Meanwhile, they stress the status-enhancing aspects. Compulsive shoppers (most of whom seem to be women) tend to zero in on jewelry, makeup, clothes, and consumer electronics—in other words, status goods. The hosts play up how the products will improve your appearance or your parties, or, when given as gifts, endear you to your friends.
Disastrously for compulsive shoppers, QVC shopping strips away the negative cues, separating the pain of paying from the joy of buying. All transactions are handled electronically, which, studies show, makes them seem less real; that’s why so many people get themselves into trouble with credit cards. QVC takes this one step further with its “easy pay” system, which allows shoppers to split the cost over as many as five credit-card payments, without incurring any finance charges.
Lots of stores take credit cards. But only QVC strips away all the negative cues. Compulsive shoppers can get a huge rush out of buying, but they also may feel deep shame about their spending binges. The anonymity of QVC’s automated ordering allows them to avoid the shame—yet QVC still provides those “parasocial relationships,” a simulacrum of the camaraderie that most women enjoy when shopping with friends. There are no good data on what percentage of shopping-network customers are spending too much (my fiancé would say “All of them”). But some analysts think that compulsive spending is on the rise, in part because we are richer, but also because the Internet and the shopping channels stimulate it.
The QVC process is so finely calibrated that a producer watches call volume in real time; whenever it spikes, the host hears a voice in his or her ear: “Whatever you just said, say it again. It’s working.” The lessons are disseminated to other hosts, and to the product spokespeople, who must spend hours training before they may present their products on air.
QVC has not created any of these techniques; it has only mastered them. Which is why QVC’s relationship with its customers tells you a lot about what America has been doing for the past 20 years or so. More and more buying on credit, fewer real-life interactions, a proliferating array of products to tempt us—and of “new media” outlets allowing companies to better target their audiences with parasocial fantasies. No wonder we’ve got a bit of a hangover.
But the people on my tour didn’t go away disillusioned after learning the art of the hard sell; as soon as the tour was over, they gang-rushed the QVC Studio Store.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, since most of the QVC fans I know savor the variations on the hard sell. In fact, that’s part of the fun; you can’t help but enjoy the skill with which they sell you things you don’t quite need.
Unfortunately, it’s not so enjoyable for the substantial minority who can’t control themselves when access to credit (and new goods) is too easy. Worse, more and more Americans seem to have lost that self-control, which is why our household savings rate fell to barely 1 percent five years ago. That’s bounced back to 4 percent—better, but nothing compared with the more than 10 percent in countries like Germany and France. And though the total amount of Americans’ outstanding credit-card debt has fallen, a recent survey by the site Card Hub implies that this decline is largely due to credit-card companies’ write-offs of bad debt, rather than consumers’ reductions in spending. In retrospect, the idea that the Great Recession would dramatically alter our spending habits seems as wishful as the idea that 9/11 heralded a lasting change in our civic conduct.