Dermot Boyd, chief executive of QVC UK and one of its first employees, is having a year of 20th anniversary moments. “The date of the company’s foundation was April 6, 1993,” he recalls. “The BSkyB deal was done in June and we took on our first employee in July. The first day on air was at the start of October.”
Mr Boyd, 53, who previously worked for womenswear chain Alexon, textiles group Tootal, ICI and accountants Price Waterhouse, served as chief operating officer and finance director before becoming chief executive four years ago.
The UK operation was the first overseas venture of QVC, which bought out the BSkyB stake in 2004 and now has channels in Germany, Japan, Italy and a joint venture in China.
QVC is owned by Liberty Interactive, the Nasdaq-listed company perhaps best-known for its chairman, cable TV tycoon John Malone. Last year, it had revenues of $ 8.5bn (£5.5bn).
Broadcasting live on Sky, Virgin and Freeview from 9am to 2am, with the other seven hours of programming recorded, the QVC Live channel’s highest price achieved is £26,851 for a strand of South Sea pearls. A £34.32 replica of Kate Middleton’s Epiphany platinum-clad diamonique oval cluster engagement ring saw sales increase 800pc after being featured on the channel.
So who’s tuning in? QVC UK doesn’t buy viewing figure research, saying it can find out how many people are watching from the number of products that it sells. The answer, however, appears to be largely people over the age of 35, with female customers outstripping male buyers.
QVC UK specialises in five product areas: beauty, fashion, home furnishings, jewellery and home electronics, holding promotions with companies such as cosmetics brands Elemis, L’Occitane and Gatineau.
“We tend to have good brands that you’ll find in the major department stores but you won’t necessarily find on every high street,” says Mr Boyd.
“If something’s in every Boots, that’s not really of interest. But if it’s in Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and John Lewis, we’d probably be interested.
“In the early days, brands used to be nervous about what would happen to other customers if they put their products for sale through us. But actually it can work well for everybody. It also works as TV advertising.”
Mr Boyd says the key to QVC’s sales success is that designers and brand owners take to the airwaves personally to demonstrate their products. “It will be someone who knows the brand intimately and can give the brand story and explain the features and benefits,” he states. “It makes good television as well as interesting retail.”
Lulu Guinness has been on air to sell her luxury handbags, while Kelly Hoppen has sold bedding and Lisa Snowdon showcased her range of jewellery.
QVC also sells electronics equipment from the likes of Dyson, Bose, Hewlett-Packard and Apple. Can it match Amazon’s prices?
“We won’t guarantee to be the cheapest,” says Mr Boyd.
“Fundamentally when somebody buys from us we want them to have a great experience with excellent customer service so they come back to us. We really don’t want it to be a one-time experience.
“I wouldn’t say Amazon is our biggest competitor. It’s more the department stores.”
Mr Boyd admits, however, that QVC as a shopping brand has some way to go, with some perceptions of the channel dating back to its first five years when it had a narrower range of merchandise. Then there’s the problem of visibility, due to the proliferation of TV and shopping options.
“The number of channels has just expanded and expanded,” he says. “It becomes hard to be seen. Having people come and see what we actually sell, as opposed to what they think we sell or what we sold 10 years ago, is one of the ongoing challenges.”
There has also been the recession but Mr Boyd says it has hardly dented the channel’s single-digit-percentage annual sales growth.
He plays down the idea of the death of the high street and the retail industry. “It’s like television in the age of internet and mobile,” he says. “The death of television is often announced but rarely arrives. People’s behaviour doesn’t change as quickly as technology.
“We’re still convinced that there’s a place for TV shopping and we’d rather be on television than on the high street.”