How SkyMall Captured a Moment of Technological and American History

The now-bankrupt catalog had a meteoric rise and fall

The familiar SkyMall magazine on planes is now unfortunately bankrupt. (Courtesy of Flickr user Kelly Taylor)
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One day in 1989, accountant and entrepreneur Bob Worsley got an idea. On a flight from Seattle to Phoenix, he was paging through a glossy in-flight gift catalog called Giftmaster when he was struck by two things: how unappealing the products were (“6-foot pencils and fish ties,” he recalled later) and how easy it would be to order them using the seatback telephone—assuming there was anything he wanted to buy.

Worsley decided he could do better: create a compelling in-flight gift catalogue, and let people order directly from the plane. With $25 million in financing from private investors, SkyMall was born. The company would eventually carry more than 30,000 items and be seen by approximately 650 million air travelers each year—nearly 88 percent of all domestic air passengers, according to SkyMall themselves. Worsley’s dream would lead to a piece of American ephemera somehow both entirely useless and oddly compelling, one referenced in popular television shows and parodied with a book, website and countless social media accounts. But in mid-January 2015, Worsley’s dream fell to Earth—a victim of Amazon, smartphones, in-flight WiFi and other kinds of technological changes like the ones that fueled Worlsey’s ambition in the first place.

To be fair, Worsley—now an Arizona state senator—sold SkyMall in 2001 for about $47 million and left the company in 2003. And his catalogue has undergone several evolutions since that early flash of inspiration miles above the earth.

Samantha Topol, a writer and scholar who lives in Chicago, wrote her masters thesis on SkyMall. She says the original versions were shorter (only about 30 pages) and the products featured more staid than today’s offerings—travel accessories, rolodexes, inoffensive gift offerings like decorative wine racks. But even in the early days, there were hints of what would make SkyMall so memorable—a karaoke sing-a-long microphone built into a cassette player and an inflatable pool raft made in the shape of a bunch of bananas.

But the biggest difference is that SkyMall used to be more about actually shopping in the sky. In Worsley’s initial conception, travelers ordered while on the plane using an Airphone (the seatback telephones once installed on planes). Their purchase was then waiting at baggage claim, ferried from a warehouse near the airport. Worsley has said he was inspired by fast-food pizza joints that promised to deliver a pie in 30 minutes or less. If it worked for a pepperoni and cheese pizza, he reasoned, why not a tie?

But after couple of years and some significant losses, the idea started to seem less brilliant. Keeping stock all across the country was expensive, and required a sophisticated computer system to track inventory. It was hard to anticipate exactly what people would buy, and so the company ended up with a significant amount of dead stock in the warehouses. (Turns out, people didn’t really want to have to schlep a decorative wine rack home alongside their luggage.)

Around 1993, Worsley shifted to a more traditional model, selling advertising space in the catalogue to vendors who shipped directly to customers. “His ‘Hail Mary’ pass,” Topol writes, “was this: SkyMall would no longer buy merchandise from the vendors at a discount and stock it for delivery, but would charge vendors $20,000 per page to appear in the catalog, and any orders would ship directly from their warehouses. This would mean no more overhead costs for SkyMall to house products in airports or warehouses, and no more deadly overstock.”

That innovation kept SkyMall going, although as a privately traded company, its financial history is opaque. But the earliest days of SkyMall did teach Worlsey an important lesson about consumer behavior: for some reason, people thousands of feet above the ground appreciate unconventional products. “A couple of iterations of the catalog made it clear that people on planes will not buy normal things that they find every day at the mall,” Worsley told the New York Times. “They seem to hit on highly unique, I’ve-never-this-seen-before, kind of ‘Wow!’ things.”

That “wow”-inducing aesthetic is reflected in the company’s best-selling product: a hand- painted designer resin Yeti statue. More than 10,000 of the yetis have been sold since the magazine began; in the holiday 2014 catalog, it was available in medium, large and “life-size” models, as well as in a “bashful” version that appears to hide behind a tree, and as a festive Christmas tree ornament. Other best-selling products over the years have included the Spy Pen (pen with secret video camera), a super-slim neck pillow, an Indoor Dog Restroom (patch of artificial grass with absorbent mat), and a line of t-shirts for men named Bob.

