietly.
“Well, if you’re interested in global sourcing, you should learn more about it,” she says, not understanding what I mean. I stare at her, amazed that she can do that. That she can send her daughter to college and wear her pink sweaters and eat oily pasta salad while also traveling to countries and essentially taking advantage of people – staring their living conditions in the face and telling factory owners if they can’t make a particular Sport Savvy warm-up set for $2 less, QVC will take its business elsewhere.
To my right, someone else asks, “What’s it like traveling like that?” — the polite version of what I really want to say.
“Well,” she says, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and the improvements I’ve seen in just that time are incredible.”
That’s how she does it: She focuses on the positive. She sees everything as moving forward. Our jobs are helping the foreign workers. But still, I can’t imagine it. Even if QVC uses factories with fair labor conditions, is this lady still some sort of modern colonialist, bursting into a country and mining its workforce?
Or is she one of the bravest people I’ve ever met, able to do her job and not be consumed by guilt? And if I keep buying the products she haggles over, or some other American retailer haggles over, when I have the choice to buy other things or not buy at all, what does that make me?
Well, it makes me a QVC customer.
I meet other QVC customers face-to-face in November when I volunteer to work at one of the QVC Outlet Stores over Black Friday Weekend. For $10 of QVC credit an hour, I get to oversee under-loved products: children’s card-making kits, non-stick pots and pans, and Dooney & Bourke handbags that are prohibitively expensive, even at outlet store prices.
I work at the jewelry counter, where interested women take deli-counter-style numbers in order to look at a cut of jewelry they like. “Twenty!” I yell, and a woman approaches with her husband trailing behind her. They’re in their late 60s, the woman a powerhouse and the man a frail leaf of a guy. He stands a couple of steps back as his wife asks to look at Diamonique engagement and wedding ring sets.
As I take out ring set after ring set for her to try on, she explains to me, “I get sick of my wedding set, you know? So every time I’m sick of it, I just come and get another set here.” She’s saying this in front of the man who bought her that real-diamond wedding set, saying it in front of him while she’s looking to replace it (yet again) with the World’s Finest Simulated Diamonds. She holds her hand out to her husband. “Do you like this one?” He shrugs, so she moves her hand to me. Do I like it?
The truthful answer is that it’s gaudy, it’s hideous, and, most of all, it’s unbelievable. But the correct answer is that I think it’s great.
She’s what I always imagine the QVC customer to be: an older lady, set in her ways, sitting at home all day when she’s not heading to the outlet store. She spends her money in ways that I think are wasteful, and even though she thinks she’s getting a good deal, I’m not so sure.
Then again, she might think that it’s frivolous when I, free of guilt, order a season of X-Files DVDs off of Amazon. I see Amazon as a young, smart, thrifty place to shop, where there aren’t talking heads shoving product pitches down my gullet. When I use Amazon, I have to admit, I feel a little savvy.
And maybe she feels savvy buying from QVC. So this lady, this QVC customer, she buys.
While I’m spending my day taking out these rings and necklaces and bracelets, while I’m telling women they look pretty, gorgeous, while all of this is happening, I touch real diamonds. They’re teeny — little shiny specks set in a silver pendant. They’re so small that for all I know, they could be bits of tinfoil catching the light. I feel like someone is sharing a secret with me, though. There’s something sacred about holding the diamonds, even though they’re just pieces of a mineral that occurs less in the earth than some other minerals.
I obviously have to draw the line somewhere. There is no way I can justify buying diamonds. Diamonds in a pendant that I don’t even like.
But it occurs to me that my sister might like it. How neat would it be for her to open the necklace on Christmas morning and for me to be able to say “Those are real diamonds?”
It’s always nice to treat the people you love. And I would never seek out diamonds on Amazon. So me, this QVC customer, I buy.
What I don’t buy from QVC is a T-shirt. Rather, the shirt is given to me for free, which is good, because I wouldn’t have paid for it. It’s stupid. It’s black, and on the front in big white letters it says “QVC,” and in smaller red letters underneath, “Break on Through.” Break on through what? Something important, like the glass ceiling or racial barriers?
