Given all the news we hear about the financial crisis causing people to cut down on essentials such as food and healthcare, isn't it nice to know there's still a market for the stuff in the SkyMall catalog? Isn't there some uplift in the fact that at least some households in this world are equipped not only with branding irons that allow you to burn your initials into a steak but also with the Slanket (that's a blanket with sleeves)? Isn't there something strangely comforting in the notion that, at this very moment, someone might be dialing the phone and ordering the Grand Ruler Life-Size Anubis, an 8-foot-tall, jackal-headed Egyptian god statue made of "faux ebony and gold and silver," for $1,250?
OK, maybe "comforting" isn't the right word. Maybe the word is something closer to . . . astonishing. But as the holiday travel season descends on us, with its never-ending flight delays and shouting matches over carry-on luggage, don't tell me that flipping through the SkyMall catalog isn't one of the few pleasures left in commercial air travel. Don't tell me you haven't played that game where you've opened to a random page and decided what you'd get if forced to order at least one item.
SkyMall, which has been around for 20 years now and has a circulation of 20 million, is something of an institution. A source of mockery and fascination alike, it's one of those cultural entities that feels completely useless and weirdly essential at the same time. After all, wouldn't you feel just a tad freaked out if you got on a plane and the SkyMall catalog wasn't tucked discreetly in the seat pocket between the in-flight magazine, the safety card and the barf bag? Haven't you ever wondered who in the world decides whose job it is to say, "Hey, I bet a cat litter box disguised as a piece of furniture is something people could really get behind!"
In search of answers, I called Christine Aguilera. No, not the pop singer Christina Aguilera, but the CEO of SkyMall. Not only does she sell this stuff, she owns a lot of it too.
"I have an address plaque on my house, and I have the bug vacuum," Aguilera told me from her office at the company headquarters in Phoenix. "I don't have the Garden Yeti or anything, but I do have my eye on the ghoul."
The Garden Yeti is an over-2-foot-tall yard statue of Bigfoot that sells for $98.95. The ghoul is a product called Zombie of Montclaire Moors, an $89.95 sculpture made of "designer resin" that gives the impression a zombie is clawing his way out of your yard. There's also the Swamp Beast crocodile statue for $75, the Lioness of Namibia tree statue for $125 and a nearly 5-foot-tall Risen Jesus Christ statue for $695.
Of course, compared with the pricey statuary, a Keep Your Distance bug vacuum is a steal. The long-handled device lets you suck insects off hard-to-reach surfaces. "You know what?" Aguilera said. "The bug vacuum is a fabulous product!"
If an airplane seems like an unlikely place in which to feel a sudden urge to buy such items, consider this: The original concept behind SkyMall was for people to order the products with the air phones on the backs of seats (they were cool when SkyMall got started two decades ago). The items would then be delivered to the baggage claim area when your flight arrived. In other words, if you wanted a Garden Yeti and you wanted it now, SkyMall made it happen.
"The part that was successful was the idea that the airline passenger is a great consumer, a fabulous audience," Aguilera told me. "But the merchandise wasn't the kind of thing people needed right away."
I admit I had the vague notion that SkyMall fare appealed mainly to a less educated and (despite the price tags) less affluent demographic. Turns out I was wrong. The average SkyMall customer is between 35 and 64 years old, lives in a metropolitan area, is college educated and earns at least $75,000 a year. Equal numbers of men and women order from SkyMall, and some of the most popular items include the Hairmax Lasercomb (it supposedly regrows hair), the Spy Pen (a pen that doubles as a secret video camera), the Indoor Dog Restroom (a patch of artificial grass attached to an absorbent mat) and, yes, the Slanket.
The products are selected by a team of on-staff scouts who attend trade shows in search of products that are not available in bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. (Though, I must say, I saw the Slanket -- or at least some iteration of it; perhaps it was the Snuggie or the Freedom Blanket -- in my local Walgreens recently; I wasn't tempted, but on the other hand, it looks a lot more inviting in the SkyMall catalog, which shows an ecstatic-looking man at an outdoor stadium keeping warm while freely lifting his beer.)
"The biggest criteria is that it has to be unique and innovative," Aguilera said. "And we're always trying new things, so if something doesn't work, we take it out."
What hasn't worked?
"We had a run with an Egyptian-themed toilet seat cover," Aguilera said. "Those didn't make it."
Even the sky has limits.