Aug 18, 2015 · 5 minutes

I suppose they called them flash sales for a reason. Much as people use the word meteoric to describe a rise inside which a sudden and inexorable fall had always been fatally inscribed, the whole “flash sales” fad was, with the very term itself, warning us about its ephemeral nature.

Only a few years ago, we used to talk about flash sales as a burgeoning area inside ecommerce, loud sparks of life beyond the gray e-tail empire ruled over by Amazon. Flash sales spoke to Amazon's weakness, responding to consumer impulses rather than consumer data.

Amazon, of course, made its own feints toward flash sales, but in the end it seemed to decide that the niche was one that - like the auctions on eBay ten years ago or the daily deals on Groupon four years back - would fade away soon enough. Instead Amazon took the staid model of everyday discounts it pioneered back in 1995 and turned it into a subscription service called Amazon Prime.

Amazon was right. People grow weary of discount fads soon enough, but they have lifetime loyalty to a company that offers reliably steady discounts, which don't require too much thinking. (I said loyalty but I'm guessing addiction might work just as well.) Last month, the National Retail Federation noted the meteoric fall of flash sales, arguing that subscription-based ecommerce has over time prevailed.

Early flash-sales startups like Fab, Gilt Groupe, and MyHabit lost their fizz and their buzz, and Zulily became the late entrant cum final outlier that hit on a formula to make the fad keep working. Zulily didn't just offer flash discounts, it worked to generate demand for them, through the daily emails sent to its targeted market of fashion-minded, busy mothers.

For a while, this approach worked. But Zulily failed to find a follow-up business that could preserve its margins while keeping consumers engaged. Besides, the inventory of high-end fashion available in the wake of the recession dried up as the economy recovered. And most of all, the very idea of a fashion flash sale - whose allure is based on offering the buyer unique access that other shoppers won't have - became so commoditized there was nothing special about it after a while.

On Tuesday, Liberty Interactive (a wry name for a company that swallows independent firms) announced a “definitive agreement” to buy Zulily for $2.4 billion. Which isn't a terrible price for a company that many in the tech world stopped thinking about a year or so ago. As for those of us who care about these deals, there was a small debate over whether this was a good thing or a bad thing for Zulily.

On the one hand, the purchase price of $18.75 a share was well below the peak $68.39 a share that Zulily registered fleetingly in early 2014 - and even below the $41.32 a share it reached on its first day. But if you opt for those yardsticks, you have to wonder how much Zulily was another victim of the broken IPO machine, which helps startups raise the capital they need to keep growing, but only with the onerous condition of enduring an impossibly overvalued debut that will be tough to live up to.

On the other hand, Zulily was sold Tuesday at a 49-percent premium to the value public investors accorded it earlier that same morning. And yet, at a 15-percent discount to the offering price that underwriters decided it was worth in November 2013. And plus, only one year earlier, Zulily was valued at a mere $1 billion in a private round of fundraising, one that was considered rich at the time. As Fortune pointed out, some made money in the Liberty purchase, while some didn't.

This is a split-decision deal. So what's the takeaway?

If there is one key takeaway about Liberty's purchase of Zulily, it is this. Liberty Interactive, beneath its chrome nameplate, is basically the QVC channel. No startup, in the entire history of tech startups, ever included the phrase “we intend to be folded into QVC” into its business plan.

The converse, however, surely isn't true for Liberty Interactive, with its flatlined stock price. Liberty is hungry for new blood, and so its pitch to shareholders to support the Zulily deal probably sounded something like this:

“Just look at this gorgeous flash-sale startup, this beautiful emblem of 21st century capitalism, crafted in the magical city of Seattle. And what I love about this deal is how incredibly like-minded its mission to bring entertainment, discovery and value into the daily customer experience. And you're getting a very durable passion, very special, whether you're looking for synergy or innovation.

What you should be doing is enjoying this acquisition. See, you can see Stan here is enjoying the acquisition because he's buying shares at a six-month high. This is what M&A is for. This is an absolute jewel available in five easy payments that is going to fit right into his portfolio.”

Whatever the pitch, one thing doesn't change. QVC is where dotty spinsters go to shop in the comfort of their cloistered, cat-hoarded homes, buying Vitamix blenders that may never blend, body care kits that no one cares for, and gadgets that are outmoded before they're ever shipped. QVC is not a disruptor. It is to retailing what the callus is to the foot – an entity of established and impressively durable mass, always there for you, and yet always of dubitable purpose.

Zulily isn't the first once-promising startup to be bought by an incumbent. And yet it's hard to think of a media incumbent that is further from the startup ideal and also riper for disruption than QVC, that ancient stopover on the endless pilgrimage of cable channel surfers. The bad hairdos, the cheesy outfits, the desolated sets, and the manufactured hyperbole are exactly what flash-sales startups set out to obviate. And here the King of Cable Hucksterism has turned the tables on the venture-backed upstart.

Is this what flash sales have come to? How many brilliant coders devoted the days and nights of their early adulthood to this emerging market, only to see its fulfillment in a cable channel they scoffed at in their adolescence? It would be like working at AOL and then here it's suddenly bought out by Verizon (except that also happened.) Or Twitter bought by Comcast.

The Zulily acquisition presents a difficult question to investors in tech companies, whether those companies are publicly traded or privately held. Just how long will this market leader – or, hell, even the market it is leading – stand? For every Google, there is an AltaVista, an Excite, a Lycos and an Inktomi. For every Facebook, there are so, so many Friendsters. For every Amazon, there is an Onsale, a Half.com, a Zappos, a Groupon, a Fab, a Gilt, a Zulily and a…

The Zulily takeout bring to mind something a wise CEO of a flash-sales startup once said: “It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under.”

Or, wait. No. That was Grandmaster Flash. Well, either way it applies.