Joseph Segel, Founder of the QVC Shopping Network, Dies at 88

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Back in the Dark Ages — before the internet, before Amazon — there were other ways to satisfy your craving for impulse buying from the comfort of your home.

You could sit down in front of your television at the appointed hour, pick up the receiver on your telephone — if the cord stretched that far — and order from the Home Shopping Network.

When Joseph Segel, a marketing expert and entrepreneur who had founded the Franklin Mint, the maker of commemorative coins and other collectibles, saw a video of the Home Shopping Network in 1986, he thought it rather primitive. He was sure he could create a better, more professional shopping experience.

What he came up with was QVC, which became a powerhouse television shopping network that would rival the Home Shopping Network and later eclipse it. (Both are now owned by a conglomerate called Qurate Retail Group.)

QVC featured live broadcasts of unscripted hosts demonstrating products — from jewelry and intimate apparel to electronics and snow blowers — while keeping up a waterfall of chitchat as they built a relationship with their audience.

“QVC made it easier for people to shop than going to the mall,” Mr. Segel said.

QVC’s success on television presaged that of retailers on the internet like Amazon and Walmart.

“He was a visionary whose ideas changed the way the world shops,” Mike George, chief executive of Qurate, said in a statement.

Mr. Segel died on Saturday at an assisted-living facility in Gladwyne, Pa. He was 88. His son Marvin said the cause was congestive heart failure.

In a career that spanned five decades, Mr. Segel founded 22 companies in fields as diverse as publishing, minting, photography, aviation, software, hospitality, television broadcasting and behavior modification.

He had an innate feel for what consumers wanted and for how to sell it to them.

In 1964, he observed two disparate events: national mourning for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led the Allied victory over Japan in World War II, and a run on banks to buy silver dollars before they were discontinued. Mr. Segel put those two events together and started manufacturing sterling silver commemorative medals of MacArthur. That business quickly grew into the world-renowned Franklin Mint.

But there was nothing like his success with QVC. Mr. Segel had long retired from the Franklin Mint and his other ventures when he thought he could improve on the Home Shopping Network. (Always stirred by a new idea, he was famous for retiring and then un-retiring to pursue something else.)

He started QVC — the letters stand for Quality, Value, Convenience — in West Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, where it established a reputation as the world’s foremost purveyor of simulated gems, macramé sweaters and coffee-table knickknacks. Within a few months, it was broadcasting around the clock.

The network required its hosts to be deeply familiar with the products they were pitching. Mr. Segel, an accomplished photographer, even went on the air himself to sell cameras.

He preferred the soft sell to the hard sell, information to pressure tactics, and wanted hosts to convey a product’s virtues through relatable storytelling. (“My sister wore this and it was a knockout.”)

QVC’s secret sauce hasn’t changed much since then. “We connect with customers via authentic stories, interesting personalities and award-winning customer service,” the network says on its corporate website. “We invite customers to tell their stories and share their feedback. And we do it live, across multiple networks and platforms.”

Above all, Mr. Segel emphasized customer service, hence his motto: “Give customers more than what they expect.” The network displayed its shipping and handling fees onscreen and helpfully broke down how items could be paid for in six easy installments.

He was a hands-on, detail-oriented boss, according to employee testimonials. He told his hosts what words to use and not use and wrote them memos about their performances. One day employees saw him kicking boxes down the stairs — he was testing the packaging to see if it could withstand rough treatment.

At the time of its first broadcast, on Nov. 24, 1986 — the first item offered was an $11.49 shower radio — the network was carried by 58 cable providers in 20 states. Today Qurate, its parent company, reaches 380 million homes worldwide through 15 television networks.

In 1986 there were 17 other new shopping channels trying to improve on the Home Shopping Network model. QVC was the only one to survive into the ’90s.

Mr. Segel retired as QVC’s chairman in 1993 but stayed on as a consultant until 2013. (The media mogul and Fox Broadcasting Company founder Barry Diller succeeded him as head of QVC.) In 2002, when Mr. Segal accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Electronic Retailing Association, he offered this additional explanation for QVC’s success:

“There’s no bad news on QVC,” he said. “It brings great cheer to everyone. When you tune to QVC, there’s nothing about Iraq or Al Qaeda or snipers. There’s not even any sex or violence on QVC — that is, not in front of the cameras.”

Joseph Myron Segel was born on Jan. 9, 1931, in Philadelphia to Albert and Fannie Segal. His father worked in real estate, and he and his wife raised their two children, Joe and Jane, in West Philadelphia.

Joe was a natural entrepreneur, starting a printing business that sold business cards at 13. He was 16 when he enrolled at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Wharton then took him on at 20 to teach Marketing 101 while on the side he ran a business, the Advertising Specialty Institute, which published a directory of promotional materials to help new businesses get off the ground.

His first marriage, to Renee Paul, ended in divorce. In 1964 he married Doris Greenstein, who died in 2018. In addition to his son Marvin, from his first marriage, he is survived by another son, Alan, from his second marriage; a stepdaughter, Sandy Stern; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His sister, Jane Segel Neff, died in 2014.

Even after he retired from QVC, Mr. Segel started a half-dozen other businesses. Most involved skin care and beauty products.

Business was never far from Mr. Segel’s thoughts, his son Marvin said. Even in his final days, he shared with his granddaughter Devon Segel, a businesswoman, this advice:

“Don’t worry about the margins. Be brave. Bold marketing is what cuts through the noise.”


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