Dreams on Consignment
One woman's journey into the weird world of TV home shopping, and back again. And again.
By Lisa Birk
AUGUST 23, 1999: Victoria Tane stands either five-four or five-two-and-a-half. It depends on who's asking, which makes sense when you get to know her. Tane, 47, is a North Cambridge inventor-entrepreneur. She makes her living designing jewelry and fashion accessories, but her real gift is for transformation.
On her dining-room table is an ornate gold candelabra, which turns out to be an upside-down light fixture she picked out of the trash. A few years ago, when her seven-year-old son, Zack, wanted to sell lemonade, she built him a pushcart from a trash-picked wheeled TV stand and an umbrella. She painted the umbrella purple and pink and green with yellow lemons, attached it to the matching painted cart, and speared a plastic yellow squeeze lemon on the umbrella spike. The result was functional and fabulous-looking. Architects and designers would stop and ask where he got such a thing.
Now Tane is in the middle of the biggest transformation project of her life: herself. This is why, on a sultry June morning, she is outside Philadelphia driving a tinny rented Geo to the television studios of QVC, Inc., the largest home-shopping network in the country. This is why she is singing to herself, at 5:30 in the morning, after five hours of sleep. "Dunh-daa-da, dunh-da-da-daaadaaa." The song is triumphal, full of horns. It is the Fox fanfare, and she sings it ironically and gleefully as she rounds a grassy island surmounted by towering neon-red letters: QVC.
Over the past 14 months, Tane has flown to Philadelphia six times to appear as a "guest entrepreneur" on QVC. In slots seven to 10 minutes long, she has demonstrated and sold a product of her own invention: Headbenz, the headband that doesn't hurt your head. Headbenz -- a beaded, zigzagged device that Tane created in her Cambridge apartment -- continues to sell well, but by now it's last season's product. Today she is here to sell something new: Jewelbenz, the 2 in 1 Scarf Necklace. Somebody at QVC must have confidence in Tane and her new product, because they've booked her for the morning show, traditionally a very good slot for fashion accessories.
After Tane parks in her lucky spot, she picks up her QVC badge at the front desk. She jokes with the receptionist, seeming relaxed for the first time in weeks. Getting Jewelbenz, a choker of faux pearls interwoven with a polyester scarf, manufactured, packaged, and shipped has been one headache after another, but now she's here and Jewelbenz is here, and all she has to do is demonstrate it on the morning show and sell, sell, sell.
Tane is a born marketer. The first time her son took his lemonade pushcart out to the sidewalk, she taught him to ring a teacher's bell and say to approaching pedestrians, "Would you like an ice-cold glass of lemonade?" Sometimes a man would give him five dollars for a 25-cent lemonade. "I'll come back for the other 20 later," he'd say. Zack has his mother's genes. One time he was leaning out the window when he saw his parents' friends coming for dinner. "Mom," he said, "the customers are here."
Right now Tane is riding a small wave of success. Her most recent QVC appearance was her biggest yet: she sold $82,000 worth of Headbenz in 10 minutes. That sounds like a lot until you subtract QVC's cut (half), and her manufacturing costs, and her agent's fee. Once you do, she's left with about $10,000 in take-home pay -- not bad for 10 minutes on TV, but not enough to pay off the credit cards she has been using to finance the next line of Headbenz.
QVC, it turns out, can be something of a treadmill for guest entrepreneurs such as Victoria Tane. For any inventor, the odds against succeeding are enormous. Joanne Hayes-Rines, editor of Inventors' Digest, estimates that just three percent of all patented items become commercial successes. Tane is doing well to have gotten two products on QVC, but not well enough. Everyone in the business -- her agent, her buyer at QVC, her manufacturer -- is telling her she can't be a one-trick pony, that getting off the treadmill depends on coming up with not just one good product, not just two, not even three, but a stream of new products.
She doesn't know if she'll ever have another good idea. She has inventor's block. Sure, she developed Jewelbenz, but she didn't invent it. A friend saw a scarf-necklace in an antiques store and passed the idea on to her. Now, even before she premieres Jewelbenz, her agent wants to know what's next.
Tane does not know what's next. For now, she just wants this product to sell because she wants to be rich. She wants to make a million bucks.
