Kitchen stoneware sells like hotcakes

Tara McConnell and her Exton cookware company, Temp-tations L.L.C., have struck gold by marketing cookware through QVC. A program host there cites her ability to connect with viewers as a factor in that success.
Tara McConnell and her Exton cookware company, Temp-tations L.L.C., have struck gold by marketing cookware through QVC. A program host there cites her ability to connect with viewers as a factor in that success. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 16, 2013

Tara McConnell has taken simple stoneware and turned it into kitchen gear QVC shoppers can't seem to get enough of.

As chief designer and president of Temp-tations L.L.C. in Exton, McConnell is on the shopping channel twice a week, demonstrating tried-and-true 9-by-7-inch baking dishes and 21/2-quart cow-figure bakers.

"This is so stinking cute," she said on a recent broadcast with host Mary Beth Roe, the camera lingering on a hand-painted casserole set.

Only about 10 minutes into an hour-long show, Roe said 600 shoppers had already placed orders for cow- and chicken-theme ceramics. At $27.88 apiece, that represented sales of nearly $17,000.

QVC, a subsidiary of Liberty Interactive Corp., has become an $8.5 billion business over the last 27 years by beaming all sorts of products into living rooms worldwide. But for every celebrity chef or star hawking products, there are guests like McConnell, small-business people who have found ways to connect with consumers.

McConnell is the first to admit she never thought she'd be standing in front of TV cameras, pulling casseroles out of hot ovens. A former soccer striker who went to West Virginia Wesleyan College on a soccer scholarship, she said she fully intended to become a psychologist because she wanted to help others.

That interest in connecting with people, her self-confidence, and a college internship led her down a different path. At Coordinated Strategic Alliances in Chester, N.Y., McConnell was introduced to the business of sourcing and staging products for QVC.

Coordinated Strategic has helped established brands such as Oreck and La-Z-Boy sell via QVC, as well as niche products like the Tornado Mixer and the What-a-chair fold-up seat.

After graduation, McConnell joined Coordinated Strategic, where she was an incredible learner, said Eric Levine, a company principal. Often, she went overseas to visit factories able to make various products.

While walking through a basket factory in China 11 years ago, she had her "Aha!" moment: She spied a wire frame with a shape that looked as though it could hold a baking dish.

On returning to the United States, McConnell asked her mother, Gail Dejmal, what she thought about a single product to replace the mixing bowls, bakeware, and serving dishes that clutter up kitchens. When McConnell and her older sister, Tracy, were young, Dejmal made sure the family ate dinner together, but she admitted she often used every dish in the house to prepare those meals - dishes her daughters had to wash.

At her mother's house, McConnell emptied the cabinets of metal pans, glass dishes, and other pieces she once washed, to figure out which sizes were used most.

The origin of Temp-tations by Tara is familiar to QVC viewers - McConnell tells the story often. She mixes it into her patter on how an 8-by-8-inch baker can go from a 500-degree oven to the table to the refrigerator.

On air and social media, she asks customers what they like about her products. Fans calling themselves "Temp-tationistas" have a Facebook page.

McConnell doesn't get into the nitty-gritty on TV of how she persuaded her bosses to back her idea. Not as easy as it sounds - after all, ceramic cookware has been around for centuries.

"Tara found a way to make it special," Levine said.

The initial baking dish sold well in its QVC debut. McConnell began testing designs and adjusting them to customers' preferences. And what started as problem-solvers became collectibles.

QVC's most-watched show, with 3.5 million viewers each week, is In the Kitchen with David, running Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening - so popular that viewers set DVRs to record it, said Ken O'Brien, vice president of home merchandising.

On a recent show, 5-foot-ish McConnell and 6-foot-6 program host David Venable featured bakeware with a bigger design variation on Temp-tations' popular Old World style.

Several hundred vendors sell cooking and dining items on QVC yearly. What makes Temp-tations different, O'Brien said, is "how big it's become in a short period of time."

He attributed that to McConnell's ability to talk on camera as she would to a neighbor. "I just get on there and have a conversation," she said.

At Coordinated Strategic, Temp-tations' growth spurt meant many of its 25 employees were needed to support an in-house brand. By 2009, Temp-tations was so big that company principal Ed Tesher argued it needed to be spun off as a separate company. McConnell was the natural choice to lead it.

"She had the vision for the brand," Levine said.

Temp-tations was recapitalized in a transaction led by Prudential that made McConnell an owner. Thomas Oreck, former CEO of Oreck Corp., joined Temp-tations as CEO to mentor McConnell. The company employs 11 people handling finance, design, logistics, and other aspects of the business.

McConnell wouldn't disclose Temp-tations' sales but said it had sold 10 million sets of merchandise in its 10 years - 75 percent of those sales in the last three years and 1.6 million sets in 2012. Assuming an average price per set of $32, that places Temp-tations' sales at about $50 million last year. (In September, it launched Buytemp-tations.com.)

Why has her stoneware sold so well? McConnell, 39, thinks tougher economic times have prompted people to focus on home and family.

"They still want to set a beautiful table," she said.

With plans for at least 125 new items in 2013, McConnell seems to have her work to satisfy her fans cut out for her. But there's another motivation, too:

"My name," she said, "is on the bottom of every piece."


Contact Mike Armstrong

at 215-854-2980, marmstrong@phillynews.com, or follow @PhillyInc on Twitter.

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