Janet Stults is armed with a textile chemistry book, tape measures and a calculator.
Her mission: wash a Hidden Jungle tapestry. The blanket can't shrink more than 5 percent. And the gray monkey can't fade onto the orange leopard trim.
After the tapestry is washed, Stults spreads it on the floor in front of eight washing machines and dryers. She checks her percentages. "It passed," she says.
Surviving the rigors of this laundry lab is key to the $37.50 blanket's future on television. Rejection here means a product won't appear on Home Shopping Network and reach its audience of 70-million households.
Truckloads of goods are rejected before they make it to the labs. But anything picked for the airwaves has to endure all sorts of abuse. Silverware spends days in the dishwasher. Casseroles bake for hours in a 500-degree oven. Gold bracelets are melted to gauge if they're really 14K.
Even a mechanical Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus endure a 72-hour marathon to gauge if the trio's lights glow and arms wave, so they won't fail on their big night.
"There's a lot of money at stake here for companies that make the products," says George Martin, Home Shopping's director of apparel and accessories.
There's a lot at stake for the network, too. Home Shopping often suffers from an image of a 24-hour garage sale, a leftover from its earliest days when the founders hawked can openers on the radio. In recent years, the network has recruited designer Diane Von Furstenberg and cosmetic maven Borghese to class up the place.
The company also has to win credibility with regulators, who are increasingly wary of what's being pitched through infomercials and shopping channels. "Consumers do need to be skeptical," says Joel Winston, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission's division of advertising practices.
He has reason to be suspicious: The FTC accused Home Shopping in 1995 of making false health claims about wrinkle-reducing products and a cold cure, among other things.
The FTC and Home Shopping settled the charges, but the network now operates under a 20-year federal order that requires periodic reports to prove sales pitches. "We keep a close eye on what they're doing," Winston says.
The network has hired a Ph.D. chemist to scrutinize all health and nutrition claims. It also has dozens of other experts studying all sorts of products. Gemologists pinch rings and scrutinize sapphires under microscopes. The laundry room looks like a cross between a high school chemistry lab and a coin laundry. It has odd gadgets like the Atlas Random Tumble Pilling Tester, a device that measures that annoying scourge _ fuzz balls.
Down the hall, scriptwriters work on cue cards to guide show hosts away from hyperbole. "I don't want them going on the air if they don't know what they're talking about," says Don Sutton, who writes the pitches for computers, telephones and luggage.
Mundane to bizarre
It's a far cry from the early days of selling merchandise on the radio. "We pioneered our industry," said Ro Charlton, vice president of quality assurance and product information, "so we made our mistakes in front of the whole world."
The official quality lab started in early 1990. It's a compact area tucked away in small white buildings near the network's St. Petersburg headquarters. QVC, a rival shopping channel, also has a quality testing lab to screen products.
Shopping channels are bombarded with truckloads of unsolicited products from aspiring inventors and small companies. Buyers screen out most of the junk, then pick what they want to hawk on the air. Testers have veto power over the buyers' choices, but about 90 percent of what the buyers pick for testing makes it on to the air.
The testers need to be picky: About 22 percent of everything the network sells is returned, and that's a costly process. Returns are down 3 percent from last year, as the network tries to sell higher quality goods.
The lab's back room is floor-to-ceiling with racks of all kinds of stuff. Some of it is mundane; some of it is rather bizarre. For example, there's everything from compact discs to a pair of blue suede shoes for Elvis fans.
In the testing area, special attention is paid to clothing and jewelry, the network's top two sellers. The quality team has come up with measurements to make sure sizing is consistent. Twice a week, women from the network's call center model clothing for buyers and seamstresses.
Originally, professional models were hired to try on clothing. But they were more interested in glamour and less inclined to discuss comfort. Besides, employees view the task as a break from telephone work.
The buyers are attentive to the models' critiques. "A lot of them are really nice outfits, but I wouldn't wear all of them," says Anne Harte, a customer service representative. For instance, there is a universal groan when she models a fake blue leather coat that looks like it was designed by Goodyear.
