What a difference a year makes. When QVC, the world's largest electronic retailer, embarked on its yearlong search for 1,000 of the best American-made products in January 1995, nobody knew exactly what to expect (see "On the Air," April 1995). But now that the 50-state tour has ended, the event has "exceeded all our expectations on every level," says Bill Lane, QVC's vice president for new markets.
Indeed, when it was all over, QVC's "Quest for America's Best-QVC's 50 in 50 Tour" (which began in Texas and wrapped up in Hawaii last December) gave more than 15,000 eager
entrepreneurs the chance to show QVC buyers their regional products. A total of 1,000 winners were selected, and their wares, ranging from carpet cleaners and Cajun marinades to nasal dilators and make-your-own-jerky kits, were all broadcast live from QVC's studio-in-a-bus.
Overall, the tour sold 2.5 million units and generated an impressive $53 million in total gross orders. But while the numbers are dizzying, some say the whole experience has also succeeded in raising the hopes and expectations of entrepreneurs everywhere.
"I think they got the message that retailers are interested in them, and that they can get their products seen on a national level," contends Lane.
In addition, dozens of winning products that sold well on the local three-hour live shows later became part of QVC's regular programming. And for those whose products didn't exactly get phones ringing off the hooks? "We hope they learned something by talking to a QVC buyer," says Lane, "and that they received some education on how to market their products in the future."
Marlene Wyatt, inventor of the No Mess Dough Disc and top-selling vendor in QVC's "Quest for America's Best" contest, didn't realize she had a valuable product when she invented it 18 years ago. "I have two sons who just love chicken and dumplings, but I got tired of the mess all over my countertop [from making it]," remembers Wyatt, 39. "So one day, I just made [a disc]." The lightweight disc's polycotton cover keeps dough from sticking.
Wyatt didn't think anything more of it until Thanksgiving day in 1989 when her sister Syble Whitlock suggested she start selling it. So Wyatt and sisters Whitlock, 53, Pauline Dillard, 48, and niece Mona Elliott, 29, created Wood Family Enterprise in Yellville, Arkansas, and began selling the No Mess Dough Disc through a few local gourmet and kitchen appliance stores.
But it wasn't until the product was chosen as a winner in QVC's contest-and completely sold out on its first show-that it really began to get noticed. More than 230,000 units have been sold through QVC alone. The national exposure and surge in business increased the Dough Disc's retail sales so much, the company moved into a 5,000-square-foot facility.
The lesson to be learned? "If you're going to get into business, realize it's not going to happen overnight," says Wyatt. "You have to have a lot of perseverance."
If you missed QVC's first contest, don't worry. The QVC bus will be hitting the open road again this year, broadcasting the winning products live from across America. QVC's Bill Lane promises even more products and winners will be chosen this time around, although the tour will highlight only select states (at press time, full contest details weren't available).
In addition, QVC will have more stringent guidelines for what it's seeking for this year: Products must already be in production and be selling in local markets. Qualifications also require that products be made in the United States, retail for more than $15, be UPS-shippable and have only statewide or regional distribution. For more information, contact QVC vendor relations at (610) 701-8282.
Wood Family Enterprise, P.O. Box 367, Yellville, AR 72687, (501) 449-5499, (501) 427-2229;
QVC, 1365 Enterprise Dr., Westchester, PA 19380.