How QVC pulls intel from social media to amp up its TV sales

The most important stop on a tour of QVC – and a key to its future vitality – is far from the most photogenic.

Favored QVC viewers and shoppers who get a backstage tour of the home-shopping behemoth’s  sprawling Studio Park campus outside West Chester enjoy an eyeful of razzle-dazzle, akin to what they’d see on a major Hollywood back lot.

Start with four huge in-the-round TV studios, occupying 58,000 square feet, with comfy suburban home and funky loft apartment scenes and the occasional celeb (Rachael Ray!) spotting.

Move on to prop rooms and a huge warehouse holding samples of 300,000 items comprising “everything we sell, in every color and size,” noted the tour guide, broadcast production director John Kealey.  

The facility also offers professionally staffed hair and makeup studios and dressing rooms where hosts and guests get their look together, wearing available-for-sale merch as much as possible.

Multiple control rooms include one where all three  QVC  U.S. channels and six global offshoots  (in the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and China) are piped in.

The coolest stop is "The Perch” looking down on the video stages, where stage managers track second-by-second sales figures and inventory, juggle call-ins, and remotely whisper discussion topics in the ears of otherwise “winging it” on-camera talent. (Really, there are no teleprompters, and barely any operators on the floor for the mostly remote-controlled cameras.)

But a darkened and “no-unauthorized-pictures-please” room  where about a dozen people were hunkering down over computers was the spot the executive team wanted this reporter to see, as it’s part of the increasingly digitized, social-media-minded strategy to push QVC — now a maturing enterprise of 30 years — back to the forefront of the multimedia (TV + e-commerce) shopping world after a couple of years of flat or slightly drooping sales. 

DART — for data analytics response technology —is the name on the door. What worker bees are up to is “looking at the transactions and conversations” of the cyber world — both inside and outside the QVC eco-system —  “including what people are saying on social media like Facebook and Twitter  about the things they’re seeing on TV and  questions/complaints they may have about the products we’re selling,” said Global DART manager Dana Green.

Is a competitor’s  infomercial suddenly driving online conversation and product searches? How about a hot deal at another website? "If there’s suddenly a lot of conversation going on about, say, Fitbit, we can send a message to the Perch, they relay it to the talent. Seconds later, the spokesperson on air could be slipping activity trackers into the conversation, pointing out that QVC.com has Fitbits available in all colors at competitive prices,” noted Green. 

“It’s QVC’s way of jumping into the larger conversation — staying relevant — and also our way of making sure we get our fair share of the sales,” said Peter Goodnough, vice president of  consumer insights and business intelligence.

Having human filters for the collected data is another key differentiator.  “We could just scrape the information digitally, crunch the findings with algorithms. But QVC has always integrated human judgment and intuition, putting  good business judgment at the front of every decision.” So the data- and chatter-collecting team may also offer suggestions for improving products or adding quirky  items, like those oddly styled Himalayan salt lamps, which have earned lots of "good for your health"  buzz online.  

Humanizing the sales conversation with viewers — "as if we're talking with you over the backyard fence" — has been a key QVC TV practice since the "quality value convenience" channel's  launch (Nov. 24, 1986) as founder Joseph Segel's second act after Franklin Mint, noted 26-year company veteran Kealey.

"When we talk about a rice cooker, it's not about making rice. It's about creating joyful, easy, happy meals for your family . . . how it will change your life," stressed corporate communications manager Ilana McCabe.

Today, tens of thousands of demonstration videos (QVC's greatest hits) are available, on demand, for deep digging at QVC.com and YouTube. Also, when you call up a QVC app on a smartphone or tablet. Or click onto a live feed of the main channel on Facebook Live.  

Another marketing differentiator, stressed Alex Miller, QVC's senior vice president of digital commerce: Show-and-tell is key with Beauty iQ, the younger-audience-attracting (and potentially high profit margin) third QVC channel launched in November.

Beauty iQ viewers/streamers don’t just see how glamorous the hosts look after using touted hair, makeup, and skin products. They also get free tips on how to apply the serums and eye liner to achieve "that look" —  just as they would at a department store's helpful cosmetics counter. That’s a reason, some devotees say with an absolute straight face, that they enjoy QVC: “because there are no commercials.”

Pressed by a reporter about sagging Q4 numbers — consolidated revenue was off 5 percent from the year prior — company president Mike George attributed the problem to a populace distracted by current events, “from the elections to terrorism. I think that made it hard for our customers to engage on QVC.”  

While the shift from shopping to news obsession probably hasn’t reversed much, it helps that tech-adept QVC customers are “increasingly watching two screens at once,” said Miller. So they can have their fill of both global  turmoil and spring frocks. Or watch the fashion show on their big-screen TV, then order faves on their mobile phone or tablet, even though  phone operators are still standing by.

You might be surprised to learn that among mass merchants, the QVC Group (which includes the recently acquired and younger-skewing Zulily shopping site) was rated the No. 3 mobile retailer in the U.S., behind Amazon (No. 1) and Wal-Mart,  according to Internet Retailer.

Also, that three-fourths of new U.S. customers made their first purchase via QVC.com (including mobile) in 2016.  And that in measuring full-year 2016 sales, QVC mobile accounted for 57 percent of all QVC.com orders domestically, and 58 percent globally — mobile was up about  10 percent from the prior year.

So how are old-media (TV) vs. new-media sales shaking the tree overall? “For the first time ever, over 50 percent of our transactions in the U.S were digital in 2016, and the number was close to that globally,” said Miller. Consolidated QVC revenue was down 1 percent to $8.7 billion in 2016.

TV shopping channels aren't going away any time soon, and QVC is ready for a technical upgrade to ultrahigh definition where demanded, first in Japan.

But about 60 percent of QVC’s capital is being used to build and improve its e-commerce digital platforms. Zulily alone set the company back a reported $2.4  billion, to attract millions of targeted “millennial moms,” ages 25 to 45. (The traditional QVC audience base is 86 percent female and “prominently in the 35-64 age range,” varying by show-hour focus, says the company.)

For cord cutters, QVC’s three channels, plus on-demand short features, have been tweaked to run on both Roku and Apple TV streaming devices, with the Apple version so fine-tuned that users can order what they like with a single button push on the remote control. 

On smartphones and tablets (iOS and Android), you can watch a livestream across the top of the screen and drill down to the featured products at the bottom of the screen. The next generation of the iPhone app “already in the hands of some Beta test customers” will simplify the buying process for registered shoppers even more, Miller said.

 Does that include customer ordering with face recognition? Or a superimposed,  faux “try-on” of products with virtual reality and augmented reality technology? “Nothing to announce now, but we’ve tested all that,” said Miller.

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