Wednesday, June 1, 2011

No Holds Barred

by Blair Sabol

My friends were concerned. I was always a high-end aerobic shopper. But for the last six months all I kept reporting about were my QVC purchases. My dear pal and shopping "shrink" Susin Fair (the "eyes, ear and voice" behind the New York Times Samurai Shopper column) was particularly worried: "Oh no ... you're not becoming ONE OF THOSE."

Those what? "One of those lonely 500 pound gals who live in trailers in Kansas and dial nonstop for crap they don't need. Deluxe haulers."

I think I am, and so what? Forget that I now live in Arizona where hip boutiques do not exist and our luxury chain stores are sad satellite versions. My shopping malaise had more to do with a change in my overall attitude. Also I was struggling with some personal family health responsibilities where suddenly hospital lobby boutiques and drugstores became my new beat.

Addict at the shrine.
It is no news that more people are giving up luxury choices for budget finds. Costco, Kohl's, TJ Maxx, Ross, Forever 21 and H&M are now taking the merchandising lead. This seems to be true no matter where The Dow falls or rises. But recently I found myself flat on my back in my bed most nights sick of viewing Anderson Cooper in his tight, black "testosterone" T shirt from Libya or Bill O'Reilly and his bevy of blonde politicos and having to turn to something that brought me instant joy and NO COMMERCIALS!!!!

I passed on NBC Shopping Channel since it was too sterile and too much jewelry. I dismissed HSN, the Home Shopping "Daddy" of them all and the longest standing shopping network. I couldn't stand their brassy visuals. Maybe because they broadcast from Florida. Their sets are too cheesy and their over-bleached blonde hostesses with their chipped manicures (disastrous for ring closeups) looked like aging strippers.

With QVC you have a larger array of real fashion celebrities and a certain Main Line Philadelphia aura considering it is located in West Chester, PA. It was Joan Rivers who really got me hooked. (I am not so into QVC's VAST food and technology division.)

It wasn't so much about her sunglasses and jackets as it was Joan doing her comedy act WITH the merchandise and all in my bedroom at midnight. Talk about dinner and a show. I dare you to find a better HBO special. Then you have QVC's star jeweler Judith Ripka with her heartfelt "Dr. Phil" appeal. Women ("Ripkanistas") call in sobbing over her "enhancers" and bracelets and want to "share with her" their latest life catastrophes. High drama.
Entering QVC's "meditation" entrance.
But in the end it was Issac Mizrahi who became my true "crack" connection. And I guess I became his true "crack whore." Nobody sells like Issac. After all it was Mizrahi who "democratized" fashion. He was the first to go wide and cheap and bring it all to Middle America at Target.

I used to dismiss that whole trend till every designer (except Ralph Lauren ... and he doesn't have to and I'm not sure he himself could actually hard sell on live TV) started doing it. But in the end, Issac's heart and soul (I have never gone to his couture boutique on Madison avenue ... why bother?) is for us "sad sacks in the boondocks." We are the market who are looked over, ignored and made fun of by most of fashion elite and magazines. Yet it is Middle America who can make or break a fashion trend ... so Vogue and InStyle be damned.

Another great aspect of QVC are their "Shop jocks" (what they like to call "program hosts"). They have all types covered; the men are usually versions of inflated Ken Dolls; the women range from semi-drag queen glamorous to Soccer Mom to questionable "ethnic cool." The sets are non-threatening but hip and detailed just right. The seduction is the story and that is done very "back door/best friend" easy. QVC has it down to the best merchandising science there is.
Outdoor "sculpture" in QVC garden. Feverishly ordering outside QVC studio.
So I figured why not actually pay a visit to my Holy Shrine of Stuff while visiting my Mom in Philadelphia. I soon found out that next to the Liberty Bell and the Comcast Headquarters (why?) QVC is high on "must see" tourist trap lists. It has become an institution to reckon with. I decided to call ahead and explain what a QVC fan (addict) I was and could they give me a special VIP tour (they have regular hourly tour schedules ... who wanted that?). It took weeks to get a reply and yes I was going to be personally ushered about on a "Full Access" tour. Also I would get to meet my favorite shopping hostess Shawn Killinger.

