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The World’s Most Peculiar Company

How does catalog-loving retailer Hammacher Schlemmer, famous for such eccentric and extravagant products as the Navigable Water Park, continue to survive in the age of Amazon?

Above, clockwise from top left: The Red Light Levitating Bluetooth Speaker, Your Personal Einstein Genius Homework Robot, the Hypnotic Jellyfish Aquarium, the Indoor Flameless Marshmallow Roaster, the Hydrotherapy Heated Foot Bath, the Only Wireless CD Player, and the R2-D2 Coffee Press

When I was growing up, my family, like many others, got the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog delivered to our apartment. We never actually ordered anything from it, but I liked to daydream about belonging to a family who did. Whereas my real parents’ mail-order shopping was limited to the occasional windbreaker from Lands’ End, my imaginary Hammacher mom and dad purchased hovercraft, personal submarines, and giant floating trampolines with abandon. They knew how to party.

Between 1983 and 2005, there was a Hammacher Schlemmer store at the foot of Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. I remember gawking outside, thinking that the stones and bricks embedded in the building’s façade—Colonel McCormick’s prized samples from the Great Pyramid, Notre Dame Cathedral, and beyond—were just part of the store’s inventory. After all, if anyone were going to sell a section of the Parthenon, it would be Hammacher Schlemmer.

The store shuttered its doors, but the company is still around, headquartered in the northwest suburbs. And it continues to publish its signature catalog, as it has for the past 137 years. Hammacher Schlemmer mails out 50 million of them a year, in fact. It’s the longest-running catalog in American history.

These mail-order catalogs of bizarre gadgets, esoteric tchotchkes, and peculiar wellness treatments adhere to the same format and style as the ones delivered to my family’s apartment more than 20 years ago. With few exceptions, the four items per page are laid out in a quadrant, each with a photo, a dense block of explanatory text, and, most famously, a descriptive title. Open the 2018 spring catalog supplement and you’ll find the Genuine Handmade Irish Shillelagh, the 911 Instant Speakerphone, the Clarity Enhancing Sunglasses, and the Closet Organizing Trouser Rack all on one page.

In the age of Amazon, few things represent an ethos more diametrically opposed to the “everything store” than the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. Typing “socks” into Amazon’s search bar yields a seemingly infinite number of options. But the Hammacher Schlemmer spring catalog supplement offers only the Best Circulation Enhancing Travel Socks and the Plantar Fasciitis Foot Sleeves, 45 pages apart. There are no algorithmically predicted product placements or targeted suggestions.

The mere existence of Hammacher Schlemmer these days invites some fair, yet pointed, questions. Who’s buying this stuff? immediately pops to mind. As does: How has the company lasted this long? And: What kind of person sees the Wearable Mosquito Net and thinks, I must have this?

Mohammed Faraj tests humidifiers at Hammacher Schlemmer’s Niles headquarters.
 

For much of its history, Hammacher Schlemmer was a distinctly New York brand. It still maintains its only physical store on East 57th Street in Manhattan, but the headquarters have been in the Chicago area since merchandiser and collectible-plate magnate J. Roderick MacArthur (of the MacArthur “genius” grant family) bought the company and relocated it in 1981. As the home of catalog pioneers Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck, Chicago was a natural fit for the nation’s most august purveyor of the mail-order medium.

You can find Hammacher Schlemmer’s offices on a broad stretch of Milwaukee Avenue in Niles. The first thing you see when you walk through the double glass doors of the former car dealership is a sunken indoor park, where ferns surround a gurgling stream. A series of displays in the carpeted lobby off the atrium documents the company’s history. One is dedicated to Hammacher Schlemmer’s “notable patrons,” including Steve Jobs, Marilyn Monroe, and Queen Elizabeth II.

Past those displays you’ll come to the Wall of Firsts, a long row of framed posters depicting various objects that debuted in the pages of the catalog. It begins with the First Pop Up Toaster (1931) and proceeds to such advents as the First Electric Food Blender (1934) and the First Microwave Oven (1968). It loses a little steam in the 2010s, thanks to items like the First Fashionista Christmas Tree (2012), yet finishes strong with the First Wellness Monitor Wristband (2015)—a Fitbit, though Hammacher Schlemmer won’t tell you that.

Hammacher Schlemmer’s policy has long been to remove product logos and brand names from its catalog. In the 1980s and ’90s, this was just another example of the retailer’s quirks, a vague gesture toward the privilege of ignorance: Just give me the best vacuum, I don’t care who makes it or how much it costs.

