Friday, August 3, 2018

Hammacher Schlemmer: "The World’s Most Peculiar Company"

Quality. The company survives because of the quality of their products.

Should you find yourself in need of a Wearable Mosquito Net, you can rest assured it is the best Wearable Mosquito Net available.
And your rest will be bite free.

From Chicago Magazine:

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?
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?

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....