Susan Maccarelli fell for QVC almost 20 years ago, when she was going through a breakup with her college boyfriend. “Everything—movies, TV shows, songs—made me cry,” she says. “My grandmother used to always watch it, and one day I turned it on, and thought, ‘There’s no way this is going to upset me, they’re just talking about products.’” Now 40, married and with children, she still watches it religiously from her home in Virginia. “I don’t watch as much as I used to—only about an hour or two every day. When I have the house to myself, I’m putting QVC on.”
QVC—it stands for “quality, value, and convenience”—may seem like an anachronism in the age of Amazon, when customers can order virtually anything online and have it delivered to their door, often in hours rather than days. Who needs to watch a television channel to shop? In many ways, though, QVC is a precursor of Amazon. It’s the proto-online superstore, having disrupted the retail industry when it launched in 1986 by enabling anyone with cable television, a telephone, and a credit card to shop from the comfort of the couch. And it’s still going strong: In 2014, it reported sales of $8.8 billion. Along the way, it figured out how to offer customers an experience they weren’t getting elsewhere—one that keeps them coming back. But does that loyalty ever tip over into a very particular kind of shopping addiction?
Maccarelli loosely describes herself as an addict. That’s not surprising, as QVC’s business model is built on people like her: More than 90 percent of QVC’s sales come from repeat customers. Research on consumer behavior shows a correlation between QVC and shopping addiction. “Home shopping addiction is a double whammy because it encompasses two all-consuming pursuits, shopping and television,” explains Dr. April Benson, a psychologist who specializes in overshopping. “Both addictions stem from the same underlying issues, like the need to fill a void or repair a negative mood.”
Maccarelli did get hooked on QVC during a particularly lonely time in her life, but her buying has always been limited. Though she may watch every day, she says she only purchases things once a month. She watches QVC on her laptop; just a few clicks away and she could be shopping on Amazon. Even though she could find the same products elsewhere—QVC specializes in housewares, clothing, accessories, makeup, and prepared food—she prefers the QVC experience. It’s more human than the faceless, impersonal Amazon website; as QVC customers will attest, shopping there can feel less like a transaction than a moment of connection.
Leslie Thompson and her husband, both in their 60s, have been watching QVC for the past 17 years. They watch it more now that they’re retired—about 10 to 12 times a day—and shop from it at least once a week. “We wait to see the TSV [Today’s Special Value, an item that drops in price from midnight to 11:59pm every day] before we go to bed every night,” she says, “If you wait until morning, you might not get the color you want.” Games like the TSV are one way QVC keeps viewers engaged; online retailers have been known to use similar tactics.
“If it’s on and I haven’t purchased it already, I’m buying it.”
Asked if she’s addicted, Thompson says no. “We don’t buy anything unless we can afford it. We’re financially savvy, for lack of a better term, but most of our discretionary dollars do go to QVC.” Despite her budget, Thompson’s behaviors match some of Dr. Benson’s symptoms of addictive shopping, like buying something without planning because “she has to have it.” She’s dedicated to certain brands, like the kitchenware brand Temp-tations, for example. “If it’s on and I haven’t purchased it already, I’m buying it,” she says.
Thompson doesn’t consider herself an addict, especially compared to her sister, who she says watches even more QVC. “She has unlimited funds and she shops 24/7,” Thompson says. “The boxes just pile up.” She suggests her sister, who’s 60 and lives alone, considers QVC a form of companionship. “She doesn’t go out a lot and she thinks the hosts are really her friends. My husband and I have our favorite hosts, but we don’t feel connected to them in any way.”
Similar behavior is typical of compulsive shoppers. Experts define compulsive buying as “chronic, repetitive purchasing that becomes a primary response to negative events or feelings,” and identify it in women more than in men. Critics say compulsive buying is part of QVC’s business model. “QVC and other such home shopping channels enable and encourage compulsive shopping,” says Dr. Benson. “They’re uninterrupted, dedicated, intimate, high-pressure sales machines, staffed by professional pitch-people who bring virtual evangelicalism to their craft.”
But to many viewers, the QVC hosts don’t feel like high-pressure sales machines. “In my mind, they were sort of my imaginary friends,” says Maccarelli. She was at a low point in her life, and the QVC pitchmen and -women were there. Psychologists call these feelings of connection “parasocial interactions”—when viewers have one-sided relationships with people they know only through media. “Sellers talk directly and warmly to us and they become, in effect, earnest and attractive friends,” notes Dr. Benson. Those feelings of validation and acceptance can lead to more compulsive buying.
