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.

Graphic by Doug Mack

Who could ever have predicted that the church of SkyMall would grow so deep, so bizarre? When the company launched back in 1989, it was rooted in pragmatism. Founder Robert Worsley, an accountant, was flipping through the pages of a SkyMall precursor—the Giftmaster catalogue—and was struck by the witless oddity of the products it offered. “It had six-foot-long pencils and fish ties,” Worsley remembers.

Worsley’s scheme was to offer fliers the greatest hits from big name catalog retailers—Land’s End, for instance—and to deliver purchased items with space age efficiency. Customers used those bygone Airphones toll-free to order Skymall goodies they could then pick up at the gate. Worsley stocked warehouses near myriad airports and hired runners to meet SkyMall buyers as they deplaned. He also hyped his own SkyMall product line, selling luggage and sports equipment. It did not go well. By late 1993, SkyMall had 20 trailers in its Phoenix parking lot, each one crammed with spare suitcases and golf bags. It lost $6 million that year.

Worsley radically simplified the company. He dropped his own product line, and also his airport delivery service, and gradually, honing the brand, zeroed in on products that were “early in their life cycle,” as he put it recently. “SkyMall is a great place to expose new ideas—you can introduce whatever you’re selling to people worldwide. All those rolling suitcases—they started on SkyMall and went straight to the mass market.”

By 2001, Worsley was able to sell SkyMall for about $47 million. He now runs Renergy Holdings, which produces wind- and solar energy. Still, he chatted with me that morning in a SkyMall conference room, over speakerphone, as Joey sat nearby, wearing an awed grin.

Worsley talked about SkyMall products he’d bought himself. “For a couple Christmases there,” he said, “my wife knew that it was going to be all SkyMall. We bought a water trampoline that my kids loved, and this great Hot Diggity Dog hot dog cooker. But some of the stuff”—Worsley faltered—“well, it’s like anything you buy at the store. I’ve got some massagers that I’ve rarely used, and also these scalp tongs. They’re supposed to make you relax—you know, they change the biochemistry in your body. But I’m not a big believer in magnets and that sort of thing.”

Worsley doesn’t know where those scalp tongs are now. And thinking about them, I felt a little bit sad. I remembered gizmos and toys I’d gotten for Christmas myself. There were the unfortunate gifts, my own scalp tong equivalents—for instance, an aromatherapy toe bath given with all gracious intent—that never got used before being shuffled off, finally, to the Salvation Army. And then there were the gifts that I really, really wanted, like, say, this orange plastic Smash-up Derby car, replete with flashing lights and detachable plastic doors that exploded off when you slammed the whole unit into a wall.

I got the Smash-up Derby car when I was 8. When I first opened it, ripping into the crinkly cellophane, I was so excited. Then, a couple weeks later, of course, the car broke (or maybe I got bored with it; I can’t remember). It ended up in our garage, and a vague disappointment seeped into me as I realized that, actually, the car was not going to make my life magic. My enchantment with stuff—consumer goods, whatever you want to call them—dimmed a little bit.

That dimming was my own thing, maybe, but nationwide, amid the recession, Americans are buying stuff less these days. Two companies that sell SkyMall-ish gadgetry—among them Sharper Image and Circuit City—have both died recently, after long, illustrious runs.

SkyMall laid off 26 employees in January 2009, and last year its first quarter catalog sales were down about 15 percent relative to 2008. You have to wonder how the company will fare as consumers keep reining in their buying habits—and shirking cool gizmos that might end up languishing in their garages. Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, has decreed, “The world of shopping will change more in the next three years than it did in the last 50.” He argues that retailers now need to be more pointed in their appeals to consumers. “When SkyMall puts a catalog in first class,” he told me, “it should be different than the one it puts in coach. Right now they’re trying to be all things to all people. They’re in danger of becoming antiquated.”

By Joey’s lights, guys like Paco Underhill just don’t get it, for SkyMall is in possession of what Joey calls a “secret sauce,” a certain je ne sais quoi that guides its marketing experts as they pluck novel, almost unheard-of items from the wilderness of consumer culture.

How does SkyMall decide what goes into its catalogs? Joey wouldn’t say. He noted that it gets other catalog companies—Hammacher Schlemmer, for instance, and Brookstone—to buy space to push their top-selling products. He also pointed to a towering black file cabinet housing a few years’ worth of 100-odd catalogs. SkyMall’s eight merchandisers turn to these magazines often, and they also haunt trade shows and comb through zillions of pitch letters from inventors eager to get into the pages of SkyMall. The merchandising department holds regular product review meetings. But would they ever let a reporter sit in?

“I’d really like to make that happen,” said Joey, “but—well, that’s our secret sauce.”

He agreed to an alternative tack: a mock review session, at which SkyMall’s marketing chiefs—Bill McCoy and Barb Downey—considered links to ads for 13 strange products not currently on SkyMall. The first item was a RoadPro travel crockpot.

“Oh,” said Downey as the device appeared on her screen. “It’s a crockpot that plugs into your cigarette lighter. We should seriously consider it.”

“But who’s going to use this?” said McCoy. “Our customers are yuppies. I can’t see an executive cooking his dinner in this as he drives to the Marriott.”

It seemed McCoy was just being grumpy, but a theme emerged as we looked at the Nappak, an inflatable air mattress with its own inflatable side wall and ceiling. “It might be good for a street person,” McCoy said, “but our customers can usually find a bed. They rarely get stranded.”

“They’re not big campers,” said Downey.

Soon, they looked at a “pocket safe,” a computer flash drive designed to store vital personal documents—health records, for instance, and insurance data. A sleek pin pad enabled encryption. “Twenty- and thirty-somethings would get how this works,” Downey said, “but they haven’t accumulated enough records yet to need it. It’s a product for older people—and they wouldn’t know how to use it.”

“It’s a solution without a customer base,” said McCoy.

The USB air-conditioned shirt is a white short sleeve garment with a small side-panel fan that plugs into a computer. It seemed poised to tap into the same whimsy that has made adult footsie pajamas a hot SkyMall product. But once again the merchandisers invoked the commonsense reserve that yields SkyMall its ineffable magic.

“You have to unplug it to get up and go to the printer?” Downey said, vaguely incredulous. “I vote no.”

“It’s a geek shirt,” said McCoy. “It wouldn’t sell.”

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.