Born-Again Consumers

Born-Again Consumers

by Lillian Afrkano

Clearly, the home shopping church has its own convention for testifying.

An ionizer for $29? A beaded sweater for $39? A diamond ring for $299? As the bright, glittery images flashed on my television screen at slightly past 3 a.m., I paused in my channel surfing somewhere between B-movies I’d seen and those I didn’t want to see. And that was my introduction to the H.S.C.

Almost in spite of myself, I was drawn into the host’s highenergy pitch (“What fire! What brilliance! And I have less than a hundred of these beauties!”) and became fascinated by all the people who called in to sing the praises of Home Shopping Club’s jewelry. Was all of America awake? And shopping?

The diamond ring gave way to a set of ultrasonic pest repellers. I didn’t think I needed them—actually I never knew they existed. But after the host and a half dozen callers swore they could rid a home of anything that flew or crawled, I stumbled out of bed and dialed the 800-number. (I did, after all, have a family of mice that shuttled regularly between my terrace and my apartment, neatly evading the glue traps my super provided.)

And -with that first purchase, I became a full-fledged ‘member’ of the H.S.C, with my own ‘personal and confidential’ number. More purchases followed.

Some lived up to their billing; the skin care products sold under the Connie Stevens label were pleasantly fragrant and light to the touch. While they may not have taken 10 years off my face, they did indeed smooth and refine my complexion.

Some items were downright laughable. The portable spa that was supposed to turn my ordinary bathtub into a soothing, relaxing whirlpool emitted the deafening roar of an outboard motor run amok.

The spa went back, but H.S.C. hadn’t lost its draw. What’s unique about H.S.C. aren’t the radar detectors or the headlight-size cubic zirconia, but rather the merchandising techniques that have turned this Florida-based operation into a nationwide bazaar that reaches 60 million homes.

H.S.C. is catalog shopping, television commercial, and electronic church all rolled into one, its hosts trained in the traditions of snake oil salesmen and old-time revivalists.

“Come one, come all,” the hosts invite; the shopping church brings together all kinds of people in electronic communion. The “doors” are open 24 hours a day but no one gets tired.

Members of this congregation are loyal and steadfast; they call in purchases from their homes, from the homes of relatives, from work, from filling stations when they’re on the road—even from hospital rooms.

They proudly declare that they’ve been part of H.S.C. for three, or five, or eight years. So eager are some members to participate that they even do homework before calling in, preparing themselves with catalogs and store ads, so they can “testify”—like born-again shoppers who have seen the light— that Macy’s or Service Merchandise is selling the very same watch, the very same necklace for many, many dollars more.

After placing orders, some members may be invited to hold. Many do wait—for up to 20 minutes or more—with a reverential excitement generated by the honor of getting to talk to a host and enjoying the privilege of a blessed few moments of on-air conversation that can go like this:

Host: Tell me, Mary, why did you pick up the garnet ring at $69.95?”

Mary: “Well, Dan, it’s my birthstone, and the setting looks so pretty on the screen.”

Host: “It’s a real beauty, no doubt about that. What would you have to pay for a ring like this in Chicago, Mary?”

Mary: “Oh, I don’t even go to the stores any more…”

Host: “I don’t blame you. Why should you go out when you can shop in the comfort of your own home? But if you did go to a store…?”

Mary: “Oh, I’m sure it would cost at least $300.”

Host: “HOW MUCH?”

Mary: “At least $300.”

Host: “Wow, that’s amazing! And what would you say to your fellow club members, Mary?”

Mary: “Buy it now or you’ll be sorry.”

Though it’s been suggested that some callers are shills, I think there are plenty of ‘honest’ club members, painfully eager to give testimonials just to get a bit of attention and approval. Many are shut-ins, many elderly, others just plain lonely. If a malcontent should somehow get through—this does happen occasionally—and start to complain, she is ‘accidentally’ disconnected. Excommunicated!

