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If You Shop on Television, Use Caution, Experts Advise

TV shopping is struggling mightily to change its image from a retailing trailer park to a retailing Fifth Avenue. But weight-reduction bee-pollen pills, cellulite removal creams, and ``money, money, money'' business schemes are still finding their way onto the airwaves.

Consumer groups warn that TV shopping is still relatively new, and shoppers should be cautious. TV retailers sometimes distort the quality of goods and use tactics that encourage impulse buying, the groups say.

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In a 1991 Consumers Reports survey, 22 percent of Home Shopping Network shoppers and 9 percent of QVC shoppers said goods look better on TV than in person.

``What concerns me is ... `I see it, I want it, so I pull out my credit card and buy it,' '' says Lois Wright Morton, author of a TV shopping consumer fact sheet published by Cornell University. ``People begin to make consumption choices they really can't afford or need.''

The industry's growth has been huge. After nine years in business, the two main shopping networks, QVC and the Home Shopping Network, sold more than $2 billion in merchandise last year and reached 50 million-plus viewers.

Ms. Morton says consumers can get low prices on some products because the networks don't have to pay the rent, salaries, and overhead costs that traditional retailers do. But she recommends that consumers research a product well and get a sense of its price range in local stores before making a purchase on TV.

When ordering, shoppers should write down exact information about the product, including its cost and what the company's return policy is, she says. A delivery date should be set, and the company should be reminded that new federal regulations enacted in March require that all deliveries be made within 30 days.

Credit card best form of payment

Credit cards should also be used so payment can be contested if the consumer is not satisfied with the product on delivery, Morton advises. Billing or merchandise complaints should be immediately taken to the state attorney general.

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``The purchaser really needs to do their homework,'' Morton says. ``What was the name of the program, who they talked to, the name and address of the place they ordered from, so they can have an actual means of recourse.''

Another potential financial land mine for consumers, experts say, is the emergence of increasingly sophisticated ``infomercials'' in an estimated 80 percent of television-viewing homes.

The usually half-hour-long advertisements look like programs and often feature celebrity endorsements, product demonstrations, and testimonials from satisfied customers. Traditional 30-second advertisements for the product are mixed in, adding to the sense that the program itself is not a paid ad.

New show offers longer pitches

A new weekly syndicated program, ``Main Floor,'' will further blur the lines between advertising and programs on more than 100 United States stations this September. The program looks and sounds like a show on the latest trends in fashion and makeup. But advertisers pay up to $25,000 to have their products plugged by the show's hosts and the advertisers' employees.

``People are so skeptical of 30-second commercials that marketers are now trying to make them look like programs,'' says Michael Jacobson, co-founder of The Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington, a nonprofit consumer group. ``We've petitioned the [Federal Trade Commission] to run a continuous line on the bottom of the screen identifying them as advertisements. But they haven't ruled on it.''

The FTC, which monitors all advertising for illegal false claims, has filed charges against a half dozen infomercial makers for making false claims or using a program format that misleads viewers into thinking the program is not an ad.

``The FTC has not claimed that all infomercials are inherently deceptive,'' says Bonnie Jansen, an FTC spokeswoman. ``It's using a host, having an audience, presenting a [supposedly] independent investigation, and audience testimonials together, which can imply that it's an investigative show rather than an advertisement.''

Despite the false advertising problems with some infomercials, business continues to boom. Infomercials sold an estimated $800 million in merchandising last year. Both QVC and the Home Shopping Network are launching new networks to appeal to upscale shoppers this year.

Media giant Time-Warner Inc. and mail-order catalog Spiegel Inc. announced a new joint shopping network that will include products from Williams-Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, Neiman Marcus, and other retailers. Macy's department store will also be launching its own shopping network in the eastern US this fall.

TV shoppers have long been looked down on as ill-educated consumers who would invariably be stuck with low-quality merchandise. Advertising research shows, however, that TV shoppers are slightly younger, slightly more educated, and just as affluent as traditional shoppers. An increasing number of well-known brands are being sold.

``We're on the road to changing the image,'' says QVC spokeswoman Amy Jackson. ``Electronic retailing is so new that people bunch us all together. But there are huge differences between QVC and the Home Shopping Network and the infomercials.''

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