But these days there’s a more practical reason. Stephen Farrell, Hammacher Schlemmer’s director of merchandising, leads the team of buyers responsible for filling out the company’s eclectic inventory. He says the no-brand-name strategy is “particularly relevant today,” as Hammacher Schlemmer hopes to prevent people from simply searching for the products on Amazon and buying them there. (About 45 percent of the catalog inventory is exclusive to Hammacher Schlemmer. “We would prefer nothing is on Amazon,” Farrell tells me, though he says it’s not a deal breaker.)

For example, Hammacher Schlemmer features an item it calls the Barber Eliminator. Per the catalog: “The unit is moved through your hair while accommodating the contours of your pate.” It took me 20 minutes to find the electric razor on Amazon under its official name: the Conair Even Cut Rotary Hair Cut Cutting System. It’s $20 cheaper on Amazon, though it doesn’t come with the lifetime guarantee Hammacher includes with all its products. This is a feature that seemingly everyone I encounter in Niles is eager to tell me about, usually along with the question of whether or not I have heard the story about the poop Roomba.

The folks at Hammacher Schlemmer love the poop Roomba story. It goes like this: In 2016, a man in Little Rock, Arkansas, purchased a robotic vacuum from Hammacher Schlemmer. One evening, while on its automatic timer, the Roomba encountered a pile of puppy excrement and proceeded to spread and spray dog feces all over the house as it traveled along its algorithmically determined route. The man’s Facebook post about the ordeal went viral (359,709 shares, as of this writing), and in it he gives “mad props to Hammacher Schlemmer” for making good on its lifetime guarantee and issuing a full $400 refund.

I can’t imagine the Barber Eliminator getting into any similar kind of trouble, but it carries the same guarantee nonetheless. Were I in the market for an at-home haircutting device, I’m not sure page 32 of Hammacher Schlemmer’s spring catalog supplement would be the first place I’d look for it, but that’s not the point. The catalog tries to sell the item’s purpose (the elimination of my barber) before the product itself. The goal is to persuade page flippers to enter the DIY haircut market right then and there, when they’re least expecting it.

“We paginate our catalog almost in a treasure-hunt kind of way,” Farrell says. “It’s intentionally mixed up. Hopefully, we’re surprising you and delighting you. Whether you call or go to the internet to make the transaction is a whole nother question.”

Hammacher Schlemmer isn’t allergic to the internet, and it wasn’t blindsided by the rise of e-commerce. In 1986, the company opened a virtual store on CompuServe and became one of the first major retailers to sell wares on the web. It launched similar ventures with Prodigy and America Online before unveiling its own website in 1998. In 2005, online sales accounted for one-third of its revenue. These days, according to Farrell, the majority of orders come from the website (which he refers to as a “repository”), but the retailer believes the catalog is what pushes people there.

“Our website is modern, like every website,” Farrell says. “But the reality is that this”—and here he picks up a catalog—“is the more sophisticated piece of marketing.”

 
 

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In Hammacher Schlemmer’s lobby museum hangs an enlarged and framed page from the 1878 New York phone directory, the city’s first, upon which is listed the misspelled name Hamacher & Co. It serves as proof that the peddler of aggressively futuristic items like the Hair Rejuvenating Laser Comb and the Medical Grade LED Wrinkle Reducer is one of the country’s oldest companies.

In 1848, a German immigrant named Charles Tollner opened a hardware store on the Bowery in New York that would eventually become Hammacher Schlemmer. He was selling hammers and nails there back when West Virginia was still part of normal Virginia.

Tollner invited his 12-year-old nephew, William Schlemmer, to help work on the floor shortly thereafter. Albert Hammacher, a family friend, invested $5,000 in the store in 1857, and when William bought out his uncle in 1867, the two became partners. Under Albert and William’s direction, the business grew famous for its exhaustive and organized inventory.

Hammacher & Co. was a shopping destination not just because of what it sold but for how it sold it. Screwdrivers and bolts were displayed on velvet beneath glass in mahogany cabinets. The store was staffed with smartly dressed salesmen who wore white gloves and would pluck tools from the cases with theatrical care. The ostentatious environment attracted an auspicious clientele, and Isaac Singer built his first sewing machine with parts obtained from those lavish cupboards.