So she expanded her jewelry-design business. She exhibited at more craft fairs, hosted more private sales, but it wasn't enough. Finally, after three years of intermittent panic and despair, inspiration struck. A Vogue blurb about the return of the headband got her experimenting with wire and beads. To keep the beads in place, she zigged and zagged the wire. Turns out that the zigzags were also really good at holding hair, any kind of hair, in place. On curly or thick hair, you didn't really see the wire, just the beads. And, as luck would have it, her new wire-and-bead headband fit an emerging -- but not yet cresting -- trend of rhinestone butterfly clips and necklaces with beads on invisible strands. Beads were in. Floaty and transparent was in. And then something important happened: she went to bed and forgot to take off the headband.
The next morning she woke up with the headband on, but no headache. If you are a man, or have always had short hair, this may seem a small thing. But most people who wear headbands experience headaches after a few hours, right where the two endpoints press behind the ears. Tane's headband nestled in the hair rather than clamping the head, and she realized she had invented an attractive solution to an irritating, albeit small, problem.
She made up two or three dozen of them for her jewelry booth at Somerville's ArtBeat festival. People loved them. In two hours she sold every Headbenz she'd brought, including the one on her head. Tane couldn't believe it. She'd never seen anything sell like this. Even now, two years later, she still recounts the story with wonder.
"People said, 'You're going to make a shitload of money off this.' And I'd say, 'From your mouth to God's ear.'
"Right then, that Saturday in July," says Tane, "I thought, 'Yes, this can happen. I've got something here.' " It was the first time she saw a way to pay for her son's college tuition, to have a comfortable retirement, to get out.
Rumor has it that TV waiting rooms were originally painted green because green is a calming color and producers wanted guests to relax. QVC's green room is not green, but it is large, with two couches, a coffee table, several chairs, vending machines, a huge TV, and a countertop of computer monitors that track how many of any given product have sold. Off the green room is an enormous bathroom, a studio-size kitchen, and three large dressing rooms. Tane has her pick of dressing rooms: at this hour, there's nobody else here.
She chooses her lucky one, the one closest to the kitchen, and stares at herself in the dressing-room mirror. It's huge -- QVC seems to specialize in huge, as if size all by itself equaled glamour. Her hair is wet and stringy and she has dark circles under her eyes. She was supposed to have an appointment at the free in-house QVC salon, but it's closed. There must have been a mix-up. There's nobody at the front desk, either; no free bagels in the green-room kitchen; and no cups for the free instant coffee. "I guess they left out the "W" in QVC for welcome," says Tane.
Some people, faced with a TV appearance and no cosmetologist, might panic. Victoria Tane goes behind the welcome desk, locates a crate of hair stuff and a cosmetics case the size of an extra-large tackle box, and sets to work. She bends over, flipping her hair over her head. "You're watching the transformation to QVC glam-babe," she says, laughing over the roar of the blow dryer.
Minutes later, the producer, Kim Johnson, walks in. She is slender, dressed in a buttoned shirt and tailored pants, with a walkie-talkie clipped to her belt. Johnson's work is entirely behind the scenes, but she is beautifully made-up nonetheless. Soft eyeliner and eye shadow accentuate green eyes. She wears pale pink lipstick, and her fine blond hair is cut to frame her face.
Tane scrunches her hair. "You're pretty enough to be a host," she says to Johnson.
Johnson blushes, leans away, laughing. "Someday," she says softly.
In about an hour, Tane's segment will begin. But the first order of business is her 10-second promo spot, when the off-camera host will tell viewers that Tane's new product is coming up. On-camera, Tane will smile for 10 straight seconds and repeatedly take off and put on the Jewelbenz. (QVC specializes in products that require demonstration. This is TV, and TV is about action.)
Johnson leaves to set up the promo, and soon the co-host of The QVC Morning Show, Kim Parrish, joins Tane in the dressing room. Parrish is a former Miss West Virginia, and she wears a tastefully understated long skirt and a top, embellished with jewelry. (Later, when Tane compliments her necklace, Parrish will swing her arms wide and say, "Four o'clock." She means that at four, she'll sell the necklace -- as well as the top, the skirt, and everything else she's wearing.)
