Carmela Richards is the kind of woman who would sell you the mink coat off her back. In fact, five nights a week there is a good chance she will sell you the mink coat off her back, along with the gold chains around her neck and the computer on her desk.
Richards, once a department store fashion coordinator, makes her living these days in the burgeoning, frenzied world of televised home shopping. Mondays through Fridays she can be seen nationwide on Minneapolis-based CVN (Cable Value Network), during what she proudly hails as "prime-time," extolling the virtues of anything from furs to home furnishings.
Like other televised home-shopping services, CVN offers its merchandise at discounted prices. One night, a full-length fox fur (modeled, cuddled and praised by Richards) carried a suggested retail price of $3,999. CVN's price was $1,295, and it dropped even lower, to $1,195, if viewers called while the honey-haired hostess was still on the air.
So far, compared with the glut of porcelain dolls, cubic-zirconia pendants, heater/fan combinations, televisions and tool kits, often offered 24 hours a day, there isn't a whole lot of apparel beamed at viewers from the nation's many home-shopping shows. "Our best estimates indicate it's 10% to 15% of all items sold," says Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst with Paul Kagan Associates.
But in an industry that has surprised everyone with its overnight success, and now is frantically looking for the next great gimmick, apparel is considered a major contender.
Ellis Simon, editor of Cable Marketing, a New York-based trade publication, says he doesn't know of anything in televison that "has hit as hard and fast as home shopping. In a couple of years, I think this thing is going to be bigger than HBO."
Clothing, according to Simon, "has as good a shot as anything. I think the potential is very exciting, if it's done right. Look at the success of catalogues like Banana Republic, Land's End and Spiegel, they're all doing a booming business. If you can sell something just by having people look at a picture of it, imagine what you can do with 30 seconds of someone modeling it."
Already something called the Fashion Channel, which will emanate from Los Angeles, is scheduled for a summer launch against a background of cloak-and-dagger secrecy.
Highly protective of their concept, the producers will only comment that the two- to four-hour program "will be like taking a Nordstrom and putting it on the air. There will be moderate to upper-moderate priced fashions for the whole family."
Lorimar-Telepictures, Fox Television Stations and Horn & Hardart (who publish Hanover House catalogues) all jumped on the bandwagon on Monday with their joint venture, "ValueTelevision" (VTV). Shown six times a week on KTTV, the syndicated "VTV" operates with a polished, soft-sell, talk-show format led by hosts Alex Trebek and Meredith MacRae.
The show's executive producer, Susan Winston, one-time CBS News executive and former executive producer of "Good Morning America," says fashion will be seen on an almost daily basis.
"It's one of the exciting things--to help our audience develop a wardrobe. We have an entire group of designers and consultants working for us in New York. We're taking what we know will be hot-selling items and putting them out under our own Video Collection label," Winston says.
Convinced that TV shopping needs to be turned into a "dignified experience--you're never going to hear us say: 'There are only 10 left' "--Winston plans to have the private-label clothing and accessories modeled by celebrities such as Charlene Tilton and Jane Seymour.
"I'm in business to have a good show and get good ratings," Winston says. "Selling the product is secondary. But if someone is going to buy, it might as well be on my program."
The talk-show format had a brief, successful workout late last year when STN (Shop Television Network), currently a cable operation, was tested around the country.
On a CBS "Morning News" segment that compared HSN (Home Shopping Network), pioneer of the phenomenon, with Shop Television Network, the latter fared better. Economic correspondent Robert Krulwich, who wasn't swayed by Bargain Bob and HSN's buy-it-or-lose-it attitude, found that, by contrast, STN had "kind of a Bloomingdale's feeling." The format and host Pat Boone were so convincing that Krulwich was tempted to buy a 48-piece set of flatware.
STN President Michael Rosen says the program will be back in Los Angeles "before the end of April" and will have more items like the fur jacket and the jewelry modeled by a celebrity expert who obviously knows about such things: Beverly Sassoon.
Ninety percent of the show's merchandise, which so far has ranged from goose-down comforters to educational toys and fitness equipment, "is not close-out merchandise," Rosen claims. "But we had Calvin Klein underwear for women, and that was a close-out."