Hammacher Schlemmer started publishing a catalog in 1881, and the business ballooned. Early editions were hardbound and contained beautiful hand-drawn illustrations of workbenches, mortise locks, and plumb bobs—every item the subject of a delicately crosshatched likeness. At a Tolstoyan 1,112 pages, the 1912 catalog remains Hammacher’s largest, and a copy currently resides in the Smithsonian.

According to company documents, Russian czar Nicholas II ordered “a lot of everything” from the 1916 catalog. A comprehensive one-of-each selection was duly shipped to His Excellency, who was assassinated in July 1918. What exactly happened to all that Hammacher Schlemmer gear is a matter of some dispute, but the triumphant Bolsheviks are said to have placed their own order from the catalog shortly after their victory.

In the 1920s, the retailer began to move away from hardware and toward pianos, home goods, and assorted paraphernalia. While the inventory may have changed, Hammacher Schlemmer’s catalog business thrived. It’s the single, unbroken thread that connects Hammacher & Co. on the Bowery in the 1800s to the Hammacher Schlemmer of today.

 

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J. Roderick MacArthur died in 1984, but his influence on how Hammacher Schlemmer operates is still substantial. He came up with the idea for the Hammacher Schlemmer Institute, an internal product-testing laboratory that has run the company’s “best” trials since 1983. As a wealthy man on the go, MacArthur was willing to pay a premium for the luxury of not having to shop around for the best umbrella, money clip, or AM radio—and he knew that there were others like him, too.

The Hammacher Schlemmer Institute currently tests between 1,000 and 1,500 products a year, focusing mostly on electronics and Hammacher’s more ordinary items. Sadly, it can’t easily fit a hovercraft in its laboratory, which is the size of a small high school classroom and located on the headquarters’ second floor. That is where I meet Mohammed Faraj, the director of the institute. Tall and broad-shouldered, Faraj speaks softly and with an accent (he was born in the West Bank but has lived in America since 1985). At work, he wears a lab coat. His five-­person team is responsible for verifying the bold declarations made in the catalog. They’re the ones who make sure that the Best Cordless Hand Vacuum is really the best and that the Pressure Reducing Coccyx Cushion actually reduces pressure on your tailbone.

On the day I visit, they are testing garment steamers. Six of the spindly devices are neatly lined up, though they are surrounded by clutter. An anemometer (which measures wind speed) sits on a table in the center of the room, along with a toy crossbow, Superman-logoed Bluetooth headphones, and an oil diffuser that looks like a chrome bong. Stacked on a bookshelf along one wall are robots, a Wi-Fi doorbell, a webcam-enabled bicycle helmet, an air-powered baseball tee, and a Danish pillow set that purportedly regulates body temperature. There’s also a box of Rice Krispies, to be used as detritus for vacuum trials.

It looks like a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog has exploded. But to be more precise, I am at the scene of an implosion. The institute is tasked with attrition, with following an unbending directive to narrow merchandise down until only items deemed Hammacher-worthy remain.

Three institute employees accompany Faraj during my visit. One unpacks a suitcase and retrieves a twisted knot of business-casual apparel—fodder for testing the steamers. “We leave it for 48 hours each time, and we ball it up the same way,” she says of their efforts to ensure relatively consistent wrinkling of the clothing.

On a whiteboard near the lab’s back wall are equations scribbled in dry-erase marker: a mess of superscripts, subscripts, and Greek letters. It’s Homes’s law, Faraj explains, which relates to the proportional temperature of superconductors. They had been testing electric blankets, even though it’s April and summer is just around the corner.

Seasons don’t exist for the Hammacher Schlemmer Institute as they do in the real world. “We’re six months ahead of the catalog,” Sheri Camarata, the senior manager of the institute, tells me. “We’re testing heaters in the summer and air conditioners in the winter.” The team recently evaluated snowblowers. “We got lucky,” Camarata says. “We had a bad spring and a foot and a half of snow.”

A selection of items to be tested for the holiday catalog awaits in the side-entrance foyer downstairs. Among them: artificial Christmas trees. I could tell they were fake by the lack of pine smell, but they otherwise made for a pretty convincing little forest. Hammacher Schlemmer features an exclusive product it calls the World’s Best Prelit Fraser Fir. The 12-footer was listed at $2,000 in last year’s catalog and was advertised as having “more tips than any tree on the market.” According to the catalog copy, it is “the only tree with three-­dimensional, injection-molded branch tips that replicated the exact growth patterns, cascading branches, and fine, soft green needles of a freshly cut Fraser Fir.” I’m no arborist, but judging by the fullness of the big green guy next to the window, this impressive plastic beast was the famous Fraser.

