After Governor Tom Wolf ordered all “non-life-sustaining” businesses in several counties in Pennsylvania to shutter last week — as one of more than a dozen governors to issue “stay at home” or “shelter in place” orders to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus — only the most Dickensian remained in operation.
It was not possible, on Monday, to send a child to school in Pennsylvania or for the Department of Transportation to perform any but the most urgent bridge repairs. But bookkeepers, slaughterhouses, steel mills and QVC stayed open.
Indeed, by grace of the commonwealth’s declaration that “electronic shopping and mail-order houses” should be permitted to continue physical operations, viewers in every state and territory of the American republic retained the right to purchase, say, a reversible sequin shamrock T-shirt in six installments of $ 6.41, as advertised by a QVC host broadcasting live from the home shopping company’s TV studio in West Chester, a suburb of Philadelphia.
In some respects, no network is better suited to see viewers through the unraveling global catastrophe. Even under normal conditions, the shopping channel’s hypnotic, sales pitch-style programming soothes like a balm.
In the mouths of its vivacious hosts, continuously babbling like brooks of clear, cool water, every detail is delightful (ruched jacket sleeves) or, at worst, astonishing (the amount of filling stuffed into savory frozen ravioli). The company’s founder Joseph Segel, once summarized its appeal with the observation, “There’s no bad news on QVC.”
This week, bad news was periodically acknowledged to exist.
Some QVC viewers, perhaps, took comfort in the fact that Quacker Factory, the purveyor of shamrock shirts, had not been requisitioned to manufacture the N95 masks and ventilator machines in critically short supply at American hospitals. But they could not ignore the fact that all the guests dialed in remotely, via phone call or Skype — a circumstance that meant the on-screen hosts, in addition to temporarily styling their own hair and makeup to reduce the number of staff present, needed to perform herculean feats to fill the airtime.
Parents wishing to sharpen children’s extemporaneous speaking skills during their prolonged absence from class would do well to present them with the challenge faced by host Kerstin Lindquist at the one o’clock hour on Monday: endeavoring, for sixty minutes, to sell sunglasses to a population heavily discouraged — in some localities, legally prohibited — from amusing itself outdoors.
“You need them for skiing,” Ms. Lindquist said of the sunglasses. “For being at the beach. For looking at the pool. For driving.”
Although QVC hosts excel at presenting the aspirational as inevitable, in the context of a global pandemic, the list of reasons one might need stylish shades designed by the actor Jamie Foxx veered into the preposterous. So Ms. Lindquist recalibrated. “Despite the fact that a lot of us are at home right now, you can still walk outside,” she offered.
“There’s still going to be a lot more sunshine to come,” she said, expressing, too, her hope that viewers are “getting that vitamin D when you can.”
“Your backyard, your front yard, next to a really, really nice window — whatever works, because we need that vitamin D,” she added.
This was the unnerving forecast of our immediate future: Sitting indoors in a pair of brand-new sunglasses in the hopes of synthesizing vitamin D (a process, sadly, impeded by the glass of most windows.) And yet, through the sheer force of Ms. Lindquist’s enthusiasm, multiple styles of frames sold out.
As stores across America have shut down amid a global economic crisis caused by the new coronavirus, the retail industry is predicting millions of job losses. It is also seeking guidelines on what retailers can be deemed “essential” and allowed to stay open. For now, the rules vary by locality, and there are plenty of gray areas, including pet stores, auto repair shops and “electronic” stores that offer zero physical contact with customers.
QVC does not run traditional commercials. Since last Friday, however, public service announcements about the coronavirus aired during some segment breaks. Between PSAs, customers’ increasing hermetism can help or hinder a pitch.
“If you’re watching ‘Invisible Man’ on your couch wearing the jumpsuit, you’ll still look cute,” said one host about a jumpsuit she was modeling. She had just given a glowing review to the new horror film, released by Universal several months early on streaming platforms because of the pandemic, in which a woman is physically and psychologically abused by an invisible man.
A robotic vacuum, marketed to people who have no time to clean, was a tougher sell to an audience banned from engaging in most social activities. “When we get back to normal life,” said the disembodied voice of a vendor calling in by phone, “we’re busy. We don’t spend our time vacuuming.”
A two-hour presentation of gourmet food items stood out in that two hosts were on the set simultaneously to sell them. At times, Mary Beth Roe and Stacey Stauffer appeared on opposite sides of a kitchen island laden with holiday food, apparently in accordance with the six feet of personal distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other moments, they tested even the bounds of the laxer one-meter advisory issued by the World Health Organization.
“I know a lot of you have emailed and such and said, ‘Are you guys doing this and that?’” Ms. Roe said early in the segment, referring to viewers’ questions about whether QVC is operating in accordance with health advisories. “We absolutely are, which is why we are not eating any of this food.” Both women, she explained, had sampled the items they were pitching “months and weeks ago.”
Besides negotiating the inherent stop-and-start awkwardness of conference calls with unseen guests, the hosts of clothing segments visibly battled their urges to casually re-drape and arrange items worn by a reduced number of models on set.
The sets themselves, each designed to look like a brightly lit version of a neutral upscale kitchen, or sitting alcove, or living room with two other living rooms inside it, felt unusually cavernous. A representative for QVC declined to say how many employees were present. Hosts spoke of keeping as many people out of the studio “as possible.”
But they also emphasized that QVC’s service would continue unimpeded. As ever, items would arrive “directly to your doorstep — no interaction with a human being,” said Kerstin Lindquist. While the majority of employees at the corporate office in West Chester have shifted to remote work, QVC fulfillment centers in Pennsylvania, Virginia, California, and North and South Carolina have not reduced staffing. (The company said it has made health and safety modifications at all sites to support social distancing and enhanced sanitation practices, and those whose jobs are conducive to working remotely are doing so.)
“We’re one of the only things that is still live, other than news,” said Ms. Lindquist while demonstrating application of an anti-aging product. “And we’re going to try and stay live as long as we possibly can with the appropriate precautions always being taken. As you can see, I’m alone here, which is great.”