Tustin Ranch’s Ron Cummings, on camera in the studio of Sydney’s TVSN channel, is momentarily taken aback. “I’ve called to perv on Ron a bit,” the caller had just said in her thick Australian accent. Perv? It isn’t until later that someone explains to the skin-care entrepreneur that in Aussie slang, it’s a verb that means, “I think you’re hot.”
That itself isn’t so disconcerting, because, after all, Cummings is in the business of looking good. In his early 50s, he’s got the trim, athletic build that suits business casual attire, plus a lush mane of graying hair and a smile that gleams like fine china. But those details just enhance Cummings’ calling card—his skin—which looks almost preternaturally smooth and supple, even in a low-budget YouTube video. He’s a walking advertisement for the restorative powers of the products he pitches, especially as a guy who’s overcome the ravages of adult chickenpox.
But while Cummings enjoys the compliment, he prefers to keep the friendly caller chitchat to a minimum. This is a business where you get a few minutes of free TV time to reach millions of potential customers, in exchange for providing thousands of units of your product for the network to sell directly to viewers. All that matters is how often the phones ring, and how many units you move. That number is displayed on a studio monitor so that on-air pitchmeisters such as Cummings can see in real time how well (or badly) they’re doing.
“You’ll say something, and you’ll see the sales spike, and the producer will be saying in your ear, ‘Do that again!’ ” he says. And making the connection with viewers sometimes means wrestling the conversation away from a host who likes to control it, or a caller who just wants to talk. “You live and die by your sales per minute,” he says. “Nobody knows for sure how you’re going to do until you get out there. … Sometimes, God bless ’em, they’ll ramble on and on. You can’t rudely interrupt them, but you realize that’s precious time going by.”
In no trade is the equation of time and money more apparent than for a TV pitchman such as Cummings. His company, Newport Beach-based AminoGenesis Skin Care, has sold $30 million worth of products in the last two years during short, intense sales pitches on home shopping networks. He’s flown across the Pacific just to spend a few minutes selling one of his amino acid-laden rejuvenating preparations to an audience of presumably ruddy-complected, outdoorsy Aussie Shielas, hoping like hell they’ll call. The director talks into Cummings’ earpiece, pushing him through his gig while both keep an eye on that monitor’s second-by-second tab of units sold.
Cummings, who can make—or not make—tens of thousands of dollars in the time it takes most of us to find the remote control, is a man in the fast lane. When he founded his company 14 years ago, he was an ordinary Joe with an engaging smile who used his garage as a warehouse and peddled jars of cream from a cart in front of the Robinsons-May department store at Fashion Island, dreaming of being big enough to earn a spot at the cosmetics counter inside.
Millions of dollars later, Cummings has bigger ambitions. For the past several years, he personally has sold his wares on domestic channels such as QVC, the Home Shopping Network (HSN), and ShopNBC, and now is branching out into the global marketplace, from Turkey to Taiwan. In some countries, Cummings hires salespeople who speak the native language and trains them to mimic his carefully choreographed presentation, which he’s perfected down to the precise moment that they demonstrate the product. “It’s like a play,” he says. “They have to memorize exactly how it’s done.”
It’s an entrepreneur’s dream, he says. “Instead of hoping a salesperson at a store will know enough to tell your story to one customer, you’re able to go on yourself and tell your story to millions of people at once. ” But that high-stakes gamble also can be a potential nightmare of on-air glitches, inappropriate ad libs, and real-time callers with uncertain agendas.
Here’s how it works: A network typically invites someone such as Cummings to appear. The pitchman doesn’t pay the network for the airtime, but he does have to ship a large order of his product to its warehouse. Then he appears on camera to hawk his merchandise. If viewers like him and his product, they call and order it from the network, which then pays the company and keeps a cut for itself. Cummings only gets paid for the jars of skin cream sold; the rest are sent back to him, and he eats the shipping costs.
He knows that some people tune into shopping networks because they enjoy the off-the-rails moments—the frantic histrionics of that creepy ShamWow guy, or the spectacle of a celebrity free-associating and doing bizarre gestures and fake accents, as singer Mariah Carey did in a 2011 HSN appearance that quickly became a YouTube sensation. Shopping channels have the appeal of reality shows, with their continuous parade of winners and losers to provide exultation and pathos. But it’s even edgier than “Survivor,” because nearly 100 percent of the programming is broadcast live.
