By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
I'm not much of a shopper. I'm not even much of a catalogue browser. So when I see souvenir T-shirts asking "iQdoU?" as I enter the gleaming headquarters of the QVC cable TV network, I'm clueless. But to Jackie Buik, standing next to me, the slogan is as much a statement of faith as "WWJD." She's here to Q to the max.
"I buy all my clothes on QVC," confides the visitor, pointing to her leather purse, pumps and rhinestone-cuff pants. Her son Keith has driven her from Somerset, N.J., for a special event: a chance to sit in a studio audience at the headquarters of the multimedia shopping network in West Chester, Pa. Me? Just here for the tour.
John McCain's mock stint as a QVC host on "Saturday Night Live" during the fall campaign proved two universal truths: Everyone hawks on QVC, and no one escapes it. The virtual-shopping behemoth broadcasts live to more than 166 million TV sets in the United States, Japan and Europe 24 hours a day, cycling through reams of jewelry, cosmetics, clothing, electronics and more jewelry. Joan Rivers sells foot cream; Ellen DeGeneres, pet supplies. James Taylor flogged his latest release in a live studio appearance in September. The network even broadcast a live remote from an inaugural ball, offering Obama memorabilia.
Americans have devised plenty of ways to shop, and tiny West Chester offers the full panoply: the charming main street, the hidden treasures, the strip malls. But the county seat, 30 miles from Philadelphia in the Brandywine Valley, also offers a pilgrimage to the mother ship, QVC's 84-acre Studio Park complex, where the faithful line up for two brands of tours. The daily $7.50-a-head guided walk-throughs give a quick overview, while the weekly $75 "all-access" tour immerses fans in four hours of QVC lore. Other special events include studio audience tickets and weekend packages.
Keith Buik, Jackie's son, admits he has become a QVC fan, too. "I buy food -- I like the Balboa cakes. The Temptations cookware is good," he offers.
As the Buiks move through the metal detector en route to one of 62 sets in the complex, I follow QVC rep Allyson Lindauer to begin an all-access tour. Polished and perky, she introduces an exhibit of QVC's timeline and factoids: founded in 1986, more than $1 billion in online sales in 2007, high-def in 2008.
Tech directors give us cheery waves from dimly lit control rooms. As images of gold jewelry slowly revolve on-screen, Lindauer points out the spiky readings on a split-screen monitor. The blue half tracks purchases made since the beginning of the one-hour show; the yellow half shows the volume in the past 10 seconds. The director relays updates and instructions to the on-air host. The effect is like watching Macy's turn on a dime.
We pause on a catwalk above the klieg lights. Those on the general tour turn back here, but Lindauer ushers us downstairs to the studio floor. Everywhere we look, primping is underway: on the fashion models, the hosts, the guests (La Rivers is expected any minute) and especially the products. Friendly tech folks stop stacking linens or technicolored cupcakes to chat about their tasks.
"Of all the questions we get, the most common is, 'Is it really live?' " says Mary Bates, the studio operations coordinator. And indeed it is, 364 days a year. (They break for Christmas Day.) To prove the point, the tour ventures onto a live set. As we tiptoe to empty seats in the studio audience, Mary Beth Roe, in a sharp pink leather jacket, is interviewing designer Marc Bouwer about a pair of pants.
"They come in blue or black," notes the longtime host enthusiastically. "And honestly -- get both!" Callers comply, and the yellow line spikes again. The available stock of 900 garments rapidly dwindles to 200 as we depart.
The tour ends at the QVC store, its jewelry displays crowded with middle-aged female shoppers. As I walk away, I wonder how they persuade husbands or sons to accompany them to QVC.
At the exit, I get my answer. "American Helicopter Museum," announces a sign 100 yards down the road. And sure enough, the hangar's display of historic aircraft is hosting boys of all ages today. Running between an old autogiro and a "MASH"-style Bell medevac helicopter, 2-year-old Asad Sultan of nearby Garnet Valley pauses to proudly show me the chopper stamp on his hand.
It's late afternoon on my shopping trip, and I haven't bought anything. Still, I don't panic. Downtown West Chester turns out to have an old-fashioned business district (so old it's actually called High Street) with stone churches, a courthouse and boutiques with nothing I need. Passing the campus of West Chester University, I drive into a wintry Andrew Wyeth painting. Past a frozen pond stands a weathered barn with a few cars parked outside and a few hundred thousand old books inside. Four miles and light years away from QVC, I've reached the antithesis of multimedia retailing: Baldwin's Book Barn.
It's the real deal, with an antique bell that jingles as I open the battered door. A wood stove flickers in the corner, and a cat snoozes alongside. The floor is strewn with brown shopping bags stacked solid with new acquisitions.
"Every morning, the front porch is full of books," says Tom Baldwin, the affable owner, whose father started the business in 1934. He sounds delighted. I'm equally pleased to find "Target Tokyo," one of the few World War II histories my husband hasn't read. I give $12 to the smiling clerk, he hands me my purchase and the transaction is complete, without shipping or handling.
Now that's an instant-gratification retailing model that just might catch on.