Oprah's Farewell Leaves Void for Small Business Owners


Maribel Lieberman's New York chocolate business was reeling after the 9/11 attacks, until she got the call that changed everything.

"'Maribel, you have to be ready,'" Lieberman recalls the editor of "O" magazine telling her after producers from "The Oprah Winfrey Show" saw the write-up on her sweets company, MarieBelle, and selected her product as one of Oprah's "favorite things" for the 2002 holiday episode.

Lieberman clearly wasn't prepared for the ensuing onslaught that included nonstop orders that crashed her website. In the heady days that followed, she worried about running out of chocolate, her supply of decorative tins from her Chinese manufacturer, the manual processing of credit card orders before she had the ability to handle them automatically, and the string of brutal 17-hour days that she and her fledgling staff endured.

Despite the chaos, Lieberman said she would gladly do it all over again.

"Of course," she said. "It's a lot of work, but it's amazing. It's a beautifully happy story you never forget."

The month following the show's airing, Lieberman booked roughly $600,000 in sales. In addition to boosting online and in-store orders, Winfrey's introduction catapulted MarieBelle's nascent wholesale business, amplifying its presence in Niemen Marcus and catching the attention of other major retailers.

Midas Touch

MarieBelle is one of the hundreds of businesses that have benefited from Winfrey's Midas touch. The daytime TV queen has ended her show's 25-year run, but her impact on products ranging from books and kitchen appliances to gadgets, clothing and cosmetics - pretty much any consumer item imaginable - endures.

"Putting her stamp on your product - everyone wants it," said Patty West, founder of Bozeman, Montana-based Good Karmal, whose candies were also singled out by Winfrey in 2002. The business, now approaching $1 million in sales, has seen growth every year since. "You'll never be prepared for what's coming."

In this way, Winfrey stands in stark contrast to fellow talk show icons Johnny Carson and David Letterman who never endorsed products on air, said branding strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin.

"Oprah was never that egregiously commercial about it; she was like a friend," said Baskin. "The unique part of her DNA is the ability to deliver a product recommendation without coming across like a salesperson."

Winfrey tapped into consumers' need for trusted personal referrals long before social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter capitalized on it, Baskin said.

"The unique thing with Oprah and the ‘Oprah effect' is that it really is sincere and heartfelt," said Derek Smith, vice president of sales and marketing at Zagg, whose iPad gadget was featured on the show in February. "The things that she puts and promotes on her show are things that she truly believes in."

The ZAGGmate, a protective case for the iPad that doubles as an external keyboard, was introduced to Oprah watchers by entertainer MC Hammer, a Zagg investor, in a segment about how the former hip hop star has reinvented himself as a businessman.

After the show aired, sales of the product jumped in electronics retailers and again rose following a rerun more than a month later. Meanwhile, shares of Salt Lake City, Utah-based Zagg Inc. reached an all-time high in the first quarter.

"The notoriety and publicity it received on the Oprah Winfrey Show has had a significant impact," said Smith. "Money can't buy that kind of exposure."

Oprah an "Anchor"

Winfrey's presence can also transform entire neighborhoods, as evidenced by her impact on Chicago's long-neglected West Loop area after she established her studio, Harpo Productions, there in 1990. The formerly blighted warehouse zone, known for crime and prostitution, is now dotted with upscale residential loft conversions and trendy restaurants.

The studio will now house Rosie O'Donnell's new show under the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

"Oprah's claim to that building, that block, reached beyond," said Ina Pinkney, owner of Ina's, a well-known West Loop breakfast restaurant that opened in early 2001. "It changed the look of the neighborhood. It became a destination for people; all of a sudden there was this anchor."

So what will be the impact when Winfrey's show is not beaming into our living rooms five days a week? Will there be another celebrity to fill the personal endorsement void?

"No," is Pinkney's emphatic response, adding: "Oprah has never lost sight of her audience, never."