Hammacher Schlemmer gets a makeover

  @FortuneMagazine December 5, 2013: 5:04 PM ET
FIO23 hammacher schlemmer

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.

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