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

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS

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

PHO­TOS BY YANA PASKOVA FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Wa­ter pu­ri­fier and food dis­penser for pets

Por­ta­ble shower speaker

Eight-minute ice­maker

All-in-one lamp, elec­tron­ics charger and alarm clock

Pet scratch­ing pad and ham­mock

LED mo­tion-sen­sor light

Makeup kit

Car emer­gency kit

YANA PASKOVA FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.”

AN­DREA SACHS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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