How I Did It: Ron Popeil, Ronco
Ron Popeil made his fortune selling products you never knew you needed -- and now can't live without. From hawking the Chop-O-Matic in a Chicago Woolworth's, Popeil has gone on to invent and sell on TV some of the most iconic consumer products ever. The Solid Flavor Injector, Mr. Microphone, and the Showtime Rotisserie are just some of Popeil's products; his inventions have pulled in a combined $2 billion in sales. A pioneer of the infomercial, Popeil, 73, sold control of his company, Ronco, in 2005 for $40 million. But he is still at it, and he will soon be selling the world on the virtues of his latest kitchen gadget: a deep fryer for turkeys.
My parents divorced when I was a very early age. My older brother, Jerry, and I were sort of latched together. My parents didn't want us, and consequently we ended up in an orphanage in upstate New York. I was 5, and my brother was 6.
My grandparents took my brother and me out of the orphanage after a couple of years, and we moved to Florida. I loved my grandmother, but my grandfather was mean. We were poor, but we always had something to eat. My grandmother would walk for miles for a sale on milk or beef.
We moved to Chicago, where I got to meet my father. He had a small manufacturing company, where he produced a product called the spiral slicer, a precursor to the Veg-O-Matic. Every weekend, my brother and I and my grandparents would go down to the factory, open it up, and put spiral slicers into boxes. It was hard work.
There was no love for my father at all. I had a respect for the guy as a businessman, but I hardly saw him. He was a single man and did what single guys do. I was 16 when I started selling my father's products at county fairs and flea markets. I made almost $1,000 a week, spending as fast as I was earning it.
I was working in the Woolworth's store in Chicago selling the Chop-O-Matic, standing eight or 10 hours a day. I would do six demonstrations an hour. My vocal cords were so strained that I wouldn't want to talk to anybody when the day was over.
I decided to start creating my own products. My first TV spot was for a product called the Ronco Spray Gun. I helped design the packaging; one of my ex-wives is on the box. It was just a nozzle for a garden hose that was designed in a gun shape. In the handle of the gun you could insert tablets for different jobs: a soap tablet to wash your car, a fertilizer tablet for your lawn, and so on. The commercial cost me $550 to make.
Making a commercial and letting the TV do all the work sure beats standing 10 hours every day. TV made the way for me. It put me in the big world.
In those days, there were no credit cards. Well, wait a second. No credit cards? How are the people going to pay you? My idea was to take the product to a local retailer. I said, "I'm going to put this on TV. People are going to come into your store. Now, people being people, they are going to buy other products. So your sales are going to go up, and you get all this free. If you get stuck with any product that doesn't sell, you can return it to me. What do you have to lose?" So we tried it. And it worked.
If I create a product, I can market it as well as or better than anyone on the planet. I have the confidence and the passion. People see that, and they know it is real. When you make your own products and you put your name on them, you better have something good, or else when you walk down the street, people will be throwing stuff at you.
I said no to Wal-Mart for many years. You can do that if you are making money in TV. Sure, if I put a product into their stores, I'd make a ton of money. But I want to do it when the time is right. You keep a product in the marketplace for four or five years, and the retailer has not seen it anywhere except on television. The more he can't buy it, the more he wants it. His customers are asking for it, and he doesn't have it. Sooner or later, TV sales are going to slacken, and that's the time to capitalize on retail.
People ask me, "How good is that rotisserie of yours?" My response always is, "Don't ask me; ask anyone who owns one." Sales on the rotisserie are in the range of $1.25 billion. My friend Steve Wynn said to me once, "We could build a hotel for that." People fight in divorces for the rotisserie. I'm not BS-ing you.
My latest project is a deep fryer. I've been working on it for four years. It will be my last product and my last infomercial. There are two million people who use turkey fryers, mostly down South. QVC saw the product in its early stages, and they said to me, "Ron, when you're ready, we'll buy 40,000 for a one-day sale." JCPenney said they'd take another 40,000. It's all about brand reputation.
We don't use canned testimonials. I take the first 250 machines that come out of the factory and give them to the people who will be in our audience. They use the machine for 30 days, and then they come sit in our audience. What they say is real. I remember one testimonial for my Electric Food Dehydrator where a woman said, "My husband is on the USS Kitty Hawk. He is stationed somewhere near Saudi Arabia, and when he writes me, he doesn't say, 'Hello; how are you, honey?' He says, 'Send more beef jerky.' " You couldn't write a testimonial like that if you tried.
When you look back on the great consumer products of our time, I think that Black & Decker's DustBuster was one of them. The George Foreman Grill was definitely one of them. I think I've had a couple as well. The Showtime Rotisserie, the Pocket Fisherman, the Electric Food Dehydrator, and the Solid Flavor Injector are some of my greatest inventions. Not to mention my spray-on hair. What a fabulous product that is. I know a lot of professional announcers on TV who use it today, but I'm sworn to secrecy. There's a very famous NFL sports announcer who uses it. That's all I'll say.