Tane is camera-ready. Curls cascade from behind her Headbenz. The ivory Jewelbenz ornaments her pale-green suit. She lengthens her neck and smooths the Jewelbenz scarf. "It's a scarf and a necklace," she says.
"Whoa!" says Parrish. Then she fixes on the Headbenz in Tane's hair. "That," she says, pointing at the headband, "is soooo cool."
"I have one for you," says Tane, rummaging through a box and emerging with a silver Headbenz.
"How'd you come up with this?" says the former Miss West Virginia, sliding the wire headband into place. She looks in the mirror, teases her hair. "Love it, love it. Little tease, little pouf. Love it."
Tane watches Parrish watching herself in the mirror. Parrish smiles; Tane smiles.
"What we'll do," says Parrish, "is we'll go into scenarios: 'So you're getting dressed in the morning and instead of wearing the same old shell, put on a Jewelbenz.' Or: 'You need a quick change for the evening, put on a Jewelbenz.' "
"You should do this for a living," says Tane, laughing. Later, she will ask a visitor, sort of jokingly but sort of not, "Do you think I could be a host?"
The 13-year-old network was a winner from the get-go. Its founder, Joseph Segal, also founded the Franklin Mint, the $750 million company that specializes in those "collectible" coins and medals and plates that you see advertised in the Sunday Parade magazine.
When QVC was launched in 1986 -- the letters stand for Quality, Value, Convenience -- the notion of shopping on TV still seemed far-fetched. Three years later, in November 1989, QVC had its first $10 million day. Today, to state the obvious, QVC is really, really big. Broadcasting nonstop every day but Christmas to 70 million viewers, QVC presents 250 products a day -- 91,000 products a year.
To move those products, QVC specializes in the soft sell. Rather than insisting that you need such and such, the hosts (and the guests, if there are any) use what's called the backyard-fence approach to selling. That is, they talk about the product not exactly as salesmen, and not exactly as your best friends, but as if they were your neighbors, just keeping you posted on the latest cool thing.
Judging by the on-air phone calls, viewers do feel neighborly. When one host returned after a six-month leave, he was so besieged with on-air calls from viewers saying how much they missed him that by the end of the hour he no longer bowed deeply and clasped his hands in prayer; he just muttered a weak thanks before moving on.
The QVC set extends the neighbor metaphor. Executives have devoted 8000 square feet of the company's new headquarters to the "studio home" -- a stage set roughly eight times the size of Tane's real house. Every product is presented in the appropriate room: lawn mowers in the garage, grills on the deck, fashion accessories in the bedroom, computers in the home office, cookbooks in the (fake) kitchen (meals are prepared in an off-camera real kitchen), jewelry in the foyer. The studio home is equipped with two working fireplaces and a doorbell. All the windows are fake. Every sky behind every window is blue.
Victoria Tane loves this.
On the set, waiting to go on for her 10-second tease, Tane points at the set's two kitchens: the TV kitchen where food is presented, and the real kitchen where food is actually cooked. "I like the presentation," she says. "I like pulling all the pieces together to put on the show. I like," she says, referring to her makeover in the dressing room, "how scattered and frayed I look and then how polished and professional. It's the woman behind the woman behind the woman."
As long as she's inside QVC headquarters, she feels expansive, hopeful. QVC is a dream factory, where guest entrepreneurs are mini-celebrities with dressing rooms and free bagels (usually), and callers buy faux glamour with two easy payments of $109 for a 14-carat Diamonique ring. When Tane looks at QVC, she sees hope. In the cafeteria, she sees bounty. On the set, she sees ingenuity. Somebody binvented the robotically operated cameras trained on the "studio home."
A half-hour before Tane's segment, we walk down a long, wide white hall drinking juice. Tane uses a straw so that she won't mess up her lipstick. In this 14-acre building, not a single other person is visible. We reach the heart of the QVC building, where four hallways, each wide enough to be a single-lane highway, converge. They meet at the foot of a glass staircase with a glass banister, which ascends into a dome of skylights. At the foot of the stairs is an inlaid circle the color of lapis lazuli; gold letters embedded in the blue read TRUE NORTH. And on the perimeter of the circle, workers have inlaid silver letters with QVC's eight mottoes, which include: PIONEERING SPIRIT. FUN ALONG THE WAY. COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE.
