NEW YORK — The stars of this television show were a juice extractor, an emerald and zirconia ring, a 52-inch doll dressed in pink Chantilly lace, a gold-tone flatware set in a bamboo pattern and much more.
The show is the world's longest commercial--the Home Shopping Network's 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week cable broadcast. It allows viewers to shop at home by calling an 800-number to buy the discounted merchandise shown on the screen.
"Rock bottom," Carmela, the relentlessly cheerful hostess, said about the price of almost every item.
Video shopping may be the wave of the merchandising future, although it will never replace browsing at Tiffany's or taking the Concorde to Paris to pick up a few things from Yves St. Laurent.
But for discount shoppers, bargain hunters and yard sale addicts, shopping at home is convenient, hypnotizingly repetitive and possibly addictive.
It was pioneered by HSN, a firm based in Clearwater, Fla., that went on TV locally in 1982 and went national last year. It now broadcasts two 24-hour-a-day shows, the original Network 1, and Network 2 for upscale items.
HSN reaches approximately 7 million homes in 50 states, and also can be picked up by the nation's 1.7 million homes with satellite dishes.
Competition is appearing on the scene, and by September home shopping via television may be available to 15 million of the nation's 40 million cable homes, according to an estimate by Steve Tuttle, vice president of the National Cable Television Assn.
Shopping by television combines the convenience of catalogue buying with the feeling of participating in a game show--and perhaps even a talk show.
It works this way. HSN employs 24 hosts to pitch the thousands of items on sale. An item--say the juice extractor--is shown on the screen, along with its retail or discount price, its price to members of the HSN Club, and the 800-number that shoppers can call.
HSN uses as many as 130 telephone answerers at a time to take calls on its automatic call distribution system. Each item stays on the screen for an average of three to five minutes. Once it goes off the screen, it is gone--no longer available. That puts the pressure on to call in or lose out.
There is no schedule of what will be sold when--you watch your screen and take potluck, except for special events such as a two-hour gold jewelry sale.
The first time a would-be customer calls HSN, she becomes a member of the Home Shopping Club, gets a membership number and $5 credit toward her first purchase. During a half-hour daytime sampling of HSN, almost all the callers were women.
Callers also may find themselves chit-chatting on-air with the show's hosts, who are aggressively upbeat and keep the atmosphere homey and friendly.
Customers can pay by credit card or personal check.
"We try to make it fun--nobody can take a hard sell 24 hours a day," said Judy Ludin, director of public relations for HSN.
"Shopping always has been a social experience. People used to go to the town square to bring their merchandise to sell or barter. The town square turned into Main Street, and then that changed and they called it a mall. We brought that social experience to television, live, 24 hours a day."
Ludin said the idea of HSN began when its president, Lowell Paxson, was running a Clearwater AM-radio station that ran into hard times in the 1970s. It was getting hard to sell advertising, so he turned instead to selling merchandise on radio.
The idea worked on radio from 1977 to 1982, when Paxson tried it--again successfully--on television in the Tampa Bay area.
The shopping service has been so successful, in fact, that it is being imitated. COMB of Plymouth, Minn., one of HSN's major suppliers of discount merchandise, decided to go into business for itself and in April offered cable viewers Cable Value Network.
TCI, the country's largest operator of cable systems, bought into Cable Value Network. Now a letter of intent has been signed that will give TCI, ATC, the nation's second largest cable operator, and Warner Communications, which ranks sixth, a half interest in Cable Value Network.