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At-home shopping shows still make a lot of money

Jill Martin of “Steals & Deals” reportedly made NBC $60 million last year.

Jill Martin stands beside stacks of towels in front of a backdrop reading, “Jill’s Steals & Deals.”
Jill Martin’s Today show segment “Steals & Deals” averages 3 million viewers daily.

QVC lifestyle influencer Jill Martin reportedly brought in $60 million in e-commerce revenue for the Today show last year, all from her “Steals & Deals” segment, which presents a bunch of … steals and deals to 3 million people every day, as reported by Fast Company on Thursday.

Morning show ratings are on a steady decline, but the Today show website supposedly sold more than 2 million products during the holiday shopping season, totaling over $12 million in sales during the week after Thanksgiving alone, all because of Martin, a woman who launched her career by cold-calling brands from her apartment and asking them for steals and deals. The Fast Company report also says that one “Steals & Deals” segment, which spent five minutes running through previous best-sellers, resulted in $5 million in sales in a single day.

“People want to buy something from someone they trust. I have established that trust with the viewer,” Martin told Fast Company, which may sound vague and unprovable, except that NBC’s in-house analytics show that sales on its e-commerce platform go up whenever a product is associated with an image of her face.

All this in the era where Instagram influencers are being outed as untrustworthy scammers, sued for “failure to influence,” subpoenaed for financial records, and dropped from lucrative contracts when it turns out their whole image was only possible because of an alleged series of felonies. So: Are the real “influencers” still just TV personalities? They seem to be the people whose endorsements translate directly into sales — all while nobody can say for sure exactly how effective it is to have Selena Gomez pose on Instagram with her Coach purse.

Martha Stewart wearing a centerpiece as a hat on QVC.

The fustiness and human weirdness of QVC, founded in 1986, has been a recurring bit on Saturday Night Live, which often returns to easy jokes about women with Steel Magnolias hair and Old Navy blouses struggling to keep their composure in a high-pressure, low-production-value nightmare. But it actually works, so well that the network was able to buy its main competitor HSN for $2.1 billion last year and the Seattle-based e-commerce company Zulily for $2.4 billion the year before.

QVC’s overall retail revenue is more or less unchanging; the way the money comes in is the most obvious change year over year. The channel has long been associated with middle-of-the-night impulse purchases made over the phone, but it has actually made the transition to the online shopping age pretty smoothly. In 2017, online sales made up 59 percent of QVC revenue in the US, and in 2018 it bounced up to 62 percent. Of those sales, 66 percent were made in a mobile app. Even if you’re willing to buy something from an app, apparently, you still want to be told to buy it from a TV.

There have been some attempts to reinvent the TV-host-influencer formula for a younger generation, including YEAY, which goes by “the Snapchat of shopping” and raised $4.9 million by promising to become the eBay for 12- to 18-year-olds, as well as Down to Shop, which looks like a Super Deluxe parody of a QVC show fueled by amphetamines, and sells things like camouflage onesies, Tupac candles, and giant gummy bears.

Amazon has, of course, launched its own take on the live shopping show format: Amazon Live launched in February with part-time hosts who also work on traditional TV shows, like Rachel Ray, People’s talk show, and Essence Now. It’s a reboot of Style Code Live, the beauty- and fashion-specific live-streaming program it tried to launch two years ago, which was modeled after YouTube beauty vlogs and Instagram spon con.

To get the appeal of TV shopping, just watch an hour of Martha Stewart on QVC. On Thursday afternoon, she was hawking Easter decorations: fake daffodil wreaths, fake chocolate bunnies, and fake candles shaped like eggs. “These are real ceramic, so if you drop it on the floor, it will break, just like a plate,” Stewart explained flatly, holding up a ceramic bunny. Each time an item was shown, viewers were informed exactly how many were still available for purchase, what they cost, and how to split the cost into monthly payments. It was so informative, it was almost as though you didn’t have a choice.

Pointing at a mantlepiece covered in flameless “honeydew”-colored candles, Stewart notes that fake candles don’t leave wax on your woodwork, and that they’re ideal for dorm rooms and assisted living because you aren’t allowed to have open flames in those environments. Real candles, in fact, are an unnecessary danger for virtually anyone, and Stewart tells a short, jarring story about “a young friend’ of hers who fell asleep next to a candle and “got all burned.”

An elderly woman who introduces herself as Nancy calls into the show to attest to the beauty of several of the objects Stewart is selling, and I believe her? It’s all so workaday and borderline grim that it’s hard to believe it could possibly be fake. The exact opposite of Instagram, where everything is so beautiful and so obviously unreal.

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