HIGH-ALTITUDE IMPULSE SHOPPING GETS A SECOND TAKEOFF
Rescued from bankruptcy, SkyMall vows to upgrade its flight status from punch line to purveyor of must-have gadgets
On an overnight flight last year, Melissa Hoistion struggled to catch some shut-eye between Las Vegas and New York. Restless, she reached for a sleep aid: the SkyMall catalogue in the seatback pouch.
“Every time I get on a flight, I flip through it,” said the New Jersey resident, who works in public relations. “It gives me a chuckle.”
Perusing the magazine, she came across a cheeky T-shirt stamped with the phrase, “The squirrels are mocking me.” She tossed the item into her mental shopping cart, later ordering it for her son’s birthday.
Not long after her purchase, several airlines pulled the publication from their aircraft. Then in January, the company that publishes it filed for bankruptcy. Theories behind the magazine’s unfortunate demise abounded, such as competition from passengers’ personal gadgets and in-flight entertainment, including WiFi. Several industry experts also blamed its obsolescence on an e-commerce-driven world and its impractical products. Case in point: A Justin Bieber-singing toothbrush is perfect for . . . no one.
Hoistion responded to the news with a mournful message on Twitter. She was not the only traveler tweeting tears.
“My first flight in memory without it,” wrote one loyalist. “Not sure I can deal.”
Bemoaned another, “Sitting on the plane knowing that there’s no more SkyMall. I feel so lost. I mean, where am I supposed to buy an electric head massager now?”
And another: “The fact that SkyMall is no longer a thing is an American tragedy.”
The tributes and eulogies, however, turned out to be unnecessary. Three months later, SkyMall jolted back to life.
In April, C&A Marketing, a manufacturer, distributor and online reseller based in New Jersey, saved the in-flight catalogue from the shredder. (Hoistion’s firm represents C&A Marketing.) In response, fans turned their emoti-frowns upside down.
“Your favorite in-flight catalog is back!” one traveler cheered.
About a week after the company closed on the deal, I visited its Ridgefield Park headquarters to ask the new owners some critical questions about the legendary catalogue. For example, when will it return to airplane seatbacks? Will they keep the same format or shake up the look and offerings? And what does the future hold for the life-size yeti, SkyMall’s unofficial mascot?
I met Chaim Pikarski in a windowless conference room off a display area filled floor-to-ceiling with the company’s own creations (Ivation, which makes design-centric stuff) and products related to its licenses (Polaroid) and acquisitions (Ritz Camera). I was upfront with the executive vice president: I have never purchased anything from SkyMall. He admitted that neither has he. It turns out that our kind — browsers, not buyers — helped doom the publication.
“We need to shift from geeky products that people laugh about,” he said, “to what people actually buy.”
To reverse the course of inaction, Pikarski plans to transform SkyMall from a comedy club of jokey gifts to a viable retail venture specializing in travel and lifestyle products. He described the change as moving from “cool, fun, expensive and impractical” to “cool, fun, affordable and useful.” The reimagined inventory will pull from three main categories: items that don’t sell but enjoy a cult following (the yeti), items that are used once or twice but ultimately end up in the garage (glow-in-the-dark toilet seat) and items consigned to heavy rotation (inflatable bed, grilling spatula with light).
“Twenty-five years ago, the catalogue had less to do with selling and more to do with content,” he said. “It was a book of stuff that was cutesy. We want to sell more useful things without giving up the DNA of the fun stuff.”
A quirky romance
When Bob Worsley founded SkyMall in 1989, he didn’t set out to create the Lands’ End of goofball gifts. The Arizona businessman sketched out his vision during a plane ride from Seattle to Phoenix. He credits his inspiration to Alaska Airlines’ logo-gear magazine and to his travel companions, whom he viewed as potential customers who might appreciate an in-flight “mall” excursion. (Really, what else were they going to do? Shop online? Sorry, wrong era.)
“I thought, ‘ This could be a lot better,’ ” Worsley, now a two-term state senator, said of the airline’s promotional publication. “I wanted to create a catalogue of catalogues.”
To break the traditional mold, he curated collections from popular retailers, such as Sharper Image and Hammacher Schlemmer, and forged partnerships with airlines to “rent” space in the pouch. (Eastern was the first to sign up. Three months after the publication’s launch, the airline folded.) He also envisioned an immediate delivery system: Passengers could call by airphone and pick up their purchases at the gate or in baggage claim.
Despite his ingenuity, the arrangement hit snags. For one, Worsley discovered that travelers didn’t want to add bundles to their load of luggage, so he switched to a home-delivery system. They also weren’t interested in buying clothing and other objects commonly sold in shopping centers. The yeti was stomping the wrinkle-free pants.
“People wanted to purchase things that they couldn’t purchase anywhere else and weren’t mainstream,” he said. “The eccentric, odd, unique, hard-to-find object made SkyMall successful.”
