Op-Ed

Hammacher Schlemmer in the age of Google ads

I am not a rich man. I am not an old man. I am not confined to my apartment. Yet every autumn, I spend countless hours poring over a high-end shopping catalog. The first issue arrives in late October. I read it cover to cover. I do not buy anything from it. The next week, a new catalog arrives. The cycle repeats: a pink-elephant parade of wild consumer goods I fantasize about but do not buy. Maybe this is the year I get an 8-foot-tall inflatable glowing Elsa from “Frozen” for the frontyard I do not have? Or the 52-jet indoor Aquatic Gymnasium that is larger than my kitchen?

The catalog is of course Hammacher Schlemmer. Is there any other catalog that sells a 52-jet indoor Aquatic Gymnasium? That contains not one, not two, but at the very least three products to deal with plantar fasciitis? There is not. Hammacher is singular and strange. In an era defined by hard sells and targeted marketing, it is also refreshing.

My life online is filled with prompts and pop-ups and banners suggesting that I buy stuff like the stuff I already bought. It seems I'll never escape from nor have enough rugged canvas duffel bags, even though, let me tell you, one is plenty. Most of the catalogs I receive in the mail are similarly mundane, containing photographs of people who look vaguely like me, only more attractive, and in more exotic places, where there is more reclaimed wood and locally sourced wool. Unabashedly dorky, thrilled with space-age technology and greatly concerned with foot and back comfort, Hammacher stands apart.

I like imagining Hammacher's target audience: Hammacher Man. He is practical. He is prepared. He wears a many-pocketed vest filled with ChapStick, cough drops and Kleenex. He is Midwestern, almost certainly, which makes sense, because the company's current headquarters is in a former car dealership in Niles, Ill. — one of those towns in the suburbs of Chicago that has a water tower and not much else, other than a one-third-sized replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

I visited Hammacher headquarters once and asked its chief executive, Richard Tinberg, about my all-time-favorite catalog item: a $30,000 hammock. He told me that the hammock had been included “because we knew our customers would like to see that.” He didn't wink, but nodded slightly and smiled. He was in on the joke, maybe? If it was a joke? Had anyone bought it? He wouldn't say out loud but shook his head: no.

What “customers would like to see” instead of, you know, actually buy, is the company's priority — or so I like to believe. Although I recognize, on some level, that Hammacher must have a bottom line, I'm convinced that its primary aim is to quietly delight.

Consider the writing around even the most insane items. It is not breathless. It is merely factual. The first sentence describing a $190,000 flying hovercraft reads “This is the hovercraft that glides over land and water yet also soars in the air up to 70 mph with the aid of integrated wings.” Later, you learn that the hovercraft boasts a 160-mile range, can operate in winds up to 25 mph, support payloads of as much as 600 pounds (“for flight”) and requires registration “as a boat.” The words take equal if not greater importance than the photos, and often (as in the case of the flying hovercraft) take up more real estate on the page.

“Our general feeling is that we want to provide the relevant information,” Tinberg told me. There is no need for the hard sell. Also, exclamation points are not allowed.

Each catalog page follows a rather strict format: four items to a page, one per quarter page, a photo and a 100-word description, give or take. The small photos, the bland models (white, always), the dry, just-the-facts copy leave exactly enough to the imagination. Items are often “the best” or “the only” — as in “The Best Automotive Jump Starter” and “The Only Rapid Feed Digital Slide Converter.”

Year after year, Hammacher Man longs to have the best in projection-clock technology and the holiday decor of Thomas Kinkade (but will it be the “illuminated crystal snowman” or the “animated Christmas tree”? Why not both?); his feet are always cold and sore; he loves Irish wool-wear, quilted down robes and “the best” in heated vests; his kids or grandkids crave gigantic inflatable likenesses of their favorite Disney characters as well as lasers (so many lasers), flying machines, remote controlled tanks and slot car race tracks.

I do not crave these things. I will not buy these things. Instead I buy, often against my better judgment, the thing in the banner ad that a Google bot has decided is right for me. Another canvas duffel, probably. There's no art in that. No fun, either.

When the Hammacher catalogs began arriving this year, I fell into my usual habit: flipping through pages, chuckling, dreaming. I was reminded of a story Tinberg had told me, about how, in the early 1960s, Hammacher bought a fleet of black London taxicabs. The cabs sold well at first, then not so well, but Hammacher never took them out of rotation. They don't bow to trends, they just like what they like, and what we would like to see. No purchase necessary.

Ryan Bradley is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 20, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "How about a $30K hammock? - In the age of Google, the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog is oddly delightful." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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