Financial Times: Andrew Malcher is bringing a new kind of US-style infomercial to British Screens, writes Andrew Bounds
If the mark of a great retailer is not selling you what you want but selling you what you didn’t know you wanted, Andrew Malcher must be a great retailer.
When offered something to drink on arrival in his company’s imposing wood-panelled boardroom, I ask for coffee. Instead, two smoothies arrive. Mine is an orange combination of apple, carrot and celery; Mr Malcher’s is green and a secret recipe from his American health guru. “It has a calming and cleansing effect. I’m really 103,” he says.
All 60 staff at High Street TV’s office in Harrogate, north Yorkshire, are expected to drink the free smoothie every morning and melon juice in the afternoon. It may be working. Mr Malcher is 42 but could easily pass for younger. Whether it is the superfoods, the winters in Florida, where he has a house, the daily walk to work or using the fitness, beauty and nutrition products that feature on his television channel is hard to say.
Mr Malcher is not just persuading his staff to embrace smoothies but building a business by convincing bricks and mortar retailers that TV shopping can help them keep their hard-pressed shops alive.
British consumers are already familiar with TV shopping channels, but Mr Malcher and co-founder Jim Coleman have introduced a new kind of infomercial from the US, in which a story behind the product is developed in a slot that lasts up to 30 minutes.
Such infomercials are more like a live show and, while common in North America, are novel in the UK.
In one, a group of women discuss the fact that 80 per cent wear ill-fitting bras, before Genie, High Street TV’s bra brand, is revealed. “It engages (the audience) and captivates, and it is emotionally led,” says Mr Malcher. “Facts tell, but stories sell.”
He directed High Street TV’s early spots in his own converted barn near Harrogate himself. Nowadays, the ads are likely to feature minor celebrities such as Alex Gerrard, wife of Liverpool and England football player Steven Gerrard (the Shake Weight), or Danielle Lineker, wife of the sports presenter and former footballer Gary (the Easy Shaper). The business has its own 24-hour channel on Sky TV and 70 hours daily split across other channels such as Dave, a male-oriented comedy and gadget channel, and Discovery TV.
In the UK “there is a naivety towards home shopping – it is perceived as cheesy and gimmicky”, he says. But, he adds, retailers can be benefit as they suffer on two fronts from the general financial crisis and from online competition.
“We set this business up just as the world went into financial crisis in 2009 … We have gone from zero to £30m (turnover) in three-and-a-half years and created 60 jobs,” he says. “Footfall was declining. Retailers need to find more ways and means to connect with consumers.”
High Street TV was founded by Mr Malcher and Mr Coleman, his long-standing business partner and its chief executive. Mr Malcher is executive chairman. It now has more than 35 retail partners and its products are stocked in high street stores such as Boots, Asda, Argos and John Lewis.
The co-founders already had experience of TV shopping: Mr Malcher admits that much of the model was taken from the US where he had seen the opportunities while living in Florida. “Back in the mid-1990’s Jim and I saw that the TV would go fuzzy mid-night to 6pm. We started putting products on TV,” he says.
The two men launched the best-selling Atkins Diet in the UK, converting the hefty book into a video and promoting it on TV. In 1999, they founded the American Shopping Channel, which sold fitness products such as Pilates and yoga mats, then sold it in 2002 to Richard Desmond, the media entrepreneur.
In 2003, they launched a UK version of the Golf Channel, a huge US success. The breakthrough came with a partnership with JJB, the sports retailer, and golfer Sam Torrance, the European Ryder Cup-winning captain. JJB owned the Slazenger brand for gold equipment but was struggling to sell drivers. Mr Malcher’s team created a new one and promoted it on the channel, with the opportunity to buy it at JJB stores too. “We sold 37,000 drivers in eight months at £169 and it became Britain’s best selling driver overnight. It was a phenomenon … and proved this model. For every one sold on TV there were four or five sold in JJB. The majority of people still want to touch and feel (before buying). We are about being on TV, online, on the page and on the high street.”
Dave Whelan, the founder of JJB, bought the channel in 2006 and created JJB TV with the pair. But a year later he sold out, new management came in and within a few months the channel was shut.
Mr Malcher and Mr Coleman believed the time was right to launch a TV-based multichannel retailer, putting in £250,000 of their own money to lease a Sky channel.
In raising its profile by featuring celebrities and by getting products featured on TV programmes such as the Jonathan Ross chat show or Loose Women, High Street TV has won itself the pick of more lines. It has the UK rights to Zumba, the fitness craze sweeping church halls across the country, whether sold online, via TV or in a shop. And High Street TV is the largest sports and fitness supplier to Amazon.
Harrogate, a genteel spa town known mainly for upmarket tea shops, might seem a puzzling location for a hard-selling shopping channel. But Mr Malcher says it allows the business access to talented staff from nearby cities such as Leeds or York, while still being able to afford a corporate HQ in which senior visiting executives feel comfortable.
Apart from drinking smoothies, Mr Malcher’s staff must wear a suit and tie, except on Fridays. Even the designers perched behind their Macs have made an effort with thin black ties – although they haven’t shaved.
“We have an online team, web developers, social media, Twitter, direct mail and print,” Mr Malcher says. “We have marketing PR … We are creating our own packaging, advertising, have our own in-house call centre, customer services.”
While bricks-and-mortar retailers are having to deal with fewer consumers visiting their stores, Mr Malcher predicts High Street TV’s turnover will double to £60m next year.
The founders are also building a bigger studio, twinned with one in Los Angeles, where Jon Denny, a former Hollywood producer and minority shareholder, shoots infomercials with pop stars such as Katy Perry that have budgets of up to £500,000 a time. “We have the size, funding and scaleability to do it. We are now creating our own shows.”