Ron Popeil has sliced, diced and julienned his way to over $1 billion in retail sales. He is responsible for covering millions of bald spots with hair-in-a-can, the dehydration of enough meat to make tons of beef jerky, and the creation of thousands of miles of pasta. He equipped a generation to be always ready for a fishing opportunity. He is the father of the infomercial. He has made and lost several fortunes and proved that if you can sell, you will always have a job.
Ron succeeded despite having an unhappy and neglected childhood. His parents divorced when he was very young. When he was three years old, Ron and his brother, Jerry, were shipped off to boarding school. Their parents never came to visit, not even for Christmas.
When he was eight, his grandparents arrived from out of the blue and took them to Miami to live with them. Their grandfather was a miserable man, a Polish immigrant who had a hard life, who was down on everything and everybody. He would have little to do with the boys. His grandmother was the only person that seemed to care. They defended their son and bad mouthed the boys' mother. Still, Ron's parents never visited.
They moved to Chicago, when Ron was thirteen, and his grandfather went to work in Ron's dad and uncle's factory. The Popeil brothers made gadgets for the kitchen.
Ron and his brother would go to school during the week, then would have to work unpaid in the factory on weekends with their grandfather and grandmother. They seldom saw their father, because he was never at the factory on weekends.
At 16, Ron discovered Maxwell Street in Chicago. Maxwell Street was a dirty smelly place in a not so great part of town where a flea market was held. It was a tourist attraction and always attracted crowds. People sold all kinds of knick-knacks. Some had booths, stocked with stolen hubcaps, steering wheels and radios.
Ron decided he would give selling things there a try. One Sunday, he gathered up a bunch of kitchen gadgets from his father's factory and set up a booth. He says, "I pushed, I yelled I hawked." He furiously stuffed money into his pockets, more money than he had ever seen in his life. He was hooked.
Ron would get up on weekends and go to the produce market at 5 a.m. and buy vegetables to chop up for his demonstrations. He would set up his table, then demonstrate his products non-stop from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.
His dad and uncle were expert demonstrators but they never taught him anything or offered any advice. He learned by watching others at the Maxwell Street market. His father charged him full wholesale price for the goods.
He sold like crazy and was making $500 a weekend. It was pretty good money for a teen-ager, pretty good money for anyone in the early 1950s.
He got into an argument with his grandfather and left his grandparent�s house when he was seventeen. He got a studio apartment and continued to sell on Maxwell Street.
In 1955, Ron went to the University of Illinois, but became bored, and the lure of the big money he made selling caused him to drop out after a year.
Ron got a job demonstrating and selling at Woolworth�s in Chicago. Woolworth�s was the Wal-Mart of its day. The store Ron worked at had the biggest sales in the Woolworth�s chain. Ron had a deal where he would give the store 20% of his sales and he would buy the products and keep the rest of the profits. Many of the products were those made by his father�s company. His father, still didn�t cut him any breaks, he paid full wholesale price.
Ron Popeil demonstrated 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. He worked non-stop afraid to take a break and lose a sale. He made $1000 a week at a time when $500 a month was an average salary.
The general manager of the Woolworth�s earned a percentage of sales from his store. The corporate executives were jealous that he made more than they did. The manager took pleasure in taking guests to the second floor of the store where they could see the entire layout of the sales floor and he would point out Ron. He would say, �See that kid over there, he makes more than I do.�
Ron enjoyed the money he made. He spent it as fast as it came in. He stayed in $150 a night hotel rooms. He bought a Rolex. He drove nice cars, ate at fancy restaurants and nightclubs and rubbed elbows with the famous.
During the summer, he would find a fill-in for his Woolworth�s spot and he would sell at state and county fairs.
Ron�s old college roommate, Mel Korey, came for a visit, and joined him in his business.
They often joked that instead of demonstrating to groups of 10 to 100 people all day long, they should rent a stadium and fill it with 60,000 people. They could demonstrate their product once, and go home.
They found the next best thing, Television.
A friend told Ron about a television station in Tampa, Florida that would make him a commercial for $550. To Ron, it would cost only half a weeks profits and a plane ticket to give it a try. So, he flew to Florida and wrote and announced his first commercial using the same kind of sales pitch he used at Woolworth�s and the fairs.
The first product that he sold on TV was the Ronco Spray Gun, a product he did not buy from his father�s company, but another Chicago outfit. In the ad, he described the many uses for the Ronco Spray Gun. You could wash your car, second-story windows, and spray insecticide and fertilizer on your garden.
He ran his ads on television in Springfield and Rockford, Illinois and Madison, Wisconsin, all within an easy drive from Chicago. They could load up the car and deliver the products to the stores. They made deals with the stores to sell it on a guaranteed-sale basis. If the product did not sell, they would buy it back.
The ad worked and soon they were advertising in 100 cities. They sold over 1 million Ronco Spray Guns in 4 years.
Their second product was the Chop-O-Matic, which was Ron�s father�s invention. They convinced the television stations to sell them longer two-minute ads, which could be considered the first infomercial. This time they sold the product by mail-order. The customer sent their checks to the television station and Ronco would send the customer the product.
In 1963, Ron introduced the product that made him famous-Veg-O-Matic. �It slices, it dices, it juliennes....�. He claimed that you could chop onions with it and �the only tears you�ll cry will be tears of joy.�
The Veg-O-Matic became so popular that people would fight over the last one in stock. They sold over 11 million of them.
Ron made his father fabulously wealthy. Ron�s uncle, upset because Ron didn�t sell Popeil Brother products exclusively, refused to talk to him for 25 years.
Other famous Ronco products sold through the years: Mr. Microphone, GLH hair-in-a-can, The Pocket Fisherman, Inside-the-shell Egg Scrambler, Pasta Machine, Food Dehydrator and Showtime Rotisserie.
A technique he learned from selling at fairs, was to always give the customer an extra gift free. No matter how great the product he was advertising would seem he would always say �But wait, there�s more...� and throw in free booklets, steak knives or something else into the deal.
Not the fault of any business reversal, sales were still good, Ronco went bankrupt in 1984. Ron Popeil had done business with one bank for years and had a revolving line of credit that had grown to $15 million dollars. Ron�s bank hit hard times and was taken over by others who took a dim view of the kitchen gadgets that he sold and called in his loan.
Ron had guaranteed the loan against his receivables and inventory. The loan was due by January 1. In Ron�s business, the stores did not pay for the products that they bought for the Christmas season until April. So, the bank took his inventory and attempted to auction it off. Ron made an offer and bought the inventory back for $2 million.
He sold some of the merchandise to liquidators. He sold the rest by once again hitting the fair circuit and demonstrating and selling the products himself. He sold them all in about 3 years.
Ron Popeil went into retirement from 1987 until 1990. In 1991, he made his come back. He made an infomercial for the food dehydrator and started running it heavily on the growing number of cable TV stations.
His next product generated almost as much publicity as the Veg-O-Matic. It was GLH�spray-on hair-in-a-can. You could spray it on a bald spot and it gave the appearance that you really had hair there. Ron had bought the North American rights to it from an Australian company. They sold 900,000 cans the first year.
Next, he introduced a product that would become his ultimate success- The Showtime Rotisserie. It has become the all-time best selling infomercial product of all time and is nearing $1 billion in sales. More than all his other products over the past 40 years combined.
This should qualify him for among his other nicknames such as �Einstein of the Infomercial�, and �King of Hair��The Salesman of the Century. .