For anyone with even a remote interest in direct response, the chance to sit down for a conversation with Keith Mirchandani is an opportunity you simply can’t pass up. After all, Mirchandani—and his company Tristar Products—are on the cutting edge of so many aspects of this multi-faceted industry: production, retail distribution, international sales and brand development. His hits have become household names, promoted by celebrities from Jack LaLanne to Brenda DyGraf, Carol Alt, Kim Alexis, Bruce Jenner and—soon—Joan Rivers. His joint venture with Montel Williams has resulted in the “Talkmercial”—an hour-long format innovation that’s proving to be a winner. Mirchandani reflected on each of these topics—and on the industry’s future in a shaky economy and shifting media landscape. We knew we had to protect our products from unscrupulous competitors. The Ab Roller is a great example. That product alone has been litigated 38 times! And I’m happy to report that our record is 38-0.
Electronic Retailer: What initially drew you to the DR industry?
Keith Mirchandani: I was captivated by the industry as a consumer. It offered such unique products, demonstrated so compellingly. I found myself being sold by the product every time, from the time I was a little boy begging my mom for toy products I saw being advertised.
Eventually, I went to work for a direct response company for a few years and then decided to venture out on my own. That was 17 years ago, when I founded Tristar. So I’ve been in the industry for 20 years.
ER: What was the unique business opportunity you spotted when launching Tristar?
KM: The model in the industry at the time was to ride a hot product as long as possible—until demand began to die down, and then bring it to retail. My focus was to bring products to retail much earlier on in the process—in fact, from the very beginning. It began with a partnership with a single retailer, then grew into an entire network of retailers.
ER: It sounds as though success came rather early for Tristar. Is this true, or did you encounter initial challenges?
KM: We were fortunate to be pretty successful right out of the gate. We knew what the basics were and that we had to meet them every time. We needed a quality product that solved a common problem. We had to price it aggressively and—equally important—we knew we had to protect our products from unscrupulous competitors. The Ab Roller is a great example of the importance of the latter. That product alone has been litigated 38 times! And I’m happy to report that our record is 38-0.
ER: What are some of the most important changes you’ve seen in DRTV over the past 10 to 15 years, and how has Tristar been able to adapt and thrive?
KM: Fifteen years ago, the percentage of web orders was miniscule; now, it is often around 50 percent. People go online to read product ratings, comments from other consumers or to research the company to see whether it’s legitimate and trustworthy. They’re also making sure the price is right. The way we’ve responded (other than to deliver outstanding product quality) is to create the best websites possible, giving the consumers all the tools they need to learn everything they want to learn about a product— answers to common questions, additional consumer testimonials and ratings, among other content.
ER: Any other changes of note?
KM: Competitive forces have made it extremely important to keep control of production costs and to be able to turn on a dime in response to audience reaction. It’s hard to do both. We’re fortunate to have our own on-site studios with hi-definition capability—it’s afforded us a tremendous advantage. We’re able to rehearse more efficiently than some other companies. We can also offer our consumers more content, too. For example, with kitchen products, we can shoot how-to videos or recipe collections and then post them to the web. Whatever our customers are looking for, we can shoot it quickly and publish it immediately on the Internet.
ER: The list of celebrities that you’ve worked with is a long and impressive one. Are there a few especially rewarding or interesting relationships that have developed over the years?
KM: Jack LaLanne is one that jumps to mind. I’ve worked with Jack for more than seven years now, selling over 5 million units of the Power Juicer. Just recently, we had a 95th birthday celebration for him. He’s such an inspiring man. He still works out two hours each day, at 95.