I arrived on QVC Park's 84 acres only to witness a visiting "shopper/fan" slam her car into a tree. A security guard "rumor" reported to me that she was on her cell phone's QVC APP ordering Bruce Makowsky platform shoes (that were about to go up in price in a matter of minutes) when she lost control of her car. Great opening moment.
"Shopper car accident " on QVC grounds. Slamming into tree from "App ordering."
No question QVC is The Graceland of shopping. Everyone from the guards to the boutique help couldn't have been more charming and helpful as if they drank The Merchandising Kool Aid. The on-campus boutique is huge (a little airport terminal) and ambitious. When I cruised the store aisles there were 3 busloads of little old grey haired ladies from Harrisburg (on canes and wheelchairs) buying their cross body bags and Kenneth Jay Lane jumbo pearl necklaces. They all felt like they had "arrived" at their Lourdes of Style. From the looks of their multiple packed QVC shopping bags ... they HAD!!!

The day I toured, Isaac was just finishing a 12-hour selling marathon with Shawn who manages to sell and wear Mizrahi the best of any professional model or Sandra Bernhardt I know. Part of their terrific chemistry is they both have abilities to "teach" their audience about fashion without a hint of condescension. Isaac insists, "I think what Shawn and I have in common is FUN. Also neither of us is capable of lying and the ladies watching know that. I trust her and her ladies trust her."
Harrisburg tour "fans" shopping in the Studio Store.
The day I was there Shawn was explaining how Isaac's wedgie espadrilles were "so Brigit Bardot and allow you to go to garden parties without getting your heel stuck in the grass." Meanwhile Isaac spoke masterfully of the longer hemlines in skirts and Bermuda shorts ("ladies ... longer hemlines are more forgiving then trying to be 'hip crazy' with all that thigh high insanity.") He was professing "chic instead of cheap." I am buying it.

And so were 3000 other women shoppers cross country in three minutes. In fact the day of my visit I decided to wear one of his beige giraffe "Today Special Values" cardigan sweaters. My QVC escorts, Kayce and Jaime, allowed me five minutes to witness him live on set finish his late afternoon segment. QVC has magically recreated Mizrahi's entire Manhattan design studio right down to the white radiators and pillow thrown sofas.

When I asked them if I could meet him right after the show they immediately ushered me out saying they would see if they could get "to his people."

"His people?" HE was right there. Quickly their thumbs started flying all over their Blackberries (I think they were really dialing the weather) and suddenly I became Osama Bin Laden's sister at best ... a stalker at worst.
Isaac Mizrahi's QVC set of his actual studio.
Elegant QVC lobby with Isaac Mizrahi telecast. Isaac's "on special" cardigan.
Our "Full Access Tour" immediately went down hill. They nixed me taking any pictures of the camera crew, models or studio sets and instead strolled me down long dark hallways with spot lighted huge pictures of current and past hosts (Donny Osmond, Melania Trump, Kim Kardashian, and Barry Manilow to name a very few).

I felt like I was in a hallway of Vegas's MGM Grand Hotel. They even have a "Product Hall of Fame" having to do with more pictures and written plaques of SELL OUT items like Philosophy Beauty Cosmetics and Dell Computers and a whole lot more. I was also allowed to see the empty offices of "Quality Control" and ended up viewing a "blooper tape" of various hosts and celebrities (designer Dennis Basso) falling on their asses, accidentally breaking products or getting pies thrown in their faces.
This was obviously to beat out Saturday Night Live at their own game.
Finally they directed me "backstage" to do my requested "meet and greet" with popular "shop jock" Shawn Killinger. There was a moment where I felt she was caught "deer in the headlights" (nobody seemed to "know" anybody in the organization ... too big?).
Mizrahi "lobby exhibit" for that day.
But she picked up the beat quickly and did her best explaining to me how she had been a newscaster and a loser contestant on Martha Stewart’s Apprentice show and now found her destiny at QVC. "How lucky can you get!!!!" She truly loves fashion, is terrific with her own accessories (her strong suit with "the ladies") and is a true Mizrahi Maniac. She describes her on air job as "part stylist, part cheerleader, part shrink, part fashion shaman, part best friend, part phone operator, and part problem solver.”

And of course she is sales help SUPREME!! She serves her fan base with a perfect tan, a size 4 body, the whitest teeth and matching white tipped French manicure, and the best comedienne patter to boot.