The buyers also look for what is eye-catching. Animal prints are a hit. One model wears stretchy leggings that make her legs look like two rattlesnakes. "If you're flipping through the channels and you see a man's white shirt, you're not gonna stop," says Martin, the director of apparel. "But if you see those, you might. It has to be good television."
After the models finish, the clothes are handed to Stults in the laundry room. She measures the clothing, then washes it according to the manufacturer's labels. She uses a no-name detergent approved by the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. That way, disgruntled clothing makers can't call up and say: "What did you wash this in? Tide?" Martin says.
The pile of rejects proves that some clothing makers barely use enough thread. Martin holds up a sweater that is tattered after one washing. "This is what we're protecting consumers from," he says.
Stults also tests for pilling by sending fabric swatches and gray strands of fuzz through several tumbles in the Atlas Random Tumble Pilling Tester, a miniature dryer. Clothing that shows too many fuzz balls gets rejected.
At times, testers will counsel the buyers to rethink their product choices. For instance, it should be obvious that few consumers would want pajamas that are tagged dry clean only.
Don't kill customers
Down the hall, gemologists are equally fussy about what jewelry gets on the air. If a tester suspects that a bracelet isn't 14K gold, it can be sent off to be melted and analyzed. To be 14K, the gold must be at least 58.5 percent pure gold, with the rest a metal alloy.
Some tests are simple, but revealing. Pam Paleveda taps a coral stone in a ring with her fingernail and hears it click, a sign that the stone is loose. There's also a Y-shaped crack in the stone. She rejects about 30 percent of all jewelry that comes her way.
The labs also test electronics, Christmas decorations and dolls. Lynn Craske, one of the quality assurance directors, spots a problem with the Scarlett O'Hara doll. "That's a little snug," says Craske as she tries to snap Scarlett's two-snap red velvet dress. "You want to make sure the snaps stay closed."
If testers find problems, they give the manufacturers a chance to correct them.
It's essential that the network be careful, especially with products regulated by federal laws. The network hired Paulette De Montier, a Ph.D. in chemistry, to monitor product claims.
De Montier is qualified to run a hospital lab, but at Home Shopping, she spends her days studying ingredient lists and labels. On this day, she is looking at Digest Assure, a product that claims to be an all-natural enzyme complex. "It doesn't claim to cure indigestion, so that's okay," she figures.
Another product that claims to cure infections will need closer scrutiny.
"I'd need to see the testing," she says. "We're going on the air in front of 70-million people . . . We sure don't want to kill them."
The FTC's Winston figures it's good that the network has a chemist, but he is generally a skeptic. "Having a scientist doesn't mean you're okay," he says. "Having a lab doesn't mean you're okay."
"Feeding the beast'
All the testing is moot if the show hosts get carried away with their pitches on the air. De Montier or a lawyer trains hosts on what they can say.
Hosts don't have time to learn about products, so they're given cards listing product facts. Once products make it through the labs, writers hustle to get scripts ready. The network needs enough goods to fill 24 hours of air time a day. "We're always feeding the beast," says Molly Johnson, who supervises the writers. "And the beast is hungry for new products."
The writers agree that catalogs are the source of inspired prose. "Spiegel is great," Johnson says.
It's not as easy as it seems. This reporter took on the assignment of writing the pitch for a seven-piece set of Farberware.
Some ground rules: Don't insult the host's intelligence, hype the benefits, but don't get carried away. The card gives me just a few lines to make my pitch.
Farberware 7-piece classic cookware set. 18/10 stainless steel set features 1-quart covered sauce pan, 2-quart covered sauce pan, 6-quart covered dutch oven and a 10-inch fry pan.
That's more than I've ever written about frying pans. But Johnson coaxes a few more lines. I extol the virtues of stay-cool handles. I must hustle; writers often do 10 to 30 pitches a day.
Says Johnson: "The beast is hungry."