Tune in, sit down for the soft sell: Esther Oxford on the dawn of 24-hour TV shopping

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The Independent Online
PAUL LAVERS was half-way through his three-hour talking shift but not for one moment did he lose momentum: 'Take a look at that serrated knife edge - that will cut the toughest meat, not that any of you would eat tough meat. And look at that handle. It has the utmost strength and purpose, cutlery with a steel tang - what a lovely word that is.'

Three television cameras followed his every movement. Even the 'scene changes' between items went smoothly. The only hint of chaos lay among the courgettes and crumbs on the kitchen floor. But the cameras were too busy filming the burning pancake in the non-stick frying pan to notice. 'We demonstrate all our products,' said the tour guide in an awed whisper. 'It is the job of the presenter to spend between two to eight minutes explaining each product.'

On Friday, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation opened its first 24-hour television shopping channel, QVC - Quality, Value and Convenience. The scheme has been launched by BSkyB and its new partner, Barry Diller, chairman of the American QVC home- shopping network.

Viewers already subscribing to BSkyB's new multi-channel package can tune in, select a purchase, order it at any time of day or night, then expect a 'quality', fully guaranteed product to arrive within three to five days. Shoppers who place an order are given a membership number - it makes them feel they are part of an exclusive club and helps them to become more involved. The channel will rely on repeat buyers, says Popli Khalat-Bari, a QVC director. 'We have to persuade our viewers to trust us.'

At the moment the company has one warehouse and that is in Liverpool. Goods are bought in bulk to keep the prices down - at least 20 per cent lower than the recommended retail price. The company has 2,000 lines of stock.

In the US, QVC reaches 47 million homes. Since it was introduced eight years ago the television shopping habit has built up sales of dollars 1bn (more than pounds 650m). Last year it more than doubled its profits to dollars 109m. The British version of QVC has relatively modest aspirations: the audience target is three million.

And the profits predicted? Ms Khalat-Bari is coy. 'We can't give out figures - but we do not expect to make a profit for at least a year.'

The opening show of the shopping channel featured a novelty 'yellow beetle' alarm clock for pounds 16.50. 'We thought very carefully as to whether we should start with a theme - such as toys or jewellery. In the end we went for novelty goods - people want them as souvenirs. We sold out of the 400 in stock within minutes,' said Ms Khalat-Bari.

To coincide with Friday night's boxing match between Frank Bruno and Lennox Lewis, 100 pairs of autographed boxing gloves were put on sale at pounds 100 a pair, or pounds 70 for a single glove. The telephone lines jammed and the gloves were gone 'in seconds'.

The home shopping vision is Mr Diller's. The former head of 20th Century Fox, Mr Diller was among the first to explore the possibility of linking the seven sisters of global communications: film studios, television networks, cable companies, telephone, computer and consumer-electronics firms and publishers.

At first people laughed at his idea. Now, nobody is willing to dismiss publicly the 'interesting marriage' of communications he envisioned. Eventually, home shopping will be interactive.

J C Penney, the US retailer, is taking part in a test programme called TV Answer, which allows viewers to order goods with a remote-control handset. Technology is also being developed to allow viewers to order, down a telephone line, their own television programming.

At the moment Mr Diller's greatest concern is to ensure that British people perceive his shopping channel as 'up-market'. The advertising leaflets show a cosy, 'middle-income' couple snuggling up together on the sofa in a luxurious room.

Ms Khalat-Bari says it is wrong to imagine that bored housewives and elderly people will be the only customers.

'Look at me. I haven't had a weekend off for five weeks. There are professionals out there who don't get time to shop. This channel is for them,' she said.

'The last thing you want to do on your day off is battle up the local high street with the masses. People talk about 'keeping in touch with the community'. But the last thing I want to do is to commune with a battlefield.'

What kind of income does she expect most of the audience to be on? 'Above average,' was the answer. Then: 'Above pounds 10,000, I suppose.'

An hour later, Jon Briggs, 28, was waiting in the wings to take over from Mr Lavers. Before working for Sky, Mr Briggs did 'voice-overs' so he is used to sounding sexy and pattering on and on. 'The producers are looking for presenters who enjoy explaining things to people. They must also display an intimate knowlege of the product,' Mr Briggs said, in the tone and manner of a performer speaking directly to the camera.

The show is divided into themes: jewellery runs for an hour, then toys, clothes, and household goods. An element of surprise is nurtured to build expectation. Instead of having Katy or Julie in the kitchen we had Paul. And meanwhile, backstage, one of the other bubbly, mane-haired, shapely young things was preparing the DIY slot. 'We are appealing to a modern audience,' explained Ms Khalat-Bari. 'They need to be open-minded enough to appreciate the new ideas and attitudes we have on offer.'

Meanwhile, Mr Lavers was coming to the end of his shift. 'Plenty of warmth . . . organic . . . strength . . . safe . . . secure,' he was saying about a set of microwave dishes. He breathed into the camera, smiling intimately, eyes crinkled, gaze steady.

(Photograph omitted)