QVC selling is rigorous. Every vendor has to go to QVC school for at least a day to learn how to hard sell and multi task with ease. You have to APPEAR to be charming to the camera and host while fielding at home callers and not flinch at the producer screaming in your earpiece to wrap it up all while watching the selling graph of your own stuff peek and valley.
Me and QVC favorite "shop jock" Shawn Killinger.
When I told Shawn how I thought QVC allowed me to be a "bulimic shopper" (you buy it and then send it all back in a week), her answer was interesting: “But that's freedom. You should not be stuck with anything that you don't really want or that doesn’t look great on you."

And indeed that is what grabbed me as an at-home shopper. Here I was buying up a storm ... fabulous boxes arrived (half the time I forgot what the hell I ordered) in days filled with "hope" and most went back. Guilt free? Hardly. QVC is NOT cheap. By the time they add on "shipping and handling and your state tax" you could go to Saks. But Saks doesn’t have terrific phone operators (mostly stationed in Texas) with helpful voices and advice at 2am.

Many an early morning I spent pouring my heart out to a QVC Customer representative "about whether fuchsia was a better color than white to wear when visiting my Mom in the hospital.” Every one of them was kind and concerned and made returns so easy. Too easy. I soon realized I spent a fortune in return mailing charges. But who's counting. In the end I didn't have to deal with enervating "mall walking,” nasty store help, crappy dressing rooms with funhouse mirrors, and parking in lots five miles away. Call it lazy rationalisation. Who cares.

My reluctant tour guides Kayce and Jaime at foot of "stairway to shopping."
But back to my "Full Access" QVC tour: After viewing the third "cooking" studio (this tour seemed bigger than The Universal Lot), I requested to meet Isaac again (fourth time). Again cell thumbs started flying but the answer came back "Elvis has left the building." I was crestfallen. In his defense he looked "They Shoot Horses Don't They" exhausted on set after pushing his Special Value of the Day -- spangled cardigan for the 9th hour.

But the escorts assured me that if I wanted to wait for two hours Joan Rivers was arriving with her "Classics Collection" and "maybe" we could meet. MY blood sugar was dumping and my frustration was rising. Suddenly I could feel that crazy desire to shop 'n spend pulsing in my blood stream. (Quick hand me a phone and give me the next customer representative). The "Full Access tour" ended in QVC's giant lobby. There was an Isaac wall display of his current program highlights, dresses, shoes and bags (none of his sheets and towels), and for some visiting fans it was their version of going to the McQueen exhibit at The Met.

But the final piece de resistance had to do with QVC's credo tiled into a circle at the base of their giant "stairway to shopping.” It read: "Everyday we strive to: ENGAGE the customer in a welcoming community of people, ideas and experiences ... ENTERTAIN the customer by being genuine, dynamic and alive ... ENRICH the customer shopping experience with compelling finds, creative presentations and legendary service." Werner Erhard of EST would approve!!!

When I started to write down this "company message" my escorts got frantic that I please not do that.

Who knows why? Too Jamestown creepy? They replied: "that's just our personal philosophy stuff."

Philosophy stuff? Isn't Philosophy one of their biggest sellers?

On my way out they expressed their excitement at Kirstie Alley appearing over the weekend to sell her weight loss program. "She completely sold out last time and if she wins Dancing with The Stars ...." That night she lost. And she sold more Weight Loss packages than ever.
Outdoor "set" for at home merchandise.
Meanwhile I left QVC in shopping shock and awe. On my way out I drove past yet another giant office building and an outdoor replica of a complete house for their gardening and household product shows (very "Leave it to Beaver"), three giant parking lots, and a massive loading and unloading back dock (all products are actually shipped and processed miles away in a separate warehouse). All told 2000 people work at QVC's Shopping Park.

Meanwhile I raced home to my Mom's Philadelphia residence in my sweat stained Isaac cardigan. My Dad called to report that 8 more QVC boxes had arrived at my Arizona front door and that the UPS man laughed as he stacked them sky high knowing full well that I would be shoving them back in his truck in a week. Nothing like a UPS man who "has seen 'em come and seen 'em go."

I immediately climbed into bed and couldn't stand watching another minute of the Joplin tornado or the Hines Ward and Kirstie Alley Dancing to the Stars competition. Give me QVC's Isaac and Joan and my phone any day!!!
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