Hammacher Schlemmer gets a makeover

December 5, 2013, 11:31 AM UTC
Workers assemble a $32,000 Robby the Robot replica the day before Hammacher's 86-year-old store reopened, on Nov. 20.

It feels like a throwback and sells the sort of toys Richie Rich would own: a hovercraft golf cart, a submarine shaped like a whale, a replica of the 1960s Batmobile. But the catalogue’s core is for an older, achier clientele — who like Hammacher’s hand reflexology massager, its “best” ultrasonic jewelry cleaner, and “the only” outdoor heated cat shelter. They are far from alone.

Hammacher Schlemmer prints 50 million catalogues a year, 19 editions, each mailed to between 2 million and 3 million customers. The ideal cover image for Hammacher is an object that demands interpretation. You need to know what it is, or — if it’s clear, if it’s a hovercraft — you need to know how much it costs. So you turn the page. You then might pause on some ear-warmer headphones for $90 or a wind-defying umbrella, for $30. The tag line (“Offering the Best, the Only and the Unexpected” for 165 years) says it: The unexpected pulls customers in; the “best and only” keep them coming back. Some cover items don’t sell at all, but even when Hammacher was a hardware store on Manhattan’s Bowery back in the 1870s, the goal was to carry things that others did not — the hot new tech when the hot new tech was the tools to fix a horseless carriage, or an electric toothbrush, or an electric blanket.

The company, which is private, still operates out of a single storefront on 57th Street, where it has been since 1926. It reopened after a nearly yearlong remodeling, just in time for the holiday shopping season. Fred Berns, the general manager at Hammacher, says that many in the tony neighborhood use the store for their Christmas shopping, and had been calling the company in a panic, inquiring as to when they might again enter to pick up a water-powered jetpack for some especially fortunate nephew, say. The floor in the new store is more spacious, the history more apparent, the throwback feeling stage center.

Richard Tinberg, Hammacher’s CEO, says this is their strategy and that it is ageless. “Other catalogues might tell you, ‘Hey, you got to have this to be cool.’ Our customers aren’t interested in being cool,” he says. Then he tells a story about Hammacher’s most recent and fiercest competitor, the Sharper Image. “Years ago, when Sharper Image was doing well, we were selling cordless phones,” he begins. Its founder, Richard Thalheimer, was in the company’s catalogue. “He’s a very handsome guy, and he’s there with this beautiful women, presumably his wife, in a skimpy bikini, in the pool, with a cordless phone, on a full spread. Now, we had copy about why we had chosen this phone, how it compared to all others, on a quarter page of copy, like all our products” — indeed, to this day, the Hammacher catalogue never gives any item more than a quarter page, no matter how far-out and expensive — “Sharper’s approach was, ‘Hey, you need one, you should have one.’ Our approach was, we have this affluent base, and our customers can decide for themselves if they want a phone; it’s our job to deliver the information,” Tinberg says. “That’s what we think works.” The Sharper Image filed for Chapter 11 in 2008.

The problem with going after a consistently affluent, uncool customer base is that the type of person who might be interested in purchasing a $2 million personal submarine (complete with “fluxgate, hygrometer, and GPS receiver”), as well as a hands-free hair rejuvenator ($700) and a memory-card-to-DVD photo converter ($200) — all of which appear on the same spread — is almost inevitably an old person. And the problem with targeting old people as a customer base is that old people die. Tinberg is well aware, and cites a 1939 article in BusinessWeek that identified the very same problem and worried about the longevity of the company. What’s interesting, Tinberg adds, is that the company’s approach to technology then was the same as today: to use it to make their older (he says “more mature”) customers’ lives just a little easier, “though their needs then were the same as now. People’s feet still get cold, their muscles still get sore, their hands ache.” The solutions have evolved, but the problems remain the same.

A shorter version of this story appeared in the December 23, 2013 issue of Fortune.