The Fraser earned its “best” title after undergoing an inspection to verify that it does, indeed, have the most tips of any tree (5,890). “It may seem hard,” Faraj tells me of the process of counting each needle, “but we developed a method where you look at it in segments.” The Hammacher catalog can be absurd, but its stewards treat the absurdity the only way they know how: with grave sincerity and punctilious care.

The Child’s Wooden BBQ Playset
 

While Farrell says Hammacher Schlemmer caters to a broad customer base, he grants that the demographics skew older. “Our strength is definitely 50-plus,” he says. The catalog, like its customer, has aged into a niche. Once a hot spot for the tech-savvy, Hammacher Schlemmer now also accommodates those who still cling to their VHS tapes and Kodak slides. “When you’re looking for unique products,” Farrell says, “sometimes you’ll find theoretically end-of-life products.”

Hammacher Schlemmer recently sold its last VCR-to-DVD converter, though the product’s retirement was not the retailer’s choice. “Nobody’s making the [VHS] heads,” Farrell says. “We’ve been working for four years to see if we can get someone to manufacture that, but no one will.” He pauses. “We’re not giving up.”

I was surprised to find the Only Wireless CD Player in so many recent issues of the catalog, but Farrell assures me that if a product is repeatedly listed, that means it’s selling. (The Dohm Marpac is Hammacher Schlemmer’s king of longevity. This squat machine, roughly the size of an old rotary phone base, produces ambient white noise to help you sleep. It has been featured in every catalog since 1964.)

During the Reagan era, MacArthur revamped the company to cater to young executives. It is still selling to those same execs now, though they have long since retired and are suffering from terrible foot pain. Search “plantar fasciitis” on Hammacher Schlemmer’s site and you’ll find 30 products.

MacArthur originally marketed to a hypothetical Hammacher Man, but the gender split is now more or less even. Beyond being older, today’s prototypical Hammacher Schlemmer customer is also wealthy and educated. “They would definitely be considered top 10 percent in household income, a lot of postgrads,” Farrell says. “That’s why we feel the copy is important.” Where else can one find a backpack described as “Brobdingnagian” or a walking stick crafted from “sustainably coppiced blackthorn (Primus spinosa)”?

The text is matter-of-fact, with odd literary flourishes, and the titles are concise, yet deceptively clever. “I could go on for hours talking about titles,” says John Gagliardi, who, as Hammacher Schlemmer’s senior creative manager, oversees the catalog’s unmistakable copy. “We agonize over titles.” The company employs two full-time copywriters and a stable of contributors to write the extensive product descriptions.

The NASA Strength Sun Hat harnesses “the same technology used in space suits.” That galactic selling point doesn’t overshadow the product’s earthly benefits, like the “wide brim” and a “radiant barrier” that “imparts a UPF 50+ rating to the hat.” If a product is unisex (the sun hat is), then that will always be noted, as will whether or not it requires batteries (it does not). At 153 words, the hat’s description is about the average length for Hammacher Schlemmer. A standard catalog is 88 pages long, give or take, meaning that, at four products per page, there are roughly 53,856 words in every issue. That’s more verbose than The Great Gatsby (47,094 words).

“We consider our persona as the manservant or the butler,” Gagliardi says of Hammacher Schlemmer’s frank and detached copy. The language is a tonal continuation of the 19th-century store’s white-gloved salesmen. “We don’t engage in hype,” he continues. “If you read through our catalog, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an exclamation point.” I hard-press him, and he concedes that his team has used that punctuation mark—but only in a quote. “We have a bear that plays peekaboo with you. The bear says, ‘Peekaboo, I see you!’ We’ll put the exclamation point there.

“Our customers are very intelligent,” Gagliardi tells me. “They don’t need to be told what to do, or how to do something.” But what I think he really means is that they believe they don’t need to be told how to do something. The Hammacher Schlemmer Institute often has to rewrite instruction booklets if customer response indicates people are having trouble understanding how a product works.

 

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“Where everybody else keeps zig-zagging to figure out what to do in retail, we tend to stay right in the same path,” Farrell tells me. This consistency—or stubbornness, if you see it that way—may have been a wise move in hindsight, when you consider what’s happened with other retailers. Lands’ End reduced the number of catalogs it sent to consumers in 2000, and the New York Times reported in 2015 that this decision helped contribute to a $100 million drop in sales. J.C. Penney suspended its catalog in 2012, only to revive it three years later, after internal research demonstrated its viability as a modern marketing tool.

