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.

Graphic by Doug Mack

Back in marketing, Joey ran into a colleague, Suzanne Schill, who was playing with her 15-inch tall R2D2 doll ($169.95). The robot jitters about the carpet with all the sweet, spasmodic charm of the real-life Star Wars droid. It also responds to commands, sometimes. “Hey R2,” Schill cooed. “Do you remember Princess Leia?”

The doll was supposed to play an audio clip of Princess Leia crying, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope,” but it just sputtered in circles, its red lights flashing meaninglessly as three or four of Schill’s colleagues stood nearby, peering down, wearing the warm, indulgent grins reserved, usually, for small children and dogs.

“Sometimes he’s stubborn,” Schill said, apologetically.

“Hey R2,” said Joey, “do you remember?”

More silence.

“You have to tap him on the head and tell him to behave,” said Moss.

Schill tapped; still nothing.

“Oh well,” said Joey. “We’re trying to teach him to get us coffee.”

Eventually, Joey and I nipped out for a late-afternoon beer. He was very chummy, inquiring after my personal life. “So are you single?” he asked. I am. “You’re a handsome guy,” Joey continued. “I could introduce you to some women at SkyMall.”

For some reason, SkyMallish ad copy began streaming through my mind: “She speaks fluent French and she’s intimately familiar with Croatian coinage. Simply by tapping on her forehead ...” I looked at Joey skeptically.

“But I live in Oregon,” I said. “How would that work?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Joey. “At SkyMall, distance doesn’t matter.”

He went on to rave about his wealth of frequent flier miles, but his point had larger, existential ramifications, for SkyMall does not really traffic with the physical universe. It doesn’t make stuff and, with very few exceptions, it doesn’t ship stuff, either. People don’t even design products there. Which means that the entire SkyMall campus (there’s a smaller IT building flanking the concrete mothership) consists, mainly, of people sitting in cubicles, pressing buttons and talking. There is only one chamber that exudes an aura of physical consequence, and that’s the “gift card room,” where legions of retail gift cards, usable at Best Buy and other chains, are boxed in the temperature-controlled darkness, behind a double-paneled steel safe door. “I’d love to get you in there,” Joey said, “but…”

There was something almost eerie about SkyMall up close. The company’s headquarters seem almost untethered to terra firma and to the physical machinations of retail and manufacturing. The place is almost ... unreal—and thus kind of like Phoenix itself. In recent decades, the city has improbably blossomed and sprawled in the desert, basing its economy mainly on speculation and positive feelings—or, to be more specific, real estate and construction. Now, amid the economic downturn, Phoenix is hurting. Will Skymall’s bubble burst, too?

When I met with SkyMall’s president, Christine Aguilera, just before flying out of Phoenix, she didn’t see any dark clouds on the horizon. “Consumers have been holding their wallets for a few months,” she said. “But is that a long term trend? I don’t know. People build up buying habits over a lifetime, and in the long run I don’t think they’ll change drastically.”

Barb Downing echoed, “There’s still room for cool stuff.” She pointed to her aluminum coffee mug, which, curiously, had a small dial-faced clock attached to it. “Like this,” she said. “When I’m in a meeting with this cup, I don’t need to look at my watch. And it’s dishwasher safe.”

Joey was intent on keeping things fun, so he pressed me to flip through the catalog and find a product I wanted. “C’mon,” he said. “There’s something in there for everyone.”

The truth is, at that particular moment I didn’t really want anything in the SkyMall catalog. I was a major Joey fan, though, and I was so warmed by the chumminess in his office that I was actually honing this theory that the people there would be good to each other even if you took their SkyMall-y toys away. I had to be polite. “Um, I guess this,” I said. I pointed to a set of shelves I could use to organize my basement. Lame.

But then on the plane home I opened up SkyMall and discovered, near the front, a photo of a very suave-looking guy with a soul patch. He was canted back in an airplane seat, detached from the squall all around him, and he was wearing—well, they looked like wraparound shades, but they were actually “video eyewear,” which played DVDs before the user’s retinas, affording him “an incredible movie watching or game playing experience anywhere, anytime.” Vuzix iWear cost only $349.95.

For a second, I thought about it. I thought of how sweet it would be to check out, into my own high-def Nirvana. And I felt, sitting there, imagining, kind of like it was like Christmas morning. The iWear shimmered for me. “Anywhere, anytime”: It promised unceasing pleasure. 

Then again, I didn’t want to see the iWear sitting around in my garage after I got sick of it. I didn’t want the grim aftertaste.

And so I just sat there, 30,000 feet up, suspended over the earth, reveling in the possibilities. “Anywhere, anytime.” Oh yes, just thinking about it was pure bliss.

Bill Donahue is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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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.

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