Meet the woman who sources gear for the world’s wackiest gadget catalog
If youâ€™re a frequent air traveler, youâ€™ve surely seen the SkyMall catalog tucked in the pocket of the seat in front of you. Itâ€™s stuffed with zombie statues, bug vacuums, telekinetic obstacle courses and more, all delivered in an unflappable, straight-faced style that defies the sheer weirdness of the gear inside.
Some people see SkyMall and ask, â€śWho buys this stuff?!â€ť When we read SkyMall, we think, â€śWho finds this stuff?!â€ť Well, her name is Barb Downey. Sheâ€™s Director of Merchandising at SkyMall, and manages the ongoing hunt for the catalogâ€™s latest, greatest products.
MAXIMUM TECH: What do you do when youâ€™re on a flight and see someone grabbing the SkyMall in front of them?
BARB DOWNEY: What most of us do is observe firstâ€”what catches their attention? You donâ€™t want to tell them too much. You want to watch them. I want to see what theyâ€™re stopping on. I will talk to people, but I want to observe first.
MT: Describe typical comments youâ€™ve heard from strangers on a plane.
BD: People will look at something and say, â€śDo people really buy this?â€ť and Iâ€™ll laugh to myself, because I know how much they buy this. It wouldnâ€™t be in the catalog if they didnâ€™t.
Based in Phoenix, AZ, SkyMall doesnâ€™t actually stock and ship out catalog items. Instead, it connects consumers with third-party retailers. Still, this on-site display case reminds employees of all the cool connections they make.
MT: Does a product have to fulfill certain criteria in order to be considered catalog-worthy? Our editors can look at the catalog and say, â€śThatâ€™s very SkyMall.â€ť
BD: We donâ€™t have anything written in stone, but we all pretty much know what products will work. We look for unique items that you canâ€™t find in mass-market merchants like Kmart and Target. Remember, weâ€™re a retailer with a unique position. Our customers are strapped in an airplane seat, so the product copy can be more exacting, specific, detail-oriented. Customers arenâ€™t standing with our catalog above the recycling bin. They pick it up on the plane, and look long and hard.
MT: Do you purposefully look for a certain amount of kitsch factor?
BD: Sure, that comes with it. But thereâ€™s always a common thread underneath of having a unique purpose or a solution. Itâ€™s a product they canâ€™t find in other places. It solves an issue that customers didnâ€™t know they had, or didnâ€™t know there would be a solution for.
The Roll-Up Electric Piano makes us pine for rollable OLED displays.
MT: So letâ€™s throw some products at you, and just give us your first reactions. Letâ€™s start with the day clock.
BD: Thatâ€™s a great product! I actually put that back in SkyMall six years ago, working directly with that manufacturer. I know it sounds wacky, and a lot of people would say thatâ€™s a ridiculous product, but I never did. I loved that product from the beginning, probably because my parents are retired and I know how they liveâ€”itâ€™s day by day, not hour by hour.
Don’t laugh at the Day Clock. Some people need an occasional reality check.
MT: But it almost seems like itâ€™s a parody of a clock.
BD: But itâ€™s got a real purpose and a real function and, yeah, itâ€™s one of those fun, wacky gifts you get for somebody. If they saw it on their own, it would be, â€śWhy would I ever use this?â€ť But when they start thinking about it, they see it serves a specific purpose.
MT: What about the Telekinetic Obstacle Course? How does that thing even work?
BD: Itâ€™sâ€¦ [laughs, hesitates] I donâ€™t know how it works. I almost bought it for a nephew for Christmas, but his parents wanted us to do something else. But, yeah, that was a huge seller for us. I know what the catalog says about it, but Iâ€™ve not seen it in person to try it.
The headband of the Telekinetic Obstacle Course â€śsends a wireless signal based on your mental commands to the gameâ€™s air fan, which increases or decreases its speed, suspending or lowering a foam ball.â€ť Or so says the catalog.
MT: Bigfoot Garden Yeti.
BD: Love that. Love the sales, love the fun, love the media attention.
MT: What do you think is SkyMallâ€™s strangest product?
BD: Oh, my goodness. Maybe the Bug Vacuum. Again, hereâ€™s something that solves a problem you may not have known you had, or didnâ€™t know there was a solution for. Everyone has bug issues, but some people wonâ€™t take a paper towel and whack it. Our president has this problemâ€”she talks about it all the time.
The Zombie of Montclaire Moors has received 25 product reviews on the SkyMall website for a perfect cumulative score of five stars. But can anyone tell us where to find the Montclaire Moors?
MT: Have you ever seen a SkyMall product and said yourself, â€śYouâ€™ve got to be kidding meâ€ť?
BD: Oh, Iâ€™m sure I have, but I donâ€™t really think of our products that way. Then again, we do have the Garden Yeti. The Yeti is so popular. Everybody loves the Yeti. Internally, weâ€™ve had a â€śDress the Yetiâ€ť contest, with each department doing something different.
MT: So SkyMall is definitely not a company that takes itself too seriously.
BD: No, no, no. Noâ€”not at all.
If you can’t afford a plane ticket, check out SkyMall gear at www.skymall.com.