There’s an added dramatic tension, because shopping channels are the purest form of free-market capitalism. Having a famous brand name or high-powered connections, or being able to charm the decision makers, means bupkis. But know this about Cummings: After years of trial and error, he has without question become an undisputed master of this peculiar domain.
Cummings traveled a serendipitous route to becoming an international TV shopping network sensation. A native of Arcadia, he earned a degree in social science at UC Irvine, and played minor league baseball with the Oakland A’s before settling into sales and marketing. “I was always that person who had numerous side businesses,” he says.
As an adult, he came down with chickenpox, which often leaves scars. He also was plagued by facial dermatitis and the sun damage that’s an inevitable hazard of life in Southern California. He was destined to spend the rest of his life looking ravaged and splotchy, but in 1995, he had the good fortune to play golf with a doctor, a Harvard-trained infectious-disease specialist, who noticed Cummings’ tortured epidermis and presented him a white mixture that he’d been giving to patients.
Cummings took it home and gave it a try, and within a few weeks, his once-rough skin had become “almost baby soft.” A few months later, as he was having a drink with friends and told them about the skin cream, the bartender leaned forward and asked where she could buy some.
Cummings started researching, and discovered that since the 1980s, doctors had used creams containing amino acids to treat burns and other skin injuries. But the stuff had never really been commercialized because it was expensive to make and smelled like rotten eggs. Undeterred, Cummings took $25,000 from his savings and decided to turn the salve into a desirable product. He bought the rights to the formula from the inventor, worked with Taiwanese-American chemical engineer T. Joseph Lin to find a way to mask the odor, and made his first batch of AminoGenesis Therapeutic Facial Repair Formula. In 1999, he started AminoGenesis and was ready to start selling.
If you’re not a devotee of TV shopping networks, you probably imagine them as interminable feedback loops populated by clones of Ron “Ronco” Popeil, whose late-night commercials for pocket fishing poles and the venerable Veg-O-Matic turned “But wait! There’s more!” into a ubiquitous 1970s catchphrase, or the late Billy Mays, the pitchman for cleaning products on HSN in the 1990s, whose frantic delivery and distinctive beard still make him a popular Internet meme. You also might think these pitchmen are as obsolete as mullets and parachute pants, holdovers from the time before the Internet made it possible to buy from Web-based stores all over the planet.
But perhaps you missed rapper 50 Cent on QVC last year, selling $177,000 worth of his signature headphones in mere minutes—just one example of the power of home shopping networks. What might seem like a pre-digital anachronism not only has survived, but morphed into a sprawling marketplace where big-name fashion lines, high-end appliances, and luxury cosmetics have crowded out the gimmicky exercise equipment and kitschy tchotchkes of yesteryear. QVC, the biggest U.S. shopping channel, now reaches 100 million households and generates $8 billion in annual revenue, offering customers about 1,150 items each week.
“If you go back 15 or 20 years ago, anything that was seen on shopping channels was considered low-rent,” Cummings says. “Now they sell the very best stuff, and it gets there first.” (Western Creative, a Michigan-based agency that helps place clients’ products on shopping channels, notes on its website: “Preferably, the shopping networks want to be the first to show it, if not the exclusive seller.”)
As Barton Crockett, senior analyst at Lazard Capital Markets, explained to The Wall Street Journal in 2010, instead of Web commerce killing off the shopping networks, it got people used to the idea of buying things they’d never actually handled in a store. “If you’re comfortable buying online,” he says, “you’ll be comfortable buying stuff delivered to you by a TV shopping network.”
Since cummings didn’t have a distribution network for his skin cream, he leased a kiosk at Fashion Island for about $1,500 a month, although his rent varied depending on the time of year. Additionally, he had to pay the Irvine Co., which owns the mall, a small percentage of his sales revenue.
The first day, he sold just four $40 jars of the cream. But he kept at it, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, telling anyone who would listen how the preparation could repair damaged skin. When he wasn’t cajoling customers, he was phoning estheticians and beauty shop owners. The relentless repetition crystallized and honed Cummings’ message into a concise, pithy three-minute pitch that answered three basic questions: What is AminoGenesis? How is it different from the vast array of other skin-care products? And finally, does it work?
