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.
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?”
“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.