Even Worsley, who sold the magazine in 2003, fell for its curious charms. He bought a 20foot trampoline attached to an inner tube for his lake house. His family spent four good years bouncing on the equipment before it succumbed to a forest fire.
“SkyMall was iconic and so unique. People had a quirky love affair with it,” said Worsley. “I’m thrilled to see the brand back in circulation.”
Shower music and ice to go
C&A Marketing, which paid $1.9 million at auction, has set an ambitious timeline. Since taking over, it has already introduced several new products to SkyMall’s Web site and will continue to add more on a regular basis. It hopes to restore the catalogue to airplane seatbacks by year’s end. And in nine to 12 months, Pikarski said, travelers could possibly find SkyMall stores in airports, hotels, cruises and all-inclusive resorts— just in case you forgot to pack your waterproof wireless speaker or beard hat.
In addition to reestablishing and expanding the retail venues, Pikarski and his team are researching and developing goods of all stripes. For my visit, his assistants had arranged a sampling of merchandise on a back table, a jumble of items that no one store (even Target!) could ever feasibly contain.
Pikarski, hopping with excitement, kicked off show-and-tell with the Ivation icemaker, a compact and portable contraption that appeals to mobile bartenders. He poured water into the silver loaf-shaped appliance and pressed a button with a snowflake icon. Silence.
“This does work, right?” he asked his elfish assistant.
The process would take about eight minutes, so while we waited for the cubes to form, the VP fluttered over to the Jumblr pet feeder, a water-and-food-dish combo for cats and dogs. A filter burbled beside a bowl of kibble, a soothing sound that might also calm animals suffering from separation anxiety. Little explanation was needed (pet eats and drinks, person refills), so Pikarski brought me over to a padlock that opens via Bluetooth magic. He extolled its virtues: No more keys! Bye-bye combination! Just don’t misplace your gadget.
We broke from the tour to check on the ice machine, which was gurgling like a baby. We heard a kerplunk, and then another and another. Pikarski opened the top to reveal eight smooth pieces of ice, which he gleefully held up with a scoop like a proud papa.
To complete the home-wares demo, he showed me a $149 multitasking clock radio that chain hotels really should adopt. (Raise your hand if you always find bedside clocks displaying the incorrect time? And if you can never find the lamp switch?)
“It is for anything you need on your night stand,” he said. Those necessities include light, radio, alarm, white noise player and smartphone charger, all wrapped in a sleek Brancusiesque design.
For the automobile portion of the presentation, Pikarski trotted out a DIY breathalyzer (breathe and call a cab, or buckle up) and an emergency kit with the usual SOS suspects, plus a window shatterer.
“Cool, useful and not expensive,” he said of the $29.99 pack.
My RV motor started running when we moved into the camping department. Like an REI salesman, he presented a full complement of outdoorsy gear: batterypowered portable shower with a hand pump, induction countertop burner, 20-liter dry bag and sun-powered inflatable camp light that resembled a beach ball illuminated by lightning bugs. In addition, for hiker-rockers, he modeled a backpack with speakers. For thirsty gadget-trekkers, a solar-paneled backpack with a built-in canteen. And for state fair adventurers, a mini fryer with settings for shrimp, chips, chicken, steak and cake.
I was particularly smitten with a portable washing machine, since crusty socks can really cramp one’s wild style. However, after some pulling of parts this way and that, Pikarski discovered that it cleans cars, not clothes.
For the final leg of the visit, we took a loping lap around the massive warehouse where most of the grunt work takes place. Hip-hop and pop music blared from several stations. Employees hauled large packages on dollies and slapped shipping labels on brown boxes. Pikarski’s two sons, on spring break, stood by a low metal table assembling containers for takeoff. (The boys were paid with items off their long wish list.)
I wandered up and down the aisles reading the names of the contents tucked inside. Animalprint makeup case. Flameless pillar candle. Bike speaker.
“Another product people can’t live without,” Pikarski said for the nth time.
I noted several objects that I could use many times over but also noticed a glaring omission. Concerned, I asked Pikarski about the missing item. He assured me that the yeti was safe, even if no one ever bought it.
“SkyMall was iconic and so unique. People had a quirky love affair with it.”
Bob Worsley, who founded the catalogue in 1989 after a plane ride
Water purifier and food dispenser for pets
Portable shower speaker
All-in-one lamp, electronics charger and alarm clock
Pet scratching pad and hammock
LED motion-sensor light
Car emergency kit
From left: Shalom Pikarski, Yisroel Pikarski and Avi Karp unpack products in the SkyMall factory in Ridgefield Park, N.J. SkyMall co-owner Chaim Pikarski says of his vision: “We want to sell more useful things without giving up the DNA of the fun stuff.”
The SkyMall life-size yeti. Despite never selling, the in-flight catalogue’s unofficial mascot will remain among the revamped inventory because of its legendary status.