Dec 4, 2019

One Sharper Image Catalog Too Many Two


These catalogs are all about brand affinity, right? Shop from the catalog that feels like your team/your tribe. The models, particularly the men, in the S.I. catalog look like they do for the same reason the impossibly thin dudes in a Banana Republic catalog look like they do, or the reason an A&F is full of 12-foot-tall photos of bros' abs.

"Whatever we put in here, its for you and cool dads like you."


I went to Dallas for Thanksgiving and there was a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog on my sister's kitchen counter the whole time.

I can say this about my sister -- she wouldn't let a Sharper Image catalog darken her doorstep. That's going in the bin in the garage, before it gets anywhere close to the countertops. She's anti- gizmos and gadgets, anti-Star Wars and Raiders, anti- Hobbits and robots. There's nothing in the Official Preppy Handbook about computers (if memory serves?); she only uses a Mac because Apple managed to elevate its brand to Fifth Ave.

Hammacher Schlemmer apparently passes the test, though. Just a generic catalog of random stuff. Definitely not as homey as the Vermont Country Store catalog or as beloved-ly down-stuffed and duck-booted as LL Bean, but permissible.

I flipped through it Wednesday afternoon and saw that it was maybe 15% identical to the Sharper Image catalog on my desk back home. Not just the same products on offer, but the same photos and everything.°

It's all just junk; different channels trying to sell the same crud to different market segments. I'm a Gen X gizmo enjoyer. I get three Sharper Image catalogs. My sister's a very different strain of Gen X -- Holly Hobby and white wicker furniture and Linda Ronstadt, not Lego Classic Space and graph paper and the Tron soundtrack. She gets Hammacher Schlemmer.

So what. I dunno.

I got home Saturday, and on Monday there was another catalog in the mail, a brand I'd never seen before. THE GROMMET. Tagline: "Amazing gifts they've never seen." Very modern; it looks and sounds like a blog, but in catalog form. The insider cover features "a word from Jules and Joanne, co-founders." (Joanne is also the "Chief Discovery Officer.")

foot thing

I opened it at random to find, on page 37, the same Home Pedicure Kit ($34.95) that Sharper Image offers on page 9, styled as the At Home Pedicure Assistant ($69.99 -- a-ha!). My general impression, particularly after reading the "we support American-made and sustainable products and the values you believe in" pitch on page 30, is that they can't fill an entire catalog with warm fuzzy crafts, and have to pad it out with cheap gizmos.

What they really want is to be mail-order-Etsy -- THE GROMMET is for Millennials.

And how do they know my values anyway? And why do they want me to have a "joyful feeling" when I read their product list?

I'm reminded of two quotes at once:

1. Marge Simpson. "We can't afford to shop at a store that has a philosophy." GASP! I googled to make sure I got that quote right and you know where I landed? THE CUT. My point, made exactly.

2. Frowner, a Me-Fite, commenting here. "I just want some potatoes. Leave my goddamn soul alone."

I wonder how long all of this is true, though? The brand-connections, I mean. Does Sharper Image simply grow old with Gen X? Is THE GROMMET its natural inheritor? (To be clear, as a Gen Xer I don't actually care.) I'm sort-of interested in what the S.I. brand means to people who weren't cruising the mall, aged 14, in 1986.

Say Fellow Kids, What Does Sharper Image Mean To You? I need a humanities grant and a nationwide bus tour. We’ll run the Pepsi Challenge out of a Jeep chasing behind and blast Starship singles on every campus we can find.

Off on a tangent:

The big Twitter pop-culture hubbub this week is that a young musical artist admits she doesn't know what a Van Halen is. This fact weirds-out a bunch of pop-music fans who need to defend a rock band that (let's be honest) was only good for about 5 years, in the late 70s and early 80s.

...which is particularly strange because another band active at the same time sings about exactly this thing. "Hey, nineteen," Donald Fagen creeps, "that's 'retha Franklin." Then he mugs into the camera, Get A Load Of Her-style, "She don't remember/Queen of Soul."