We climb to the top. Tane looks down at the wide, wide white halls and the blue circle of True North. "When you stand here," she says, "you think about big things. You realize that you're a speck.
"But someone, a speck, visualized this, built this," she says with a sweep of her arm. "Here, there's a chance for a speck to be grand."
Or at least a chance for an enterprising mom from Cambridge to get her products onto thousands and thousands of heads and necks. In her first QVC appearance, Tane was on TV for seven minutes and sold 3004 headbands. The next two times, she sold several thousand more, and on May 31, her best day ever, she sold 9474 headbands in 10 minutes at an "introductory price" of $17.31 a pair. That's 16 headbands per second. As Tane says, "Where else can you meet several million people in a few minutes?"
Tane rests her elbows on the banister and looks down at the Logan's Run-esque hallway. "Yesterday, I was crammed in the subway at rush hour. I saw the stains on people's clothes. I smelled people. If they were here in this building, they'd look more put together, less unglued.
"In small spaces, all you want to do is get out."
She and her mother went to a movie, where they saw a woman with her hair in a French twist. That night, Edmark went home and experimented with knitting needles and masking tape. She thought she could create a new style by turning a ponytail "inside out." In time, she designed TopsyTail, which looks something like a crochet needle and, wielded deftly, can create dozens of hairdos. She patented it, and in 1992 she made an infomercial that went international. So far, she's grossed $100 million, according to her former agent, Joan Lefkowitz at Accessory Brainstorms, in New York.
Edmark, being first, is an exception. She sold $100 million worth of one product, but that was the first time anyone had thought to make an infomercial for a hairstyling tool. To hair-accessory entrepreneurs, Edmark is a goddess.
The second hair-accessory millionaire was Denie Schach. Schach had been a hairdresser in Texas for 25 years, and even had her own salon for a few years, before her husband got laid off. They closed the salon, and she went to work for someone else. Nights they stayed up, wondering how they would pay the bills. Their car was repossessed. They had to borrow money to pay the electrical bill. They were desperate.
Schach began teaching hair classes. She specialized in showing long-haired women how to put their hair up. One day she thought, Wouldn't it be great if I could give them some tool, kind of an 11th finger to wrap the hair around? Using a thick, foamy fabric and wire, she sewed a few prototypes of what would become Hairdini. Everyone loved them. She found a manufacturer and an agent -- Joan Lefkowitz again, the same one the TopsyTail lady had hired. Lefkowitz helped get Schach slots on QVC and the Home Shopping Network, and, all told, Schach sold 20 million Hairdinis for $19.95 each. Schach claims that because of a bad deal early on she made just 60 cents off each one sold. Still, 20 million at 60 cents each adds up to $12 million. "For about two months I was a millionaire," she says.
She bought a house on a lake and a Nissan 300ZX and a new 4-Runner. She bought a sailboat and a motorboat. She bought a diamond tennis bracelet and a ruby necklace, and for everything but the house, she paid cash. "The best part of that situation," she says, "was that you could breathe, you had some money in the bank, you could pay your bills."
Then the IRS came along and took its share, and she won't say what else happened -- she's just settled a lawsuit out of court against one of her investors -- but she lost most of the money. That was a year or two ago, but she's boomeranging back. She's got QVC appearances lined up for Mighty Big Hairdini, Teenihairdini, Poofdini, and Clipdini. Once this lawsuit is over, she plans to be a millionaire again.
Tane aims to be the third hair-accessories millionaire. Maybe lightning will strike three times. She's got Joan Lefkowitz as an agent, which is promising. A good agent can get clients on QVC. She can also manage their expectations.
Tane is realistic. She knows her million might come slowly, if at all. "This isn't high tech, where the profits are just phenomenal," she says. "This is manufacturing. This is an item." Whether or not the item sells, Tane owes her vendors and her manufacturers. In the end, if she makes 10 percent on any given order, she's doing really well; meanwhile, she's already maxing out her credit cards to manufacture the next order, which often costs two, three, or four times the profit of her last order.
