You never know what you’ll see when you walk into a teleshopping studio. Sometimes the anchors are playing Holi on a bed to show how well a mattress protector works; other times they’re grinding tiny pieces of marble in a mixer to highlight its Hulk-like motor, smashing a coconut onto a glass stovetop to prove its robustness, or heating a lump of plastic in a non-stick pan.
That’s just how things work in the world of drama and hyperbole that is India’s T-commerce industry.
On offer are the ‘best deals’ and the ‘biggest discounts’ on everything from mops and lotions to tablet PCs, with stern advice to ‘buy while stocks last’.
Selling them are dramatic anchors -- former newsreaders, radio jockeys, the odd MBA and quite a few struggling actors and has-beens.
If you ignore the odd ‘magical’ sauna belt, shifty astrologer and sex tonic, though, you’ll see that Teleshopping 2.0 is here.
In India, it’s an industry estimated at $525 million, according to Media Partners Asia, an advisory and research company with a focus on the media, communications and entertainment industries. Their 2014 report on the TV home-shopping industry puts the year-on-year growth rate between 40% and 50%.
Essentially, it would appear that teleshopping is to India’s Tier II and Tier III cities what Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon are to those living in the metros.
Watch anchors spill the beans on how they sell and what happens when they goof up
Particularly in the metros, Indians think teleshopping is tacky because it started on the wrong foot and lost out on early-stage positioning, but there has been some restructuring in the last four years, say those in the trade. “The television commerce space holds promise as large organised players are entering the market, identifying need gaps (going regional) and focusing on selling quality products,” says Mihir Shah, vice-president of Media Partners Asia.
The tacky wrong foot harks back to the early informercials of the 1990s, where firangs posed and preened as a dubbed voice spouted unintentionally hilarious lines like: ‘Pehle main moti billi thi,’ translated loosely from, ‘I was a fat cat before’.
“But in the last three to four years there has been some restructuring. Organised players are entering the fray, identifying gaps and focusing on selling quality products, and some big names have done good business,” says Shah.
The three big 24x7 players in India today are HomeShop 18, Naaptol and Shop CJ, which together have an 85% market share.
Two new players have entered the market over the past two years, Best Deal TV (BDTV), a celebrity-focused network founded by actor Akshay Kumar and businessman Raj Kundra, with Kundra’s wife actress Shilpa Shetty as its chairperson; and DEN SnapDeal TV Shop, a joint venture between Snapdeal and the cable distribution company DEN Networks.
Two months ago, Zee -- the company behind the long-defunct Asian Sky Shop of the 1990s -- announced that it plans to re-enter the teleshopping space with two acquisitions.
None of these companies peddles miracle cures. Instead, they have invested in studios, professionals as anchors, quality control departments, call centres and customer complaint cells.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, SELL
It’s still a strange world, caught at the crossroads of advertising and entertainment. In the teleshopping studio, there is no script or teleprompter. Anchors must build their own sales pitch, based on a printout listing product features and USPs.
Many bolster this list with their own internet research, and draw on customer feedback and the buying behaviour of friends and family -- which explains some of the rather unconventional pitches you see.
Former Sahara Samay news reader Nidhi Chhimwal, 36, for instance,often takes samples home to get friends’ and relatives’ feedback and her mother recently pointed out that a gold locket she was selling on Shop CJ looked quite a bit bigger on TV.
“That’s when I realised that a lot of our customers may not know exactly what we mean when we say ‘2-inch’. So now, whenever I sell a pendant, I hold it against a sim card or a coin to indicate its size, so that customers don’t feel cheated when it arrives at their door,” says Chhimwal.
During live telecasts, some of this feedback comes to the anchor in real time, via the control room. Calls are monitored to see which product features people are responding to and how many units are being sold, and this information is passed on so that the anchors can improvise their pitch to include those persistent entreaties like ‘55 units sold in the first five minutes! Hurry’.
“Selling, that too on live TV, is one hell of a challenge, and that’s precisely why I enjoy it,” says Shillpa Singh, 41, a model, former Mrs India and ex-TV actor who has just finished a live spot on airtight containers in a studio in a refurbished Mumbai theatre that serves as the CJ Corporation’s office, the Korean giant behind Shop CJ.
Singh has done lead roles in serials such as Dam Dama Dam opposite Shekhar Suman, and Ashiqui opposite Vivek Mushran, and says her current work environment is “10 time better than the sets of a TV serial”.
“The live show format is so much better than waiting 12 hours for set-up and then doing 20 takes of the same shot,” says Singh. “Here, when we’re not shooting, we’re exchanging tips, sharing anecdotes, cracking jokes and having stimulating conversations on customer psychology and quality control.”
Not far away, also in south Mumbai, are the offices and sets of BDTV, tucked away in a commercial building. Here, former entertainment journalist Dheeraj Juneja, 29, is about to sell a set of nine non-stick pans “in beige and wine red, with a single lid that fits all”. As he adjusts his earpiece, three men are oiling the pans so they’ll glisten when the camera rolls.
“I don’t think there’s anything uncool about working with a teleshopping network. Plus, there’s good money. So why not?” says Juneja. “ A fresher in a news channel starts at Rs 25,000 a month whereas homeshopping networks pay you anywhere between Rs 35,000 and Rs 40,000 a month.”
The mood somewhat resembles that of the 2015 Jennifer Lawrence-starrer Joy — a film based on the runaway success of entrepreneur Joy Mangano’s self-wringing mop. She sold 18,000 units in less than 30 minutes of going live on one of US’s biggest teleshopping-focused retail giants, QVC, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in June.
QVC is still so popular in the US that people pay upto $35 for tours of their West Chester, PA studios and meet-and-greet events with their anchors.
