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

Graphic by Doug Mack

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.

Next Page »

Bill Donahue is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.

More by This Author:

12 Comments for A Pilgrimage to SkyMall

Sebastian 01.26.10 | 3:06 PM ET

I have to believe there are more stories out there from actual places rather than just features about airports, ‘non-places’, and sky mall hq. Rick Steves is carrying World Hum right now.

Naginder Singh 01.27.10 | 1:42 AM ET

I totally agree.  From Star Trek cruises to airports to sky mall its all just a little too clever and kitschy.

TambourineMan 01.27.10 | 4:16 AM ET

“its all just a little too clever”

Yes, much too clever. Let’s see you do it, hot shot.

Rob 01.27.10 | 11:52 AM ET

I really enjoyed this essay!

Kevin 01.27.10 | 1:30 PM ET

Nice work; liked the read.

Why someone would complain about the topic is beyond me.  I’ve never seen an article about that co., yet it’s pervasive.

Jacob 02.01.10 | 1:19 AM ET

Thanks Bill! I think your article is excellent… and a very creative and clever choice of topic. I’m glad somebody thought to go turn over the SkyMall rock! I’ve always wondered what was behind that strange facet of our world.

I think you’ve really hit on some very important themes, and leave us with a very important message. With the world in the state it’s in because of our excessively consumptive lifestyles, do we really need to aquire, aquire, aquire, only to soon discard most of what we buy as garbage? After all, most of what we discard sooner or later ends up in the ocean, further polluting an already very polutted world.

Your article, and your own more minimalist approach, remind me of the story I once read of a Bhutanese young man who’d had the chance to visit New York City. Dazzled by the fancy electronics on display in the window of a Sharper Image store, he goes in to investigate. Inside he finds things that seem magical and wondrous to him, things that most American children would see and want immediately to posess. But this young man, confronted with the artifacts of a highly consummerist culture for the first time, has an unusual yet profound reaction. To posess them, he instinctively realizes, would give him no greater joy than simply to hold and admire them and then move on, so that is what he does. He leaves feeling enlightened and enriched instead of burdeoned and pooer.

Just maybe, if Americans looked more often to other parts of the world where people don’t have nearly as much, we would realize just how little we really need to be happy.

Steve 02.01.10 | 10:59 PM ET

Definitely interesting and well-written, it just seems like so much WorldHum travel content is based in airports and airplanes and cabs. Like, they’re buying the pieces travel writers can’t sell. Is the “hum of the world” in between the places of the world? Airports are no where. Quit taking me there…even if you do it well.

Sorry, Bill, I loved your article. I’m just tired of WorldHum counting its Frequent Flier points without ever getting off the plane.

Jim Benning 02.05.10 | 2:46 PM ET

Hi Steve and Sebastian and everyone else,

Thanks for the critical feedback. As co-editor of World Hum, I always appreciate getting feedback on what we’re publishing.

I’m delighted we published this Skymall story. I think it’s a great one.

If you’re looking for stories focused on travel destinations, please be sure to check out this piece on Jamaica we published today. And know that we have plenty of other place-focused stories in the pipeline.


Windy 05.16.10 | 9:51 PM ET

I loved this story too. It may not be about travel exactly, but it’s very much about America.

Rain 12.26.10 | 11:04 AM ET

Nice article. Really, there are lot of ridiculous products in SkyMall. Here are several examples of them:  http://www.tubesfan.com/watch/stupid-crap-in-sky-mall-ian-is-bored-15 . I cannot understand who buys it and why this company rises so much money. What is its secret, I wonder.

ameyer13 12.30.10 | 5:55 PM ET

I am an avid traveler and I have found a lot of fun entertainment right on my iPhone using the application for the Sling Adapter through DISH network who I happen to work for. It adds an edge to the usual routine of weekly travels and allows me to keep up on my favorite shows. I recommend it to anyone looking for a little of home on their trip!

Jeremy 02.10.11 | 3:59 PM ET

I always look through the SkyMall first thing when I’m traveling in the air. I’ve even used the magazine in my sunday school curriculum.  The comment that Jacob left “With the world in the state itís in because of our excessively consumptive lifestyles, do we really need to aquire, aquire, aquire, only to soon discard most of what we buy as garbage” pretty much summed up what I taught those youngsters in class.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.