As the diversity of these products points out, no matter where your plane was heading, perusing SkyMall often seemed like a journey inside the American mind—with its productivity obsession, its meat infatuations, its ultimate quest to be perfectly in shape without expending any effort whatsoever (hello, slimming shirts!).

According to Topol, SkyMall also showed a particular obsession with multi-functionality. “It seems to be part of a time and place in American culture: this multi-purpose, multi-solution, combined Swiss army knife of products; it’ll not only wash your floors but clean your drapes … it heightens the sense of ridiculousness, amplifies the sense of absurdity.”

It wasn’t just the products themselves, Topol says, that often made SkyMall seem absurd: it was the way they were presented. “This sense of the strange but familiar really came through in the pages of the magazine,” Topol says. “You recognize fragments of language … pieces of things that you know are squished together in new combinations, like ‘the shower shelf’ or the ‘Dough-Nu-Matic’ [a mini-doughnut maker]. Things that you almost recognize but that are slightly twisted, I think to give a sense of the new or the novel. … The word absurd came up a lot.”

“There’s a compounding effect of seeing so many [items] on the page,” says Topol, which makes SkyMall feel a little like the early Sears catalogues, which also once featured items of “dubious practicality.” And like SkyMall, the Sears catalogue was tied to transportation: the success of the Sears’ catalogue, which began as a printed mailer in 1888, was in part thanks to the railroads that encouraged westward expansion and a populace newly hungry for mail-order domestic goods. Richard Sears was known for his catchy slogans and copy writing, and like SkyMall, the catalog was analyzed for clues to American culture. The 1943 Sears News Graphic wrote that the catalog "serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living." And just like SkyMall, Sears fell victim to the times: the company stopped publishing the general catalog in 1993, around the time SkyMall switched business models.

SkyMall’s own death came by a thousand cuts— Amazon, laptops, smartphones, tablets, in-flight Wifi. The idea of an airplane ride as an interminable stretch of time with our own minds, in which we’re desperate for distraction, is a thing of the past. Ironically, SkyMall once seemed particularly well poised to take on the challenges of the internet.

In 1998, PC Week named Worsley one of five top CEOs savvy in information technology, and in 1999, after promising sales and stock price surges, the company announced plans to invest $20 million to develop skymall.com. Ultimately, though, the delight of SkyMall was context-specific: it was about being in a special place and time, marveling at American ingenuity over salted peanuts. Earthbound customers perusing a normal website were never going to appreciate the catalog’s wares the same way.

The company seemed to search for a solid footing over the last several years, changing hands several times: it was bought in 2013 by Xhibit, a marketing software and digital advertising company that has been the subject of some scrutiny. But just as technology and commerce have changed, so has the idea of airplane travel itself. In Worsley’s original plan for the company, an item bought mid-flight and taken home from the airport might have seemed like an extension of the idea of a souvenir, something wrapped in the glamor of the trip itself.

These days, “airline travel is normalized,” says Topol. “Even travelling in a plane was [once] slightly more novel, so there’s something about the whole experience being novel and aspirational” that might have once made novelty products more appealing. Now, though—with credit cards sold via the in-flight announcement system and ads on tray tables—perhaps we’re just sick of being relentlessly marketed to while in the air, and desperate for some peace and quiet. With airports adding more and more stores, even luxury boutiques and spas, the line between airport and mall is growing thinner, making SkyMall even less relevant.

But if SkyMall can’t be saved—and its Chapter 11 filing means it could come back in another form—what have we lost? Certainly the tributes have been pouring in. Perhaps its death is part of the niche-ification of American culture: instead of communally browsing SkyMall on the plane, each of us is privately lost in devices with content perfectly tailored to our needs and desires. That captive time created a unifying experience, however ephemeral and weird it was. And with billions of books, movies, and albums to choose from at any given moment, how are we going to attain the moments of quiet reflection necessary to realize that we need a garden yeti? And what will our lives be like without them?

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