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Discount Hypnosis : Shopping by TV Becomes New Mania

July 21, 1986|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jane McElveen had seen bargains on TV before, but this one lit up her life like flares in the night.

Budget Bob from the Home Shopping Network was selling miniature figurines by Limoges. Heavens, some of them were only $8.75!

And it was new stuff, too--tiny porcelain shoes and a sewing machine and a grand piano. A feeling came over her a little like madness and a lot like rapture.

She looked over at Duncan, her cockateel. His cage hangs near the display cases where Jane keeps her figurines. That's dirt cheap for Limoges, Jane said out loud.

Then she began dialing Home Shopping's toll-free number, ordering 10, 15, 20 items. Who can remember? It was mania.

'Best $300 I Ever Spent'

To this day, Jane--single and 56--cherishes that one special night. "It was the best $300 I ever spent," she said.

Such is the grip of home shopping fever. And what Jane McElveen of Clearwater, Fla., has long known, much of America is finding out. Discount shopping shows--hypnotic as a price tag 50% off list--are spreading wholesale across cable TV.

Most often, the shows are run by perky hosts who breathlessly present marked-down goods as if each item had just been excavated from a pharaoh's tomb. First they give a retail price, then they slash it down to tempting size. Anyone with a credit card or a checkbook can order.

By September, these shows are expected to reach 20 million cable-equipped homes. Some already are broadcast daily, non-stop. The never-ending sales may be the biggest advance in shopping since the mall.

Quits Going to Stores

"I've quit going to stores," said Mary Bowman, 64, a nurse in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla. "I mean, who needs them?"

Mary first discovered the around-the-clock Home Shopping Network last month. What is all this gibberish on Channel 2, she wanted to know.

Thirty minutes later, she bought a ruby-and-sapphire cross, valued by the show at $275 and knocked down to $96. Ten minutes after that, she bit for the seven small gemstones on a gold chain: retail $100, wholesale $30.

Then she bought a gold-plated cuspidor for her brother-in-law Dale, a talking clock for her brother Fred, a diamond ring for her daughter Vicki and a porcelain bouquet centerpiece for the dining room table.

"You can see a fingerprint where the man hand-painted a flower," said Mary, a widow, while showing it off.

She bought a radio, a ceiling fan, four more pieces of porcelain, a set of white glass jars, three tapestry handbags, a seven-piece cookware set and a fishing kit.

Regrettably, she and Vicki waffled too long about a silver chain with an Indian-head nickel painted in acrylic. At $29.95, the deal quickly sold out.

But as luck would have it, more became available the next morning at 6:30. Vicki saw them on TV while dressing for work, and this time she did not flinch.

"It all comes with an appraisal," she said.

One day, the Home Shopping operator even transferred Mary's call to the host. She was on-the-air live with Budget Bob himself.

"Hi, Mary!" said Bob, who is her favorite. "How long have you been watching us?"

"About $2,000 worth," Mary replied.

First It Was Teen-Agers

Cable TV has brought on addictions like this before. Teen-agers stare at MTV for hours, rapt in hopes of seeing a favorite band meld their music into a video dream world.

But with home shopping shows it is adults who are hooked. They await a great price for a hand-painted soup tureen or an ultrasonic insect repeller.

Few understand the lure of it all any better than Roy M. Speer, chairman of Home Shopping Network, based here in Clearwater:

"Remember when your mother had a pot-bellied radio and she kept it going all day while she did housework? Well, this is the new pot-bellied radio."

A home shopping show is like a cut-rate home companion.

Last year, HSN became the first of them to go national. The largest as well, it reaches about 8 million homes in areas that include Long Beach, Torrance, Costa Mesa and Van Nuys.

Sales Exceed $500,000 Daily

In the last nine months, more than 350,000 people have bought merchandise, on the average purchasing 17 items at $32 apiece, according to the company. Sales exceed $500,000 a day.

Usually, the bargains are presented in no predictable order. A home computer may follow a leather handbag, then a 17-piece demitasse set with a musical pitcher that plays the theme from "Love Story."

Some of the goods, especially the jewelry, are made for HSN. Most of the rest are closeouts and overstock.

Delivery by United Parcel is promised in seven to 10 days. There is a 30-day policy on returns.

"We sell as cheap as possible," Speer said. "If it's on the air, people know it's a bargain. Impulse does the rest."

Others Rushing In

More than a dozen other outfits are trying to tap the home shopping market. They are planning shows--or are already airing them in limited time slots.

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