Once upon a time, QVC and HSN were synonymous with jewelry. When they first launched, jewelry accounted for 50 percent of their sales, according to CNN. Some 60 percent of consumers ages 35–44 bought jewelry on a shopping network, a 1999 JCK survey found.
Industry marketer Dan Scott, among the first employees at QVC, recalls: “In jewelry, if we weren’t hitting a million dollars gross per hour in prime-time specials, something was very wrong.”
But in recent years, both networks have slowly but surely moved away from jewels and gems. In 1995, Home Shopping Network called jewelry its “largest and most profitable category.” By 2008, jewelry had fallen to 16.3 percent of HSN’s sales but remained that channel’s second largest category. In its latest quarter, jewelry sales accounted for just 9.5 percent of HSN sales, a drop from the previous year’s 11.9 percent. It is now the company’s smallest category.
Same story at QVC: In 1994, jewelry was also that network’s largest category, accounting for more than one-third of sales. In its last fiscal year, jewelry accounted for 12 percent of QVC’s sales. It’s that network’s second smallest category.
What’s more, HSN’s jewelry sales declined in its latest quarter, as they did the quarter before. During a May conference call, HSN CEO Mindy Grossman said that the network had reduced airtime for jewelry while it fine-tunes its assortment with new brands and proprietary products.
“We are being very strategic around [jewelry’s] repositioning,” Grossman said. “Like what we did in culinary, some of that is getting out of businesses, adding businesses, growing businesses.”
Until recently, QVC faced similar declines. In 2013, sales rose in every U.S. category but jewelry. The next year, however, it saw “good growth” in the category, with CEO Mike George telling analysts it’s moving away from high-price-point jewels, which “don’t support repeat purchase activity.” He singled out Lola Rose jewelry as a top-selling brand.
Vendors and former employees tell JCK that, over the years, the category’s issues have snowballed: When sales dropped, jewelry products were given worse time slots (the on-air version of shelf space). That hurt sales further, until it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, sources say.
“It’s a performance problem for the category as a whole,” says a manufacturer. “They make more money on makeup and apparel. Overall, the dollars per minute just aren’t there for jewelry.”
That’s in part because the field has gotten more crowded, with the advent of jewelry-only networks like JTV and Rocks TV. So shopping channels still sell jewelry, but now they are devoted jewelry channels.
QVC and HSN, at their best, “tell a story” about their products. In 2010, Megan McArdle marveled at QVC in action in her piece in The Atlantic:
The host checked her camera angles and ran her fingers over the earrings while chatting gaily to the open space. “It’s almost like they’re coins you’ve been collecting for years, and you had them made into jewelry.” She beamed at the camera. “There’s a very Aztec feel.”
I’m pretty sure that the Aztecs didn’t have metal coins, but whatever: QVC isn’t selling the earrings so much as the feeling that you’re the sort of person who might spend years collecting coins and then whimsically turn them into jewelry. All commercials foster some illusion about yourself, of course, but on QVC the illusion is four to six minutes long and runs while you shop.
But online videos tend to be shorter, punchier, and don’t always reach four to six minutes; jewelry can be a complicated product that requires extensive visuals and education. Online shoppers are also typically more targeted—which poses a problem for jewelry, with few known brands. The shopping channels were built on viewers tuning in and discovering a new gem or designer. That may be harder now.
The networks have also had trouble replicating their big hits, which, like many fashion items, have run their course. “Diamonique used to be huge,” said one veteran. “That has faded. Designers were big too. But it seems with TV you have to keep entertaining people with something new.”
And, of course, the networks are affected by the industry’s overall issues. They are increasingly targeting younger consumers—and jewelry doesn’t always top young consumers’ shopping lists. Many favor gadgets and tech toys, which are increasingly sold on television and have newness baked into their DNA.
To be sure, the shopping channels still sell plenty of jewelry, and some brands do great business with them. One major hit could turn things around. But today, jewelry seems less top of mind for the networks. The reverse is true, too.
“Jewelers used to be up in arms about jewelry on television,” said one veteran. “Now most couldn’t care what is shown there.”