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QVC helped pioneer shopping from home. Here's how the company is changing -- and competing against TikTok

Joseph N. DiStefano, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

From its sprawling, 1,500-worker studio headquarters in Chester County, Pennsylvania, QVC and its affiliates developed home-shopping TV, packing channels for more than 30 years with live hosts and celebrities pitching clothing, kitchen goods, electronics, jewelry, and many other products to millions of viewers and filling their orders from suppliers and warehouses.

Today QVC, the West Chester-based core of Qurate Retail Inc., which includes clothing brands and small U.S., Western European and Japanese shopping channels, is struggling to cover its costs. It’s competing in a new world where it can be surprisingly cheap for energetic individuals working from home to reach millions of consumers through fast, slick product posts on TikTok (which QVC also uses) and other smartphone-based media.

Qurate’s CEO of the past two years, David L. Rawlinson II, who earlier ran industrial supplier W.W. Grainger and then consumer analytics giant NielsenIQ, notes that the company has faced and beaten earlier tech-based competition, including when Amazon tried to start its own home-shopping programs.

Rawlinson, a South Carolina native, Harvard grad, and longtime Chicago resident now living in Wayne, says he’s confident Qurate will survive because it has its “irreplaceable” studios, increasingly efficient video and consumer technology to produce more programming at lower costs, and a core of affluent female repeat customers who spend more each year.

With traditional TV services like Comcast Xfinity losing customers, Qurate has lately launched QVC and its smaller, Florida-based HSN channel through services such as Roku, Amazon Free, and Vizio Smart TV, and are also available through Qurate’s new livestream app Sune. The company says that more than two-thirds of its revenues now comes from computer and smartphone shoppers.

Analysts say Qurate can stay in business at least as long as the company’s major shareholders, Liberty Media founder John C. Malone and Liberty executive Greg Maffei, share Rawlinson’s confidence — and a willingness to bet on better times ahead.

 

Hollywood East

Started by serial business-founder Joseph Segel in 1986, QVC fast became an icon of American television. In the early 1990s, Fox Broadcasting cofounder Barry Diller used QVC to start his own media empire. In 1995, Comcast bought majority control and then in 2003 sold its shares to Malone’s Liberty Media, in a deal valuing the company at $14 billion. Liberty sold shares to the public, but Malone and Maffei kept control of voting shares.

The company now employs 19,000 people worldwide, including 2,000 at its Bethlehem warehouse and at other eastern Pennsylvania sites, in addition to the West Chester headquarters.

Celebrity salespeople like Dolly Parton augment a brigade of homegrown presenters, who, starting in the 1990s, drew busloads of eager viewers to its West Chester studios.

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