She thinks you're crazy/but you're just growing old, Twitter operators.

You float into the radioactive plume of pop culture as a kid in some given year. You don't, for the most part, get to *pick* the year. (Later, as an adult, you can pretend to live in any contrived version of a previous decade you like, but at the start, you get what you get.)

The pop of 10 years before you arrived? It might still be relevant, or not. (A 1980 U2 album was incredibly important to me in 1990, for example. "Do That to Me One More Time," less so.) 20 years before? That might be coming around for a revival (We should all get really into the first Interpol record again, pretty soon, BTW). 30? 50? 80? No one listens to Bing Crosby anymore, except at Christmas. Fewer and fewer of us are even listening to/giggling at Crosby & Bowie at Christmas, anymore. There's something, we don't know what, filling that spot in younger people's lives. Something "old" from a Nickelodeon special in '04 or a VH1 "I Love The 90s" xmas episode or something.

Pop culture f-f-f-fades away.

Or it used to? Everything I just said is predicated on being a mid-Gen X person. Everything was black and white until about ’75. You didn’t get to pick what went on the TV screen until maybe ’85. To a kid who turns 14 this year, and starts really soaking up pop-rads… they have high-def color replays of 10 years ago, and standard-def replays of the previous 40 years. Everything I just said is surely wrong; pop culture has never moved this fast before. The mall? Something called "Sharper Image"? (*Checks YouTube*... S.I. has a channel on YouTube with 2500+ followers. Do we think those are Kool Kidz? Or lame grandpas?)

I can only know what S.I. means to me — it’s hand-in-glove with the indoor mall experience of the 80s. Depeche Mode and pizza and neon; an explicit rejection of Zeppelin and weed and tie-dye and all those little Mom & Pop shops on West Street. (Except my barber, who was the best.) Sharper Image is Patrick Nagel, chrome and glass, almost-cyberpunk gizmos in black plastic and stainless steel.‡

Does a 14 YO today care about "the mall"? My parents thought the malls were "dangerous." They were born 25 years before the Civil Rights Act was enacted, and it shows. My kid's 22 and doesn't really think about the mall as a destination at all. He doesn't need a mall to hang around doing nothing with his friends. He can hang around doing nothing with his friends in his room, under a headset, playing HD 4000 Soccer But With RocketCars on his XJam One XL.

I was planning on stealing the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog on my way out the door Saturday morning but some Xmas Elf cleaned the kitchen the night before and 'twas gone.

Well this was a mess.

I tried to write 8 or 10 entries for this series, back in November, to get a backlog going in case I hit a dry spell. However, I'm writing this entry on the morning [edit: and late afternoon] I'm going to put it up, pretty much unedited (corrections welcome -- I'm particularly bad at switching tenses mid-talk) and unorganized. [edit: even after reorganizing it's still a mess.] Hey, I never promised you a rose garden.

Or an Everlasting Rose, "a single flower in an elegant glass dome... [that] will last 10+ years with no maintenance!" $99.99 (p.41).

rose in a belljar
It's like our love, honey! 10+ years with no maintenance!

- The average Sharper Image shopper, probably.

° It was substantially thicker though. Maybe someone in the Direct Mail Retail Game is out there doing a ginormous A/B test. "Given an array of items, A, do we sell more from A when we break the items into 3 separate catalogs mailed separately, or when we provide a single thick catalog?" ‡ It also occurs to me that I could be making a massive and naive category error here. I think of 80s Sharper Image as "real" and the current catalog as a "zombie," in the same sense that there once was a proud innovative company called Polaroid. The name was sold in bankruptcy and now gets licensed out to any junk-dealer willing to pay a few pennies for the trademark. A zombie of itself. If the original Sharper Image was no different than today's import-and-market scam... then this whole project is an embarrassing mistake. It's about me, not the store. Pleh. 😐