Which Indian teleshopping player will replicate the QVC story is going to be a bit of a wait and watch. For now, the focus remains on gaining and retaining customers.
IT’S A MALL, ON TV
For now, claim leading players, orders are pouring in. From seven orders a day in 2009, Shop CJ gets 25,000 orders a day today. Naaptol is seeing 30,000 orders a day, up from 20,000 last year, and on its 8th anniversary in February, the company booked 1.24Lac orders in a single day.
“The best thing about homeshopping is that I don’t have to leave the house,” says Usha Menon, 68, a homemaker from Hoshiarpur, Punjab. “There are live demos and discounts also.”
It was a hair colour infomercial that first caught Menon’s eye, three years ago. Since then she has bought at least one item a month, from containers and kadhais to bedsheets and a mixer-grinder.
“Because I order so frequently, Homeshop18 and Shop CJ have my details,” she says. “I don’t even need to repeat my address.”
In Jharkhand’s Sahibganj district,Sarika Rajak buys on TV to save time and the Rs 100 fare to the market.
“The kitchen utensils have been good,” says the 35-year-old homemaker who lives in a joint family. “But I didn’t have a good experience with the bedsheets and salwar suits. The fabric didn’t feel as good as it had looked on TV.”
Still, Rajak and her neighbours swear by homeshopping... “because sometimes we go to the market and what we are looking for is not even there… waste of time and money,” she says.
In Delhi, the morning teleshopping shows have become part of the breakfast routine for the Singhs — PR executive Roli, her mother Rama and sister-in-law. A pressure cooker, non-stick pans, bedsheets, costume jewellery, herbal tea and facial kits are among the items they have bought over the past three years.
Watch DEN Snapdeal TV Shop’s spoof criticising a popular teleshopping oil brand
“There are times when I am stuck in a meeting and my mother just won’t stop calling. This is usually when an offer price is valid only for an hour and she wants me to compare it with the market price. If I fail to answer, I am reminded all day of how we missed out on a good deal,” says Roli, 27, laughing
Domestic content and Indian faces have helped viewers connect with brands over the past decade.
“Teleshopping is less than 15 years old in India. The ’80s and ’90s were mostly about dubbed foreign TVCs. The late 2000s is when native content first appeared,” says Naaptol CEO Manu Agarwal. “Today, the quality of that content is changing, with product categories growing, distribution networks expanding and production quality improving. It’s all part of the effort to set ourselves apart from the few bad eggs.”
“Those people buying Hanuman pendants at Chandni Chowk for a hundred rupees and selling them as good luck charms for Rs 3,000... that’s not teleshopping,” adds Raj Kundra, CEO of BDTV.
4G AND THE WAY FORWARD
Aspirational living, the newly rich and smartphone access are the three factors that look set to drive teleshopping over the next few decades.
Shop CJ,for instance, reaches 9 million homes, and 55% of its customers live in metros.
“Back in 2009, a middle-aged Gurgaon woman bought a Rs 1,999 handbag from Shop CJ, choosing us over a fancy neighbourhood mall,” says COO Dhruva Chandrie. “Why? Because she doesn’t speak English and felt shy approaching a mall attendant. This is indicative of a huge untapped metro market that has means but lacks confidence.”
Another large unexplored area are the non-Hindi-speaking regions, and teleshopping networks have begun to target these markets directly over the past seven years, by creating original content in Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Bangla and Marathi.
Naaptol, for instance, sells in all these languages. Shop CJ now sells in Tamil and Telugu, besides Hindi.
Going regional and moving forward, besides selling on TV and home websites, some channels are already thinking m-commerce. “We had collaborated with a leading e-commerce platform but realised that they were cashing in on our celebrity nexus,” says Kundra of BDTV. “We weren’t comfortable with this. So while we are focused on TV and have a website, we are all set to launch our app in the first week of August.”
Those in the trade think the future is indeed bright, like Naaptol anchor, Nidhi Sharma.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says the 35-year-old MBA graduate and former Wipro employee. “We have a long way to go. In Korea, teleshopping studios are selling fish and Mercedes.”
CRYSTAL-GAZING: AN ‘UBER FOR ASTROLOGY’
We tested one of the Big 5 by ordering a set of non-stick pans — it was an unremarkable experience, pretty similar to ordering online. So, to be fair, we decided to call one of the smaller players — the kind that offers to connect you with an astrologer and solve your business, love and property problems.
The Rs 10 per minute call cost with the ‘you may be put on hold due to excess call traffic’ ticker was buried at the bottom of the screen in a font that’s easy to miss. And I did.
Watch how astrologers, like the one below, claim to ‘offer solutions to your problems’
My husband actually made the call on speaker mode, saying he suspected his wife was having an extramarital affair. The call was forwarded to a ‘pandit’ and on the basis of a given name, in less than 50 seconds, my husband was told I was having an affair — and had also been a victim of black magic.
A puja by 12 pandits at our home was prescribed, at a cost that would be disclosed upon confirmation of the order. This five-minute interaction was charged at Rs 10 per minute. To talk to the astrologer advertised on TV, the pandit added, would need a Rs 1,100 registration fee.
I emailed the website, www.theastrochannel.com, and a representative said on the phone that astrologers, tarot and vastu experts are chosen as presenters based on their ‘name in the market’ and ‘how famous they are’. The calls, this representative added, are outsourced and answered by ‘graduates’ from astrology institutes.
“We are like the Uber for astrologers, and we want to be a responsible organisation,” said the representative, speaking from Delhi. “Right now we are too small. Still our seven-member team audits nearly 600 calls a day. But we will check our records for this call and take necessary actions.”