Sandra Bennett is learning a job that's not quite like anything else on television: QVC host.
Her new profession is part talk-show prattler, part actor, part reporter, part old-fashioned pitchman.
And there are no cue cards.
A QVC host at the West Chester-based shopping network must be able to talk enthusiastically about anything and sell it without being obnoxious. The goal, Bennett says, is to shop with the viewer, not sell to her.
All the while, a producer's voice in the host's earpiece reminds her to mention "five easy payments" or ask her guest one more time how that radio works or take a "testimonial" phone call from a happy customer.
This is a lot harder than it looks.
It explains why Bennett, a natural chatterbox with long, dark chestnut hair, prepared so frenetically one recent morning for her three hours on camera - three hours that would start at 4 a.m.
It also is why QVC invests six months of training in new hosts, even with people such as Bennett, who worked 12 years as a television news producer, reporter and smaller-market anchor. The host is a linchpin in a company that sells nearly $7 billion in products a year, and there is no natural training ground.
"It's a very unique skill and talent, and to find people that can do this, there really isn't a source," said Jack Comstock, vice president of TV sales.
Now well into her probationary period after joining QVC in September, Bennett would be on camera that early morning, talking with a parade of guest vendors who were hawking everything from bathroom brushes to fake orchids, even talking as she walked from set to set between segments.
She began her shift at midnight, studying the 32 items she would sell that morning. She focused on whom they would appeal to and why. Then she power-walked through the sets in QVC's cavernous studio to see, touch and smell the products and meet the company reps who would be on camera with her.
This was a far cry from her first weeks at the massive QVC building, which looms amid a collection of suburban office buildings on the outskirts of West Chester.
Trainees get a crash course about the company and some of the 31,000 products it promotes in a year. Bennett was sent to a gold factory in Rhode Island because QVC sells so much jewelry. She visited one of QVC's call centers and a warehouse. "I stood in a warehouse with $70 million worth of jewelry," she said, still a little awestruck. It was mid-December before she went on camera alone, and it was only for short stints at first.
"No one has ever trained me even a tenth of the way QVC has trained me," she said.
QVC's 23 hosts come from a variety of backgrounds, including TV news, radio and acting. The growing company plans to hire one or two more this year.
QVC found Bennett at an audition last spring that attracted nearly 500 aspirants. Bennett, 36, remembers a shockingly long line of conservatively dressed people in their 30s and 40s. "This is like American Idol for grown-ups," she thought.
For her audition, Bennett "sold" some skin-cleansing oil that she loves. While most of her competitors were back out the door after literally minutes, Bennett - thin, pretty and vivacious - made it to QVC's Hollywood. An employee handed her an alarm clock and told her she had two minutes to figure out how she'd sell it to Comstock. This clock automatically set the time and date when you plugged it in.
"I remember saying, 'Because you shouldn't have to tell your clock what time it is. It should tell you,' " she said with some pride.
Six weeks later, Bennett came back for a more extended audition. After another month, she got the job.
Bennett's superiors will decide in March whether to keep her on staff. About 75 percent of trainees are hired.
Comstock would not say whether Bennett was a sure bet, but he did praise her. "She does have a wonderful personality. She has a comfort level with the camera," he said. "She's bright. She . . . seems to have not only the ability but the desire to do what we want and what we need."
He also would not discuss host pay. Entertainment agents said experienced QVC hosts could make in the low to middle six figures. A new host would make well below that.
Hosts are not paid by commission - that would encourage hard sells rather than the "backyard fence" approach the company prefers - but they do get quarterly bonuses based on how the company is doing, Comstock said. They are evaluated on the quality of their preparation and on-camera presentation.
"I think that people that really are good at this, more people tend to want to watch them," Comstock said. "They have a stickiness."
Bennett, who got out of TV news because the hours made it hard to see her young daughter, has found her newbie schedule - several graveyard shifts in a row followed by a day in the office - easier than expected and the job itself much harder.
Dressed in the pink cowl-neck sweater she would sell in her second hour, Bennett started her shift that morning by poring over the 6-by-9-inch blue cards on each product that she would carry onto the sets.
She takes her few minutes of TV time with each item seriously. Dozens of QVC employees have helped prepare for those moments, choosing the products, figuring out what will be on the show, taking the product pictures, arranging the sets. "I can't just skate in here," Bennett said, "and say, 'Oh, these are pretty [gold] hoops.' "
The blue cards have only a few lines of information, but they help her position the product and tell customers about sizes, colors and price.
Then she raced off to look at the products and talk with vendor representatives who would be on the show with her. Her job was to think about what a shopper would want to know - Can I use that cleaner on my antiques? Is the scent from those reed diffusers too strong? - and who would like a particular item.
She does not always like what she sells, but she can always think of someone who would like the color or appreciate the details. "If you pretend that you love everything, people are going to know that's not true," she said. "Nobody loves everything."
On this morning, she examined a pastel sweater set from Modern Soul, a QVC knitwear line, that she would sell at 5 a.m. She wouldn't say she would wear it - she wouldn't - but she can comment on how soft it is. "That's going to look great on somebody with blond hair and blue eyes," she said.
Bennett raced from set to set to check out jar openers, an emergency radio, pear-scented candles, heart-shaped boxes, and odor neutralizer that she would sell later. Bennett squeezed in having her makeup done and doing a 3 a.m. promo for a set of greeting cards designed by Valerie Parr Hill that she would sell at the end of her shift.
"The thing that's amazing to me is that it's a job with zero downtime," Bennett said as she grabbed a glass of water minutes before the start of the "Problem Solvers" show.
Then she was standing in front of jars of scented oil and the producer's voice in her ear was saying, "Here we go. Camera 3."
"Well, good morning," Bennett said with just the right amount of cheer. "I'm Sandra Bennett, and, boy, are we going to be solving problems this morning."
From there, she was on her feet in rapt conversation for three hours. She finished with the card set, a feminine collection with unusual details such as little wire hangers and buttons.
"Oh, they have feathered tails," Bennett said to Parr Hill as she pointed at a card with a rooster on it. "It's hard to see. I don't think the camera's doing this little guy justice."
By the time Bennett said, "Next, don't go away, because it is Pat and Dave with the morning show," 1,700 of the card sets had been ordered.
The next day, Bennett was back in the office at 1 p.m. for her biweekly evaluation with Comstock and Sue Schick, director of TV sales. It is a meeting she views with some trepidation. "This job means a lot to me, so I want to do well," she said.
She was much harder on herself than they were, noticing a missed opportunity to emphasize the price of the emergency radio.
Schick also suggested a richer description of the diffusers' fragrances. Comstock thought the crank charger on the radio deserved more emphasis.
"I think you're doing a good job," Comstock concluded. "I really do."