A Pilgrimage to SkyMall
Travel Stories: Can a trip to its headquarters make for documentary art, or just a closer look at solar-powered mole repellers? Bill Donahue journeys into the soul of SkyMall.
01.26.10 | 9:12 AM ET
As a travel destination, it is not picturesque. The world headquarters of SkyMall, the in-flight catalog company, sits in industrial Phoenix, in the rundown nowhereland ringing Sky Harbor airport, and a little while ago, on a baking spring morning, I walked there, making a three-mile pilgrimage from my downtown hotel.
I could have taken a cab, I suppose, and sat in the back and comfortably readied myself with a little electric ear- and nose-hair trimmer, available in SkyMall for $29.95. But I guess I was angling for a little self-flagellation, or at least some sharp awakening from the dreamy la-la land vibe I get each time I sit there on a plane, bored, flipping through the pages of the magazine tucked in the seat pockets on virtually every U.S. flight. SkyMall had tickled my idle mind for years, offering up the soothing and vaguely hilarious promise that life really could be better if you bought, say, a “Dough-nu-matic” mini-donut maker for $129.95.
Now I wanted to spring from SkyMall’s gentle cocoon. I wanted to take a deep and sobering journey into the soul of a company that last year made $81.5 million on website purchases alone—and stands, arguably, as an emblem of how silly consumer culture can get. My guiding angel on this one was the writer James Agee, who prefaced his 1939 book, Let us Now Praise Famous Men, with a sort of credo, insisting that a journalist needs to focus on “the cruel radiance of what is ... so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can.” I was going to make SkyMall the stuff of heartrending and poignant documentary art—in, you know, a small way.
I walked. I got to the end of Washington Street and turned right, over a bridge onto 16th, passing a forlorn park and clomping over some railroad tracks. Soon, I saw a shuttered Payless Shoe Store with these words soaped on its window: “Buy 2, get 1 FREE.” Across the street was the rubbly parking lot of a low-grade grocery store. SkyMall was 100 yards on—a single-story concrete structure, modern and office park-y, fringed with patches of green grass. On the day I visited, the outdoor fountains were dry, and one of SkyMall’s 165 employees stood by a picnic table, glowering as she sucked on a cigarette.
On the wall in the lobby was a sign advising employees of a forthcoming Hawaiian Shirt Day. “Be creative, have fun,” it said. “Show your SkyMall spirit by wearing your favorite Hawaiian shirt.” I waited. My contact at SkyMall was Joey O’Donnell, the customer experience manager, who’d already proven himself a bit of a card over email, using the word “dig” as a Beatnik verb and dropping phraseology such as “Funny guy—we’re golden.” O’Donnell is 33 and slight, with tousled blonde hair. When he appeared, he was wearing an argyle sweater vest and argyle socks. “You made it!” he said. “Can I get you anything? A bottle of water?”
We entered the inner sanctum of SkyMall.
Some brands are intrepid, daring and laced with a certain insouciance. Think West Coast Choppers. Some brands wallow in their own sense of cool. Think Apple. SkyMall is directed at the very mainstream of American society, affluent men and women, age 35 to 55, and it never offends. If it touches upon religion, it does so in safe ways—consider the sterling silver Lord’s Prayer bracelet ($79.95). Social activism? There are a few vaguely green items—for instance, the solar-powered mole repeller ($39.99), for lawns—but the magazine never takes a stand on, say, whale hunting. It’s lite. It’s fun!
And Joey O’Donnell is all about fun. A SkyMall employee since 1994, he drives a 2007 white BMW convertible that he got for a “steal,” he says. “It isn’t even funny what a deal I got.” He surfs. He snowboards. He tweets. He parties. It happened to be nearing St. Patrick’s Day, and Joey quipped, “I’m going to get so drunk that I can’t feel my legs. I mean I have to—I have an O-apostrophe in my name.” He made it all sound wholesome and sporting.
When Joey goes to pool parties, he brings along his Shirtpocket underwater camcorder ($199.95 in the catalog), and when he and his friends play at the beach, he cracks out his digital camera swim mask with a shutter built right into the goggles (”... eliminating the need to carry an underwater camera,” reads the ad copy; $99.95).
“I have tons of our junk,” Joey said. He told me about his $1,500 espresso maker, and his Roomba vacuum cleaner ($349.95), which can churn unguided by human hands, even over carpets infested with pet hairs. “I saw that,” Joey said, “and I was like, ‘Dude, why would you not need one of those?’”
In the office next to Joey’s, distribution manager Kim Moss showed off “Kimmy’s Catalog,” a little booklet she’d made with scissors and glue stick, cutting various ads out of SkyMall to display most of the 30-odd products she’s purchased.
Soon, there was a “Touchless Trash Can: The lid opens automatically when you place any object in the sensor zone on the top. $79.99.”
“It keeps germs to a minimum,” Moss said. “When my dad visited, he was like, ‘I need one of those.’”
Of course, it’s rare for people to go into convulsions and die after touching their trashcans. But that may not matter. SkyMall takes the essential art of consumer society—selling people stuff they didn’t know they needed—and turns it into an art form, building a cult ardor for arcane merchandise.