VENDORS: LOST IN THE SHUFFLE

Byline: Sharon Edelson

NEW YORK--Some vendors say scheduling a meeting with a buyer from QVC or HSN is about as easy as getting an audience with the Pope.
The problem stems from the popularity of television home shopping: With more manufacturers interested in selling on TV, buyers are staggering under the weight of hundreds of samples each week.
"It's almost impossible to deal with HSN and QVC," said Dorrane Jung, former director of marketing of original programming for MCA/Universal Home Video. "I was just doing research to find out what the terms of sales are. I was unable to get someone to call me back."
"They're not prepared to follow up," said one vendor. "What they've done is push us into a situation where getting products on QVC is a slow and tedious process."
While many of the companies most coveted by the networks still view electronic retailing as too downscale for their products, there is no shortage of firms willing to sell to HSN or QVC.
But a company's size is no guarantee.
"Even Fortune 500 companies haven't been able to get a foot in the door and have their calls returned," said an industry consultant. "Many of the buyers have a retail background and are not familiar with direct response, so things that would not work at retail will be turned down, although with a specific slant they could work on home shopping."
The surfeit of products and phone calls, along with the increased pressure of processing them all, has not gone unnoticed by home shopping executives.
"We've been getting much more sensitive to this issue about how deluged the buyers are," said Bill Lane, director of new product and merchandise development at QVC. "The attitude is that we want and need new products."
QVC recently created a vendor relations department, which accepts 200 to 250 phone calls a day from people with products, ideas or concepts, then forwards them a product questionnaire.
"Our goal is for every one of the vendor questionnaires to get a response within two to three weeks," said James Held, executive vice president of merchandising, sales and product planning at QVC.
HSN has seen requests for its vendor information kit increase dramatically this year, said Doug Bailey, president of Home Shopping Club, the retailing arm of HSN.
"We have a central reservation desk where any manufacturer calling to present goods is scheduled to see a merchant," he said, adding that HSN has 42 buyers. "Sometimes it may take a month or two to see a buyer, which in our opinion is not responsive enough."
HSN is also holding an open vendor day Aug. 25.
"Our intent is to allow manufacturers not currently selling to home shopping to present items in 15 minutes to a buyer," Bailey said. "By doing this monthly, we hope we can also open the door to someone who doesn't know how to sell to us or feels they don't have a chance."
The fact that some vendors feel lost in the bureaucracy of the giant shopping networks is underscored by the growing use of product brokers.
The brokers, who take a percentage of the manufacturer's product sales--usually 5 to 10 percent--have contacts at QVC and HSN that give them access to buyers.
They come from different backgrounds, including sales, the infomercials industry and talent agencies. The brokers are usually referred from vendor to vendor and agree to represent products they think will succeed on TV.
"The only way to get in is to use a broker to get the buyer's attention," said a vendor. "Major manufacturers are using brokers too."
One SA manufacturer said her broker "knows everyone at QVC, and whoever she doesn't know she can get to because she has her foot in the door."
The selling networks deny encouraging the use of brokers.
"We do not force brokers because many times it affects the price of the product," said Held. "We're delighted to get products from the manufacturer."
However, a source close to QVC said, "The official answer would be no, but the reality is that if a broker knows how to deal with [QVC], it's easier to use a broker. I can see why vendors may feel they need a broker."
Bailey of HSC said, "To the extent that a broker provides a worthwhile service, it's okay. But if the broker lives nearby and communicates to the marketplace that he can get something on HSC, I would discourage it."
Aside from brokers, there are other types of facilitators. Steven Dworman, the publisher of The Infomercial Marketing Report, an industry newsletter, organized The First Annual Home Shopping Buying Symposium as a way for vendors to meet home shopping buyers.
The symposium, which will be held in Marina del Rey, Calif., in September, includes a sunset cruise with "the industry's top buyers" and seminars about "what the networks are really looking for in terms of products."
Dworman promises to deliver representatives from HSN, QVC, The S Channel and ValueVision. The cost: $3,995.
Held said QVC has added merchandise directors and buyers and hired Lane, an executive from the former shopping show "Can We Shop?" to source and develop new merchandise. The network currently has 45 buyers.
However, five buyers recently left QVC to join Fingerhut's new S Channel. Held said the resignations had no impact on the buying operation.
But with new shopping networks such as The S Channel about to be launched, experienced buyers for television shopping are going to be even more in demand. And the situation is likely to get worse before it improves.
"There are a limited number of people who really understand this industry, and as the additional networks come on-line, these people are being split more ways now," said Jeffrey Glickman, president of First Class Marketing. "There is already a backlog of products going to buyers. The movement of people from one home shopping network to another is going to delay it even more."
Unlike some of the other networks, S is dividing its buying organization into seven teams, each covering a product category, to keep communication open between buyers, marketers, directors, producers and show talent, who must all weigh in on a product's feasibility.
"The intent is to move quickly and not let any issues interfere with a decision," said Dick Tate, vice president of merchandising for The S Channel. "You never know what might come through the door," Tate said. "It might be the next Susan Powter."

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