Even if she always did as well as her best day, it would take 40 appearances to make a million dollars. Averaging four appearances a year with a $10,000 profit, she'd make a million in 25 years. A million spread over 25 years is $40,000, or just about a mid-level teacher's salary.
Tane's no bumpkin. When she laughs it is a heh-heh-heh laugh, dark and deep. But even cynics dream. When asked what motivates her to keep maxing out her credit cards, staying up nights trying to think of What's Next, she doesn't say the urge to create, or preventing headaches in millions of women, or making the world a more beautiful place. She comes right out with the bottom line: "Money," she says, and laughs that heh-heh-heh laugh. Tane is blunt, sardonic, funny, and nevertheless totally smitten with QVC.
On QVC, the host almost invariably asks the guest entrepreneur how she came up with the product. There is a reason for this. QVC's genius is that, along with its products, it sells a story. That's why Edmark, Schach, and Victoria Tane go on-screen. Because what QVC is selling is not just a headband that doesn't hurt your head, but a dream. The dream that ordinary you and ordinary me, with ordinary knitting needles and masking tape and wire and beads, can at the worst moment -- a dead-end job, bankruptcy, despair -- get inspired. And maybe even get rich.
Even people who will never invent a thing seem to get a vicarious thrill from those who have. Tane and her friend Raelinda Woad, an Arlington storyteller and jewelry maker, have noticed that wherever they exhibit, people are intrigued. "At craft fairs," says Woad, "people say, 'Good for you.' People are thrilled you're doing this. It's almost as if they bumped into the 19th century, into someone riding a horse. Everything's so corporate now. It's as if you're breaking the rules when a single funky woman comes up with something and is supporting herself."
QVC capitalizes on that sentiment -- literally. So Tane is prepared for the host's question. But she also knows her Jewelbenz story isn't the compelling up-from-the-depths story that Headbenz is.
"Well," says Tane. "A friend saw it in an antiques store." And then, she says, she developed it. It works, but it's not as good as her other story.
Parrish moves on smoothly. There is talk of the day-to-evening transformation possibilities. Fold it up, put it in your purse. After work, tuck the scarf in your suit over your shell, and voilà, an evening look.
Tane's standards are high. As she walks off the set into the green room, she says, "I think I bombed. I think I was stiff."
Back in the green room, three computer monitors are running real-time displays of product sold. Tane skirts a half-dozen chattering people and hunches over a monitor, squinting. The ivory Jewelbenz numbers rise: 603, 604, 605. The navy isn't doing as well. It sticks at 497. Tane watches the screen closely. Of the 1875 units she shipped to QVC, she has sold 1102 so far.
QVC buys the first half of every shipment wholesale, and the rest is sold on consignment. Beginning with Jewelbenz number 938, whatever does not sell, Tane eats. At this moment, she's contemplating eating 772 Jewelbenz, which could make it tough to cover her costs.
"I don't know if it's going to sell out," she says, and retreats to the dressing room. But she comes out again right away and phones her husband and son. "How'd I do? Did you get it on tape?" she says.
The Red Devil Grill people, pushing a product for their publicly traded company, e4L (Everything 4 Less), are on the other end of the entrepreneurial spectrum from Tane. Many of QVC's 91,000 products come from big corporations such as Kodak, Nintendo, Warner Bros., Corning, and Home Depot. But often even these products are demo'd by one individual, personably, just the way Victoria Tane does her Headbenz and Jewelbenz. This is still the backyard-fence approach; it's just that some "neighbors" are backed by a multimillion-dollar company and an on-site marketing team.
Even so, the Red Devil Grill people are worried. They have six 10-minute slots today, and in their first slot they sold just over 500 grills -- about 1000 fewer than QVC's projections. To sell the remaining 8000, they will have to persuade viewers to buy, on average, two or three grills every second of on-air time.