Within a few years, he built enough of a following that he added a lotion, a gel, and a cleanser to his line. He started running ads, and his mail-order business grew. He even got into department stores. But even after AminoGenesis was selling millions of dollars’ worth of products, Cummings knew he would bump up against a ceiling.
In 2008, after years of coaxing shopping network officials, he finally got his shot—a six-minute spot on QVC, based in West Chester, Pa. To his chagrin, “three-and-half minutes into my airtime I heard the producer say in my earpiece, ‘Wrap it up!’ That was not good. I was done in four minutes, though it seemed like 30 seconds. I was not hitting the numbers. I had gotten the hook. That was it.”
He went home demoralized, thinking that he’d blown his shot at the big time and knowing the network would return tens of thousands of dollars in unsold inventory. But he’d managed to move just enough units that the network execs gave him another try. Two months later, he went on at 3 a.m. for a six-minute stint. His numbers still weren’t good. “It seemed like the end of the road,” he recalls.
That’s why Cummings was startled to get a call from a product scout at HSN who saw potential in his early-morning debacle. The scout’s network wasn’t quite as stingy with its on-air time as QVC, and he figured that Cummings’ personable style—the one he’d developed working the kiosk at Fashion Island—might come across better in the network’s format. A few months later, Cummings again found himself in a green room nervously awaiting his 6 a.m. appearance. The 12 minutes went by in a blur, but when he returned to the green room, network executives hurried over to congratulate him. He’d sold $48,000 worth of skin cream, about $4,000 worth per minute—33 percent above target. The network put him before the camera repeatedly over the next two days, and on the plane home, a new reality began to sink in. He’d just sold $250,000 worth of products, and the network wanted him back in a couple of months.
But as Cummings quickly learned, TV pitchmen have precious little job security. Have one subpar outing, and you start hearing whispers that your numbers need to rise. There’s no malice to it. “When a person gets canceled, it can be a real downer for everyone involved,” he says. In the end, what matters is whether the public likes you. “You can be like a TV show that everyone [at the network] likes, but still gets canceled.”
Indeed, Cummings later had an HSN outing in which his sales inexplicably plummeted, and he found himself on the outside looking in. Fortunately, buyers at ShopNBC got wind that he’d just developed a new product, a wrinkle reducer called Gone in 60 Seconds. “By some strange bit of karma, I was getting yet another chance,” he says. This time he nailed it. Gone in 60 Seconds became one of the biggest-selling skin-care products in the network’s history.
For Cummings, the waters parted. As the orders rolled in, he started getting access to prime-time spots and lucrative opportunities that only exist on shopping TV. For example, there’s the special value of the day. “Each network has its own name for it, but it means you get the honor of being on for the first 10 or so minutes of every hour,” he says. That translates into a chance to sell millions worth of product in a day. The downside: You do as many as 24 pitches in 24 hours, with the understanding that if you bomb one of them, the network may give you the hook. Being a value of the day is like being asked to play in one of those high-roller card games in Vegas. You might win big, but you also can lose a lot.
Cummings has done several of those marathons. “While it’s happening, you don’t have the time to think about getting tired, because as soon as you come off the set, it’s practically time to go back on again. And there’s no warm-up. But if you do well out of the gate, I’ve found, you’ll go that way the whole day. By the end, you’re absolutely spent, a basket case.”
Cummings avoids the pitfalls of live TV with studied meticulousness. As he begins his on-air pitch, his words flow with perfect modulation and pace, punctuated by occasional intensity when he comes to the beat at the end of a sentence.
During a moment on ShopNBC, for example, he explains the evils of glycation, an apparently insidious process in which sugar molecules attach themselves to skin proteins, causing one’s hide to become sallow, saggy, and as distressed as a second-hand leather couch. “It’s truly the demon of your skin,” Cummings inveighs, for a millisecond evoking the passion of a TV evangelist before reverting to his characteristic smooth tenor salesmanspeak. “And up until now”—another brief uptick—“there’s been absolutely nothing you can really do about it.” That is, until the launch of AminoGenesis Age Control, which promises to undo the damage for a mere $51 for a 1-ounce vial.
