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Infomercial man shares handy-dandy secrets

Q&A: Ronco's Ron Popeil on dreaming up handy-dandy ideas, the invention of spray-on hair and why we may all start eating deep-fried pickles.
Ron Popeil, who first appeared on TV in the 1960s pushing consumer products like Veg-O-Matic, is going strong at 71. Even though he sold his company for $55 million last August, he'll continue to serve as consultant.
Ron Popeil, who first appeared on TV in the 1960s pushing consumer products like Veg-O-Matic, is going strong at 71. Even though he sold his company for $55 million last August, he'll continue to serve as consultant.AP file
/ Source: Forbes

Anyone who has flipped around late-night television knows Ron Popeil. He's the infomercial man you can't help but watch or buy from. Popeil on the Showtime Rotisserie: “Set it and forget it.” Popeil on the Pocket Fisherman: “The biggest fishing invention since the hook...and still only $19.95!” Popeil on his Dial-O-Matic: “Slice a tomato so thin it only has one side.”

And as Popeil would say: “But wait — there's more!” So much more. At 71, Popeil is still going strong. Since first appearing on television in the 1960s pushing “as seen on TV” products like the Veg-O-Matic, he's continually refined his ability to identify what customers want and to deliver it to them as a handy-dandy tool. By his own estimates, his gadgets have yielded more than $2 billion in sales.

After working nonstop for 40 years, Popeil sold his company, Ronco, to Fi-Tek VII, a Denver holding company, for $55 million last August. But don't worry: Popeil isn't disappearing from late-night TV. He's serving as a consultant to his former company, and he's also the focus of a Biography Channel documentary debuting on Aug. 15.

He recently chatted with about being one of the most memorable faces on late-night TV, why he felt the need to invent spray-on hair and why we might all soon be eating deep-fried pickles. What makes you such a good salesman?

Popeil: The fact that I'm an inventor first and salesperson second is the reason why so many people buy my products. If you create a product that's needed in the marketplace, or a drug that will solve a medical problem, people are going to buy it. It's so easy for me to sell my products because the market exists.

From the Dial-O-Matic to the Flavor Injector to spray-on hair, you've come up with such a wide range of household and personal products. What's your formula for designing something new?

First, I see what is needed in the marketplace. The next thing is, I ask what's out there? What you don't want to do is come up with a product and then find out that someone is successfully marketing a good product and can take business away.

How do you come up with your ideas?

Each product is different. My last two projects were the deep fryer that does a 16-pound turkey and my most successful product, the Showtime Rotisserie, which had over $1 billion in sales. Around 7 million units have been sold so far.

Seven years ago, I walked into a Costco store, where I shop frequently--my hobby is cooking. There were a line of people buying rotisserie chickens. Then I went to supermarkets that week, and guess what? They too had rotisseries, and people were buying those. That's when I asked, “What's already out there?” I went to the top department stores, and there were no user-friendly rotisseries. The ones I saw were too small. They wouldn't do a couple of chickens, no roast beef, no leg of lamb.

There's a saying: Necessity is the mother of all invention. Have you ever created a product because you needed it?

I have a bald spot on the back of my head, and I saw the need for a product to fix [the problem], so I created the spray-on hair. I carry a can of it in my briefcase wherever I go.

You're the king of the infomercial. What is the Internet doing to the infomercial?

The more money you spend on television, the more business you get on the Internet. With TV, not everybody has a pen when they see our phone number. But the Internet gives consumers another way to order a product.

You recently sold your company and now serve as a consultant to it. How has your everyday involvement in the company changed?

I have nothing, zero to do with the day-to-day operations. I just focus on consulting, trying to guide them.

Was it hard to give up ownership?

No. The benefits of being able to spend time with my two little ones is unbelievable. I win. I've got a 4- and a 6-year-old. I'm 71 years old. I have so much fun waking up with them. They wake me up sometimes. All my children have worked with me in the past. The older ones have counseled me and given me ideas. Some have helped create patents with me. I'm teaching the little ones how to cook.

Which of your products do you find yourself using in the kitchen most often?

The Rotisserie and the Flip-It, which turns food over in a frying pan. I'm going to be giving that product away with the turkey fryer. It's one of my favorites. If it's misplaced by my housekeeper, I go crazy. I have three of them, but they're three different sizes. I have a commercial-sized kitchen. I also test these products in my kitchen.

What are you working on now?

Two weeks ago, I had lunch in Santa Barbara and was served fried dill pickles coated in flour and cornmeal. So I went back to my new product, a deep fryer that (was originally designed to do) a 16-pound turkey in less than an hour, and went to the supermarket. I bought half a dozen jars of dill pickles and fried them. They were delicious.