The Red Devil Grill looks a lot like a Weber grill, only it runs on gas, comes with accessories, and -- when you break it down into two suitcase-size bags -- is portable. During the segment, Australian developer Mick Haste demonstrated the Red Devil's versatility on a half-dozen grills arranged around QVC's outdoor deck. On one grill he stir-fried shrimp; on another he fried eggs. "Do yourself a favor, folks, don't try this at home," said Haste. "I did a birthday cake on here the other day. Caused a sensation." He moved to the next Red Devil Grill, this one covered with a domed top. "Let me show you this, I gotta show you this." He lifted the lid to reveal a golden-brown turkey nestled on a bed of rice, garlanded with potatoes and carrots. And when the host cut him off, he was pulling a lobster from a deep black pot set on yet another Red Devil Grill.
But all of Haste's effort may have been wasted.
"It was upside down," he groans in the green room, sitting alone on a sofa.
Demonstrating the grill set-up, host Kim Parrish goofed. All she had to do was unzip the bags and set up the grill. How hard could that be? Haste had done it a million times: unfold the tripod legs, screw on the propane tank, set the drip pan on the center spindle, spin it like a top, set the grill on the pan and the dome on the grill. Voilà. But when Parrish spun the drip pan, it wobbled and nearly fell. She had to do it several times. And, like all QVC segments, this was filmed live. The set-up took minutes, an eon in TV time. And when the camera pulled back, the Red Devil Grill was upside down, its little feet stuck up in the air, and the dome was still sitting on the grass. In front of thousands, maybe millions, of viewers, the former Miss West Virginia demonstrated that assembling the Red Devil Grill is a pain in the neck.
Now, in the green room, a fidgety Red Devil PR lady perches on the back of a couch, alternately checking her beeper and punching numbers into her cell phone. Two lunkish male food stylists pace. Red Devil's vice-president of retail sales frowns from a deep armchair.
Next to the PR lady is Jane Rudolph Treacy, coifed host of the next show. She's more spiritual than the others, and looks to the ceiling a lot. She's thinking ahead to the next segment.
"I want to start the sell," says Jane, looking dreamily up, "with the sight, the sound, the smell of summer."
"That's what I haven't heard yet," she says, "summer." And she pats the PR lady, who's talking on her cell phone, on the shoulder and walks out.
Haste brightens. "We'll start with the typical summer grill, hamburgers, dogs, then we'll go to the breakfast."
The PR lady looks at her beeper, nods.
"We build to the turkey," says Haste.
A Nordic-looking food stylist, wearing shorts and a beeper, straightens. "You'll have the best sell of the day," he says.
No one on the team asks whether a portable gas grill is desirable; whether a two-suitcase grill is really portable; or whether, when you're done cooking and you return the greasy parts to the nylon suitcases, you'll ever use the Red Devil Grill again.
They don't know it now, but by the end of the day, at least 8000 people won't ask those questions either. The Red Devil Grill will sell out. For now, the last few orders for Jewelbenz are trickling in. The grill people clear out, and Tane cleans up her dressing room. She returns the crate of hairdressing supplies and the tackle box of cosmetics to the welcome desk.
She seems happy, a little reluctant to leave, even though she won't get off the treadmill this time around. Still, she's already lined up an autumn appearance on QVC to demo the new fall line of Headbenz. And Denie Schach, the Hairdini lady -- they met in the green room last time -- wants to join forces, maybe develop a product or two together.
Tane shoulders her suitcase, glances around the now empty green room. The door swings open and Len Czabator, director of custom events, promos, and marketing, stops by the green-room kitchen.
"Are you a millionaire yet?" he says.
Tane lowers the suitcase to the floor and joins him. "Everybody asks me that," she says and leans on the counter near the door.
He slathers a bagel with cream cheese and tears off a bite with his teeth. "So how's business?" he asks.
"It's growing," she says. "It's diversifying. But QVC is my big bad sugar daddy," and she laughs, heh heh heh.
Len takes another bite, leans in real close. He pats her on the shoulder on his way back to the set. "Just make sure he's gentle," he says.
When her stepfather came home, he was furious. Not because she'd sold the family vegetables, but because she'd made money.
"I earn the money here," he said. He was prone to bad tempers and edicts.
That year, her mother enrolled her in the local 4-H sewing club, the Prickly Pins. Tane designed her own dress pattern. It was a simple shift, two pieces, front and back. She sewed a bunch of them, figured the cost of her time and materials, and sold them door to door.
She made a profit.
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