Amy Waldman on home shopping

In 1995 the Internet had yet to revolutionize the way people bought and sold merchandise, Amazon.com was a quixotic-seeming startup, and the concept of home shopping belonged to a handful of lo-fi TV channels like QVC and the Home Shopping Network. Writing in the Washington Monthly that year, editor Amy Waldman took the channels to task for preying on elderly viewers, who were increasingly lonely and adrift in the late twentieth century.

After a man died several months ago at the Virginian Retirement Community in Fairfax, his family went to collect his worldly goods. They found more than they bargained for: his home was crammed, floor to ceiling, with possessions they never knew he had. There were kitchen gadgets, costume jewelry, bed linens, and cleansers, all by the dozens.

He had bought it all from the worlds most accessible stores: the home shopping networks that came through his television into his living room twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This man, whose name the retirement home withheld for privacy, ordered a package from QVC or Home Shopping Network (HSN), the two leading home shopping channels, almost every day. Some of what came he gave away. Most of it simply piled up, unused.

What had brought him to line his walls with the fruits of home shopping? In a word, companionship. Home shopping hosts didnt just sell to himthey spoke to him. An employee at the Virginian recalls that the man spent a lot of time by himself. He did not make friends easily and he spoke of being lonely. But when he bought, he said he could keep operators chatting to him for half an hour. He had found a way to fill his days and sleepless nights.

He was not alone in his discovery. As the hours cycle past on home shopping channels, the disembodied voices of buyers, calling in to offer testimonials on their purchases, float above the sparkling descriptions of cubic zirconium jewelry. Most are femaleDorothy from Daytona, Betty from Fresno, Helen from Mexico City, Indiana. Many of the voices are beginning to crack with age. And their extraordinary enthusiasm for the productsand the hosts, and the show itselfmasks something else: a deep, abiding need for human contact. I live alone, says a woman named Erma who calls in on a Monday morning. All Ive got to do is watch QVC.

From Lonely Hearts, Classy Dreams, Empty Wallets, June 1995. Amy Waldman is now a contributing editor at the Atlantic, and is at work on her first novel.

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