Hammacher Schlemmer is set up as an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) and has been employee-owned since 2014. Because it’s a private company, it’s a little difficult to gauge its financial health. Crain’s Chicago Business estimated Hammacher’s 2016 revenue to be $156 million. That was down 7 percent from its estimate of $168 million a decade earlier. In the retail industry, it isn’t sanguine to count that relatively modest slippage as a win. The company employs about 50 people in its Niles offices. Depending on the season, up to about 200 people work in its call center and warehouse outside Cincinnati.

Hammacher Schlemmer has certainly fared better this millennium than its closest competitors have. The Sharper Image closed its brick-and-mortar outlets in 2008, and Brookstone declared bankruptcy in 2014. Both those companies relied on stores, usually in malls, while Hammacher Schlemmer never operated more than three locations.

Still, Hammacher Schlemmer is the only company I’m aware of that sells products it knows no one may buy.

In Hammacher Schlemmer parlance, these are called “image items,” and one is usually put front and center in each of its catalogs. “Our focus in the last 20 to 25 years has been to put something on the cover that makes you go, ‘Wow, what is that?’ ” Farrell says. “We actually almost like it better when you don’t know what it is.”

These are the hovercraft, flying cars, and personal submarines that my family so cruelly refused to buy, and they are the products that have defined so much of Hammacher Schlemmer’s image. Their practicality is almost always inversely proportional to their astronomic cost. The purpose of these items is simply to lure and entertain the reader, but they are so important to Hammacher Schlemmer that the company employs a full-time buyer dedicated to finding them.

“The hardest part is tracking these companies down,” John Pinto tells me. Pinto has been Hammacher Schlemmer’s image buyer since the position was created five years ago. I ask him about a $5,000 motorized unicycle that appears on the cover of the spring preview catalog. “That’s from a guy out of Portland,” he says. “It pops off the page. You think, Hmm, I’ve never seen that before.”

When he saw a floating jungle gym while vacationing at a resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Pinto sought out and persuaded the manufacturer to put its device in the catalog. Hammacher Schlemmer dubbed it the Navigable Water Park and listed it at $71,000. “Most of our customers will get a laugh out of it, and we hope they say, ‘Only Hammacher Schlemmer would carry this floating water park,’ ” Pinto tells me.

The water park is actually semipractical compared with some of Hammacher Schlemmer’s other image items. “We had a really interesting underwater apparatus,” Pinto says. “It was a belt that you would strap to your waist that had aqua jets on it, but it was designed and built for the military. In order for a U.S. resident to purchase it, you had to apply with the State Department. We love that stuff, so we put it in the copy.”

Occasionally people do buy such items. Hammacher Schlemmer has sold hovercraft golf carts and a few refurbished London taxis, Pinto says. I ask if anyone has bought the aqua-jet belt. “I kind of remember seeing a couple of applications coming in,” he says, “but I can’t recall if they went through.”

If aqua-jet belts aren’t selling, what exactly is? What makes for a hot Hammacher Schlemmer product in 2018?

At the Hammacher Schlemmer Institute, I’m introduced to the Live Conversation Speaking Translator, an item that the lab folks seem pretty excited about and that Farrell says is selling well, even with a $350 price tag.

Manufactured by a Hong Kong education company, the device is roughly the size of an electric toothbrush. It comes with 12 language options, including French, Italian, and Japanese. An institute researcher demonstrates it for me by speaking Polish into the mic. Out of the speaker comes a robotic-voiced translation: “Good morning, how are you?” “I’m doing great,” I reply, and it chirps out a Polish translation. I have no clue if it is accurate, but I am inclined to take the team’s word for it. Earlier in the day, they had been doing Polish-to-Arabic, with Faraj attesting to the veracity of the latter.

“This is an example of a product that, in the electronics market, will probably play itself out pretty fast,” Farrell says. “I could see that within a year there will be an app [like this] that will work perfectly.” This is not a mark against the product. Rather, it provides reason for excitement—yet another item for the Wall of Firsts. And Hammacher Schlemmer will happily sell it for as long as customers want to buy it.

Somewhere, maybe in Milan or Tokyo or at Machu Picchu, my imaginary Hammacher family is on vacation and using the translator as they hop between museums and tours. My real family, meanwhile, pretty much only ever takes trips to Florida. That may save us $349.95, but where’s the fun in that?

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