Online, that parasocial relationship can become a genuinely social one, as viewers gather to share their experience and, often, support and encourage one another’s buying. The QVC Addicts Facebook group, for example, is a private, fan-founded and -operated group of mostly women who watch and shop from the home shopping network regularly, if not every day.
It’s an active chat room intended for “all those people who are completely addicted to QVC and are genuine fans.” It is not a support group for addicts to overcome their addiction; it’s a safe zone for them to be understood by kindred spirits. Negative comments, whether toward other members or toward the hosts, will get you kicked out. So will spamming, as I found out after trying to contact a dozen or so members. All but two—one of whom was an admin—responded and agreed to speak with me, but when I asked for their phone numbers, they backed out.
“We need our money for shopping, not scams.”
A few weeks later I understood the remarkable non-response: They thought I was a fraud. Another admin posted that she had to ban someone who was private-messaging members. She issued a warning: “Unfortunately, spammers slip through the cracks in here. Never give anyone your personal information over Facebook PM!” The group was grateful for the flagging, with one woman responding: “We need our money for shopping, not scams.”
In lieu of speaking to members, I monitored the group and watched its member count grow by the hundreds over two months. It hit 18,000 members a couple of weeks ago. Most of the posts, of which there are easily more than 20 a day, are photos of recent purchases, like a new pair of jeans or a Keurig coffee maker. There are product reviews and questions, like one from a woman asking if anyone else found their recent shipment of Honeybell oranges soft and mushy. There are discussion threads about hosts, on-air guests, and models.
Surely all the members of the QVC Addicts group aren’t compulsive shoppers. But the most vocal ones do exhibit compulsive actions according to Dr. Benson’s definitions. In a recent post, one woman lamented falling into an uncontrollable spree: “OMG you guys I have a problem lol..Ive been buying so much every once in awhile I go on a buying binge..What has anyone else bought? I bought the Cast Iron everyday pan in aquamarine, the supersmile TSV from yesterday, Old World Confetti 5 piece concentric bowls and the 4 floral lace romance heart cake pans..I’m gonna be in big trouble!!!”
Shown a screenshot of the comment, Dr. Benson notes that the writer recognizes negative consequences for her actions. “For something to be considered a shopping addiction, it’s got to lead to serious negative consequences and she doesn’t specify what kind of big trouble she’s going to be in,” she explains. Without more context it’s hard to know the severity of the consequences involved.
Other members could relate and sounded off with their own lists of recent purchases: “Body gym, scrub mommy (2), Lock & Lock (3), Ruhn Kohn pot, Rangemate square pan, Keurig, Ninja 4-in-1, Temp-tations silicone trays (2), and I’m sure a few other things I’m forgetting. And that’s just this month…” wrote one.
Some members confess that their shopping is motivated by negative feelings and admit to sometimes feeling guilty about their purchases. A couple of weeks ago, one woman posted that after buying too many cosmetic products, she shouldn’t shop “for at least a decade,” and explained in follow-up comments the reasons for her recent binges. “Since my mom recently unexpectedly passed away, I think I am filling a very huge void in my life.” She shared that she doesn’t have children and has too much time on her hands, especially in the winter when she “pretty much hibernate[s] except to go to work.”
Dr. Benson shows more concern for this woman. “I’ve often seen the same kind of behavior in clients who don’t have partners or children,” she says. “It’s likely that she’s been overshopping for a long time and that the recent death of her mother has exacerbated the problem.”
Other members understand such shopping binges, and in response offered their own confessions (“I just can’t watch at all or I begin to think I need whatever is being shown.”) and justified her shopping (“Cheaper than therapy to self gratify with entertainment, education and treats.”).
The general feeling in the Facebook group, and among the other women I spoke to, is one of pride. They understand QVC has an overpowering presence in their lives, and they embrace it. It makes them feel good, whether it’s the mindless escape of watching or the shopper’s high they get from buying. They’re united in their praise for QVC and against those who judge them. In December, after one member posted a photo of eight packages outside her door, another commented with relief: “I’m just so glad there are so many of us!”
Illustrations by J. Longo