Whenever possible, H.S.C. hosts invoke family and Christian values. When crosses, religious statues, or bibles are sold, the hosts sprinkle their patter liberally with “God Bless Yous” and other pieties—language suggesting that purchasing is a religious act.

The H.S.C. hosts aren’t salespeople, making money on what customers spend; no, they’re personal friends to every H.S.C. member, ready to share details of their lives with viewers. Mindy and Robynne have discussed their pregnancies. When hosts Chris and Alan told viewers they were getting married, and to each other, viewers could scarcely contain their excitement. The Club magazine profiles the hosts as if they are celebrities. It faithfully describes their families and pets, favorite foods, likes, dislikes, and hobbies. Members respond to all this sharing with gifts, good wishes, advice—and more importantly, with trust.

Never is the true function of the hosts acknowledged: to unload 400 sapphire rings in six minutes or less. No, these folks are just here to do a public service; to showcase merchandise at unbeatable prices; to protect club members from the hassles of shopping, parking problems, crime, and inclement weather.

To add excitement to the lives of members, to give them a chance to meet and perhaps talk to someone famous, there are H.S.C.’s many celebrity lines of merchandise. Omar Sharif shamelessly coos at Gladys or Cynthia from Memphis. “It took a very long time to create this very special fragrance,” he croons. “I wanted it to be perfect, just for you.”

In her wonderfully accented English, Ivana trumpets flashy costume-jewelry and suits. Vanna wheels and deals in dolls, clothing, and other products. To his fans who have aged a bit since the beach blanket movies, Frankie Avalon hawks pain-relieving liniment.

When H.S.C. runs a clearance sale (it’s called a ‘Bargathon’) they create a warehouse-look on the set and with two hosts working together infuse a holiday atmosphere. But the business at hand is getting people to buy stuff, sometimes very expensive stuff, like $1000 diamond bracelets or $1200 computers on a final-sale basis—without even the option of examining them at home—an extraordinary feat in the “don’t-blink” land of telemarketing.

Just as gambling casinos create their own imaginary playland countries, giving out chips to replace money, H.S.C, too, creates an atmosphere of unreality by making the game the focus; and there’s little sense of actual money being spent. The word money, in fact, is almost never mentioned on the H.S.N. Instead hosts talk about, “picking up on the deal…getting in on the bargain…grabbing this opportunity.”

If reality should intrude with the mention by an H.S.C. member that she’s max’ed out on her credit cards, bought ten rings already this month, or turned into an H.S.C. junkie (oh where can she seek salvation?), the host will chuckle and say something to the effect of, “But think of all the savings you’ve enjoyed” and quickly get rid of her. What H.S.C. knows all too well is that Americans get a psychic fix from shopping—and the last thing they want is someone to remind them of the price.

Do they go too far? I thought so when during the Gulf War H.S.C. sold tens of thousands of Desert Storm shirts with hosts cheer-leading customers into feeling that each purchase was an act of patriotism, implying that the proceeds would somehow help ‘our boys.’

And while creating markets is an accepted practice, is it all right to tout miniscule gold coins, mass-produced sports memorabilia and expensive dolls as ‘investments’ that are bound to go up in value? Is it up to the buyer to beware: the elderly woman who says she’s investing some of her savings in the Club’s ‘collectibles’; or the young father who says he’s bought some sports plaques to put aside for his son’s college education?

Shopping at home is a $2.5 billion business; it’s estimated that by the year 2000, the figures will reach between $20- and $100 billion. As cable systems upgrade and as new interactive technologies proliferate, actual video malls are stretching out to us from the near future. But if this is what it’s all about—reaching into our homes to sell us things we didn’t know we needed—then I cast a nostalgic vote for the good old days of elbow-to-elbow shopping at Loehmann’s.

Lillian Afrkano is a journalist whose articles have appeared in the New York TimesThe Nation, and the National Review, among others. She is the author of eleven books.