No, QVC is trying to break on through to a younger crowd. To create buzz. Word of mouth marketing. As they call it in the biz, “WOMM.”
Every employee has been given one of these shirts as part of a contest. We’re supposed to wear the shirt while on TV. While getting our photo taken for the newspaper. While performing in what the network hopes will become a viral video. The person who gets the most media coverage with the QVC shirt will win $10,000.
The contest is the brainchild of the Marketing Man. He’s new, and he has the hip look of a speed skater: shaved head, wire glasses, and trim black outfits. When he announces the contest to us, he smashes fake glass bottles with a bat.
In a meeting with my department, the Marketing Man tells us how important it is to make employees feel like they’re involved even if they aren’t. Sure, that’s internal marketing 101. But walking back to my desk with my T-shirt, I can’t help but feel a bit sick that he’s turning QVC’s entire staff in to a free advertising army. And everyone is happy to go along with it for a chance at the cash.
I can’t blame them for that. And truthfully, as a high school marching band snakes its way through the cubicle corridors, I have to admit I’m pretty amused by all of the “wild” things the Marketing Man chose to do for the contest announcement ceremony. There’s a huge difference for me, though, between being OK with working at a company and promoting that company for free.
I buy from QVC, yes, but I don’t necessarily buy in.
In fact, like any good 20-something, I enjoy getting out of work whenever I can. As part of this effort, I take a day-long class to learn about QVC’s merchandisers: the people who buy so we can buy.
During the class, the merchandisers talk about the rigorous quality assurance process that all QVC products go through, and about products that are rejected frequently because they don’t stand up to quality standards. Then, one of the women running the session asks this, “Now, can anybody tell me some products that QVC won’t sell?”
This is something I’ve never considered before. I think about the video clip on the Internet that most people incorrectly attribute to QVC, in which a show host accidentally hurts himself with a sword on live TV. I raise my hand.
Furs are added to the list. And the blond woman says that we don’t sell these products because we don’t think it’s right.
That’s when I realize: QVC does have ethics. It’s like Christianity for me: I might not agree with the belief system or the advertising methods. I might not trust Jesus or QVC host Lisa Robertson as my prophet. But at the same time, we can agree on some basic rules in life: Don’t kill people. Don’t sell furs.
So if I’m a QVC shopper, I’m kind of OK with that.
I left QVC in 2006, and when I watch the channel now, I don’t have much of a stomach for it. Take, for example, laundry balls. For six minutes (or so), a host and a guest deify these blue, nubby balls, telling me how they’ll improve my life. See, when you put them in the dryer, laundry balls make towels fluffier – without fabric softener. On air, they show the fluffy towels. They talk about the feeling of a nice, clean, soft towel against your skin. And the host will tell me about Easy Pay, about how I can spread payment out over two months if I can’t afford the $18.95 right now. When I watch that I think about how the network is trying to get people who can’t afford to spend $20 right now to buy a product whose primary effect is to improve something — something as dull as towels — that’s fine as it is.
But when I worked at QVC, I learned to tune out what was happening on my desktop TV. The product information I got came on my own terms: I wasn’t being sold to, at least not directly. Rather, I was reading product descriptions. I was hearing about products going through Quality Assurance – and getting rejected. I got to read hosts’ recaps of how products really performed on air.
It’s like the difference between going to a restaurant and cooking at home. At the restaurant, a waiter will come and tell you the specials, romancing the tender asparagus and the juicy sea scallops, trying to get you to spend more money on an entrée than you planned to. Or you can go to the grocery store and feel how fresh the asparagus is, see if the scallops in the fish case have browned, and make an informed decision on how much money you want to spend on dinner that night.
In my last week at QVC, I went to the Studio Store and hovered around the makeup. I looked at the bright eye shadows of photo-shoot quality Smashbox; picked up compacts from Laura Geller, a woman who believes that face problems can be avoided by coating the skin in a clear coat of her “spackle” before putting on makeup. I peered into the little tubs of organic Bare Escentuals.
A co-worker who was also a friend was with me. “You don’t have to buy something now,” she said. “I can always get something for you later.” But the feeling in my stomach was that I really should get something then, that this makeup was good stuff to have.
So, I bought. • 13 March 2008