SkyMall Remembered

Mourning the wacky in-flight catalog that prompted Bill McKibben to write, "We’ve officially run out not only of things we need, but even of things we might plausibly desire.”

The Releaf Neck Rest, available in SkyMall (SkyMall)

SkyMall In-Flight Catalog

Purveying bizarre inventions to captive, airborne, and potentially drunk consumers since 1989

Product Description: SkyMall In-Flight Catalog is a unique, revolutionary product that magically convinces people they need things that they didn’t know existed—or why! Owning this magazine could make your life much easier, thanks to its glossy, fully-printed pages, smug models, and two-page spreads featuring official Harry Potter™ wands. Fully adjustable for any business. Employees can be dismissed before sale. Packs easily. (This product is not available for shipment to Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico.)

Price: $10 million (negotiable)

My sister and I spent a lot of time on planes growing up, and we had our traditions. Shortly after buckling up and reciting the safety video from memory (Tampering with, disabling, or destroying lavatory smoke detectors is prohibited by law), we'd reach into the seat pockets in front of us and pull out the most recent SkyMall catalog. We'd spend hours perusing the offerings, laughing about old favorites and puzzling over new additions. We occasionally played a slightly adapted version of The Price Is Right after flipping to a page at random. The amusement of SkyMall lasted longer than our Game Boy batteries.

That's why I was surprised yesterday when I heard SkyMall's parent company was filing for bankruptcy. No, not surprised that the revenues of an old-school retailer dried up in the face of digital marketing—surprised that the harsh-sounding bankruptcy was a term that could be applied to something I thought of as purely entertaining. SkyMall was so obvious about being crassly commercial, even to us young flyers, that it won us over with its shamelessness. It was hiding nothing—not even a $1,250, eight-foot-tall statue of the Egyptian jackal-god Anubis.

Until yesterday, I hadn't considered SkyMall's business model. It's essentially a classified section, with pictures. Manufacturers, retailers, and lone-wolf inventors could pay for space in the catalog—with a full page reportedly costing $129,000 per issue—and then give a small cut of any sales to SkyMall. While it lasted, this was a pretty sweet deal: Sellers, some of them amateur inventors, saw big leaps in sales after their products were exposed to nearly 700 million flyers. And SkyMall got access to a well-off demographic: Their average customer was a college grad earning more than $75,000 a year.

What changed is that people began to have other things—electronic things—to reach for when the seatbelt sign was illuminated. A passenger trapped by the window pounding down gin and tonics somewhere over Colorado was a great target demographic, until that passenger had an iPad to prop up and use to watch Friday Night Lights. Before the FAA lifted its ban on electronic devices before and right after takeoff, this brief digital sabbath was one of SkyMall's last windows of time in which to reach people. SkyMall was able to thrive only during moments like this, when there weren't so many things competing for people's attention.

All that said, sales from the catalog accounted for about 4o percent of SkyMall's business in recent years. The majority of its sales came from its website, which has been around since 1996. But depending on digital retail—a brutally competitive, rapidly changing market—was much riskier than depending on seat-back pockets, where SkyMall, for a while, had near-exclusive access to potential buyers.

What was SkyMall's strength—it was viewed primarily as goofy entertainment and only secondarily as something that wants your money—ended up being its downfall, as other forms of entertainment began competing with it. In fact, straightforward print catalogs in general are actually going strong these days. Just this week J.C. Penney announced it was reviving its catalog. One estimate is that catalogs generate $4 of revenue for every $1 spent producing them. They can be so effective because they're sent out to people who are expected to be interested in them. "Skymall's publication depends on passengers to pick it up and place orders," says Hamilton Davison, president and executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association. "Catalogs are mailed to specific consumers who at some point have demonstrated an interest in buying from them."

So what will become of SkyMall? The CEO of its parent company is hopeful that a buyer will step forward in the next couple of months to keep the catalog alive, but since SkyMall's financials are pretty bleak, that's a longshot. That said, SkyMall does have a history of getting handed off from private-equity firm to private-equity firm, so its future is still undecided.

I won't be holding my breath, but I will be biding my time solving The World's Largest Crossword Puzzle.