As Cummings speaks, his copper-hued, button-down shirt billows around his ex-jock torso. He moves with the relaxed grace of a major league coach hitting pop flies during warm-ups. He’s done this a zillion times, and you can tell. The only trace of nerves is in the short, choppy movements of his arms as he jabs a felt-tip marker into the air. The camera shifts to before-and-after photos of a woman’s face, and Cummings uses the marker to point out her epidermal rejuvenation. “Just look at her after photo, after 60 days … this lady looks much, much younger. Where is all the discoloration? Where is all the stress? She looks like she’s been on vacation for three weeks.”
Cummings pulls out another visual aid—flesh-colored Play-Doh, which he kneads with his fingers. “This is supposed to be nice and soft,” he explains. “That’s what collagen is.” He then attacks the Play-Doh with a red hunk of plastic that represents sugar molecules being exuded by our decadent, ill-fed bodies. He pokes an unsightly hole in the clay. The effect is a little gross, but you get the idea. Cummings’ miracle serum is all that stands between your epidermis and this insidious assault on your looks.
And that’s it. Time’s up. As the show heads to break, it occurs to you that Cummings managed to fill virtually every second of the 10 or so minutes without any dead air and no stumbles. “They call me ‘Push-and-Play Ron.’ ”
For relatively small companies such as Cummings’, selling on a shopping channel provides an opportunity to compete with giants such as L’Oreal and Clinique. “I’d like to duplicate myself and stand there behind the counter in every store in America, but obviously I can’t,” he says. “On the Internet, you’ve still got the problem of getting traffic to your site.” Search engines, he says, still are dominated by major players who’ve got the cash to put behind their Web marketing. A little guy can’t catch a break.
Except, that is, on the shopping channels, which revel in getting products before the stores and the Web. “There are people whose products have sold gazillions of dollars [but] who don’t have general distribution,” Cummings says. The networks give him the chance to reach a niche audience—90 percent female, predominately over the age of 35, according to a 2012 Hollywood Reporter article—that may never make it to Nordstrom or even Amazon.com. “With home shopping, you’ve got that captive audience—millions of people who have the shopping channels on all the time, in the background.”
Though he’s now a regular on ShopNBC, Cummings sees bigger opportunities in other shopping channels springing up all over the world. “It’s become harder and harder in the U.S.,” he says. “They’ve become so oriented toward the big celebrity names, and who’s endorsing the products.”
The presenter he hired to pitch in Japan had huge success on that country’s Jupiter channel, where last September he sold an astonishing 65,000 units—$3 million worth of stuff—in a single day. On a recent trip there, Cummings nearly talked himself into a shot at appearing on Japanese TV—a real achievement in a market where foreigners seldom are allowed on camera—but at the last moment it fell through when his interpreter was unavailable. “It would have been cool,” he laments. He’s also huge in Australia, where he flies four times a year to do the shows himself.
An even bigger prize is South Korea, which surprisingly is the planet’s biggest TV shopping market, with roughly $60 billion in annual sales—about four times that of the U.S. South Korean channels sell just about everything—even cars and insurance policies—and the programs are as over-the-top as a Psy video, with thumping music and lavish sets. South Korea “is still a little bit like the Wild West,” Sarah Chung, a partner at consulting firm Luxe Brand Advisors and co-author of a recent study on the Korean retail market, recently told The Wall Street Journal. Cummings, who’s not one for understatement, likens the nation to “a ravenous, insatiable, starving beast!”
Even so, breaking in wasn’t easy. He spent a year haggling with South Korean TV representatives before one of his presenters was able to make an appearance last October and sold 12,000 units in just a few minutes. In just three weeks last December, Koreans bought $4 million worth of Gone in 60 Seconds. On a recent visit, he’d hoped to appear on camera, but the spot was canceled because the channel already had burned through its inventory of AminoGenesis products. With nothing left to peddle, he toured the DMZ instead.
Cummings now has his sights on China, a consumer market so gigantic that it already has nearly three dozen shopping channels—and it’s just getting started. He’s also dreamed up yet another venture: a reality-TV show that features other entrepreneurs angling to become global sensations. He wants to call it “Home Shopping Heroes.”
Photograph by Gregg Segal
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Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
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