As part of the celebration, we unveiled a special edition Power Juicer, with part of the profits going to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance (OCNA), in honor of my mother who passed away from the disease. I’m very happy to report that the project is doing extremely well. It’s nice to be able to give back. In fact, we’ve been able to donate more than $250,000 back to the organization in the two months or so since the celebration. Montel Williams is another celebrity with whom I’ve enjoyed a special relationship. We’re doing a new format we call the Talkmercial. Montel— an exceptionally talented talk show host—spends an hour discussing a particular problem, with a solution married to a product. One of our biggest hits right now is called the Health Master, an emulsifying blender for fruits and vegetables under Montel’s Living Well brand.
ER: How has the Talkmercial project been received, now that it’s been on air for awhile?
KM: We’re getting tremendous feedback. Many people expressed doubts about the one-hour Talkmercial format, but it’s currently one of the top three infomercials—and soon to be number one. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll be launching another half dozen products with the format.
The pool of consumers hesitant to purchase a DR product continues to shrink.
ER: How much of the Talkmercial is devoted to content and how much might be best described as selling?
KM: The content identifies the problem. For example, child obesity is a very significant and growing problem. The Health Master is such a perfect marriage of a solution to the problem, even when we’re airing interviews with doctors and information strictly related to child obesity, it still fulfills a sales function in addition to an educational one. It’s a winwin for everyone.
ER: Of all your campaigns, are there any that are especially rewarding or memorable?
KM: Certainly, the Jack LaLanne Power Juicer—and the current partnership with the OCNA—ranks at the top, for the chance to give back and honor my mother. But all my products are extremely important to me, and I have the same sense of excitement as each campaign rolls out—I think that’s probably key to our success. The 50 State Quarter Coin Map is one that I look back upon fondly. In 12 weeks after its launch, we had sold millions and millions of units—we just couldn’t make it fast enough. We did, but we had to enlist a number of folks to make it for us. That product stands out for how it exploded right out of the gate. It was very, very exciting.
ER: Are you confident in the industry’s ability to adapt to the many changes it’s facing?
KM: Yes, but the industry will have to adjust the business model a bit. We’re seeing media rates begin to inch back up again after a few years of decline. National advertisers are replicating our model. Even President Obama leveraged direct response during his campaign. All this is driving rates back up. Marketers are going to have to embrace the Internet and social media. The power is in the consumer’s hands and those companies that will continue to succeed will be those that adjust their business models to work within this new paradigm. Once we have a hit, it tends to work globally. For whatever reason, a hit seems to be a hit across the world.
ER: Your media reach extends to more than 100 countries worldwide. Are your international hits more global or regional in scope?
KM: It tends to be more global in nature. For whatever reason, a hit seems to be a hit across the world. And we’ve found that we have more success with our half-hour hits internationally than with our short-form hits. The fitness products tend to do quite well internationally.
ER: In the last 18 months or so, the mainstream media has developed something of a love affair with the DR industry. How, if at all, has all this affected your business, either positively or negatively?
KM: The negative way is clear: Broader interest in the medium is driving up media rates. On the positive side, companies—and consumers—are looking at DR with more respect . Companies are seeing it as a more cost-effective way of getting their message across. Take a traditional advertiser with a $3 to $5 million budget. This used to be seen as a 100-percent expense. But with DR, now you get a measurable return on this advertising expense. With the economy the way it is, national advertisers are excited at the prospect of generating a return on this investment— and then using the return to increase their marketing budgets. As for consumers, they are seeing national advertisers come to the DR platform, and are becoming increasingly trusting of the industry—a trend we had already been seeing. The pool of consumers hesitant to purchase a DR product continues to shrink.
ER: Do you have any new projects on the horizon you can share with us?
KM: Yes, I’m working on a new campaign called “Beauty Discoveries.” We’ve signed Joan Rivers to promote a new line of beauty products. We’ve shot three half hours so far. In fact, one show has just launched and the second two will be finished this month.
ER: What’s Joan like to work with?
KM: She’s fantastic. For one thing, she’s an absolute workaholic. When we were shooting with her in August, we had her scheduled Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The other two days, she was on QVC. And after a full day of shooting, she would do comedy shows in the evening. Her energy level is just amazing!