Notice anything different lately about Mom's TV-viewing habits? Does she watch for hours on end, clutching her credit card in one hand and the telephone in the other? Is she smitten with a TV personality named Budget Bob? Has she started getting packages in the mail that contain everything from ersatz diamond rings to brass eagles? And what about Dad? Has he been babbling about someone on TV named Bubblin' Bobbi? Is his workshop suddenly overflowing with tools, gadgets and trinkets that keep arriving via United Parcel Service?
Uh oh. Like many other American consumers, Mom and Dad may be hooked on home shopping, the hottest concept in television since rock videos hit the tube. The rapidly proliferating shopping programs feature friendly but persistent announcers who promote an array of bargain-priced products and implore viewers to order them (right now!) by calling toll-free numbers. Designed to spur impulse purchases, the programs combine the glitter of a game show, the hard sell of an old Veg-O-Matic commercial and the fervor of a telethon. About 20 home-shopping programs have appeared on the screen, and more are on the way. Home-shopping sales are expected to jump from an estimated $360 million this year to perhaps $1 billion in 1987.
The craze heated up this summer, spurred by the Home Shopping Club, a live 24-hour program based in Clearwater, Fla. Started in 1982 by two local businessmen, Roy Speer and Lowell Paxson, the program was originally seen in just 125,000 homes in Florida. After going national in July 1985, the show now reaches more than 10 million cable households over the Home Shopping Network. A rotating crew of 24 hosts with such names as Budget Bob Circosta and Bubblin' Bobbi Ray dangle and demonstrate products, while operators on 400 toll-free lines plug the orders into video-display terminals.
The club has attracted a cultlike following, partly because its hosts chat with callers on the air. "Well, Laura, can you believe this price?" asks Circosta of a caller from Sandusky, Ohio, as he displays a unicorn-shaped pendant and earring set, marked down from a "suggested retail" of $35 to $7.75. When callers sign off, Circosta salutes them with a toot from the program's trademark: a rubber-bulbed horn. It may be corny, but the recipe works. HSN's net sales for the fourth quarter of fiscal 1986 hit $53.4 million, up from $4.9 million during the same period in the previous year.
HSN won quick acceptance by offering low-priced (average item: $33), reliable products culled from closeouts and liquidations. The network heavily pushes such items as porcelain music boxes and imitation diamonds called cubic zirconia. But Home Shopping has started a second channel, HSN 2, which offers trendier, more expensive products, probably because that is the lucrative direction its rivals are taking.
One slick new cable service, TelShop, a joint venture of Financial News Network and Comp-U-Card International, expects to lure bigger spenders with such attractions as videocassette recorders, vacation packages and exercise bicycles. Another upscale contender, Shop Television Network, which will officially hit the airwaves next week, hopes to stand out from competitors by featuring a celebrity host, Singer Pat Boone, and guest experts like Figure Skater Scott Hamilton.