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The SkyMall Catalog, An Astonishing Institution

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The SkyMall Catalog, An Astonishing Institution

Business

The SkyMall Catalog, An Astonishing Institution

The SkyMall Catalog, An Astonishing Institution

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121208283/121208280" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Read Meghan Daum's column, "SkyMall: A Catalog With Altitude"

"Don't tell me," Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum writes, "that flipping through the SkyMall catalog isn't one of the few pleasures left in commercial air travel." Tell us about your favorite SkyMall items. Daum will share hers, as well the publication's history.

NEAL CONAN, host:

The holiday travel season is here. And between the lost luggage, long lines and cramped seats, perhaps you're dreading your next plane trip. But if you're like Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum, there is still one thing about air travel that brings you a bit of joy: SkyMall. Admit it, you've dipped into the catalog and considered how a marshmallow shooter could improve your life, how a Garden Yeti might brighten up the backyard. More likely, we're thinking too small. What is your favorite SkyMall item? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and an avid SkyMall browser, and joins us now from the Marketplace studios in Los Angeles. Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. MEGHAN DAUM (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Hi, Neal. Good to be back.

CONAN: And I know you wondered who buys these items - like the Keep Your Distance Bug Vacuum, which, of course, lets you suck up bugs from a distance. And it turns out lots of people do.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. You know, like a lot of people, I was always really curious about SkyMall. I am an avid browser, as you say, although I have to admit I have never purchased anything - not yet, anyway. But yeah, it always felt to me like one of those cultural entities that was both completely useless and somehow weirdly essential.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: And I decided to look in - I was interested in who bought them, but I was even more interested in who actually chose the items for the catalog. So I called the company, and I spoke with the CEO, who's a very nice woman named Christine Aguilera. Not Christina�

CONAN: Not Christina Aguilera.

Ms. DAUM: Not Christina. Christine Aguilera. And she does have a sense of humor about this stuff, but she's also really enthusiastic about it, and she owns a lot of it herself.

CONAN: Including that long-distance bug vacuum.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah, she does have the bug vacuum. It's hard to describe on the radio. It's a very unusual-looking device. It looks like something that might have been in "Star Wars" or - you know, in some sort of low -this kind of low-rent version of "Star Wars," kind of space age. It has this plastic tube, and you can get a fly off the ceiling or something. So she has that. So, she has some cleaning devices. And she also -there's a particular piece of lawn statuary she has her eye on.

CONAN: Lawn statuary. Now this was a particularly ridiculous line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. You know, I - the statuary in the catalog really has always amazed me. I mean, there's not only lawn statuary, there are, I guess, interior statues. I mean, there's something called the Grand Ruler Anubis. It's an 8-foot-tall, jackal-headed Egyptian god statue made of faux ebony and gold and silver. And it sells for $1,200 -$1,250.

CONAN: And a bargain at the price.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's certainly not the most expensive item in the catalog but, yeah. The Garden Yeti is really one of my favorites. That's a 2-foot-tall - just slightly over 2 foot tall. We've got to - we should get that�

CONAN: Oh, yes, well, truth in non-advertising. Yes.

Ms. DAUM: Over 2 feet tall. It's a Bigfoot statue for your yard.

CONAN: And there's also a ghoul that looks like it's trying to dig its way out of your garden.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. The ghoul, apparently, is really popular. Technically, it has a very long name. It's called the Zombie of Montclaire Moors. And it's like this zombie that is designed so it looks like it's clawing its way out of your yard, and I thought it was funny. In the catalog, it says you can also put it in your office. So it can - if you don't want a zombie in your yard, you can - it can look like it's clawing its way out of the carpet in your office, and it's $89.95. Designer resin, it's made out of.

CONAN: Well, you certainly would not want to have less than designer resin.

Ms. DAUM: No.

CONAN: No.

Ms. DAUM: No, you don't want to.

CONAN: No. Artis(ph) in Houston emails: I love the tabletop studio photo. I can carry this anyway - take great pictures of items, especially for eBay, and look like a professional with my little digital camera. What a great idea. And there are some of these items in the SkyMall that indeed, do have, well, semipractical applications.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's fun to make fun of the, you know, particularly extreme stuff. But yeah, there are certainly things in there that could be useful. And, you know, I wanted to get back - you asked me this before. Like a lot of people, I kind of imagined that, you know, I wondered who would actually buy this stuff and maybe the, sort of, you know, consumer profile of the SkyMall shopper is perhaps not the wisest consumer.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DAUM: But in fact, according to the company, the average customer is between 35 and 64 years old. So these aren't, you know, kids. They live in a metropolitan area - it's college educated and earns at least $75,000 a year. So go figure.

CONAN: I was also fascinated to read in your piece that A, it's 20 years old and initially started as an idea that you would order these items on the phone�

Ms. DAUM: Yes.

CONAN: �that's - are also on the back of the seat in front of you.

Ms. DAUM: On the plane. Well, yeah, you have to remember: So, SkyMall started 20 years ago. And I guess it was about 20 years ago that they started the air phones on the backs of seats. So, the idea was that you could shop while you flew. So, you would look through this catalog, you would say, I need a Garden Yeti right now. I need it right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: And I - you would pick up the air phone and you would order it, and it would be delivered to you at the baggage claim when your flight arrived.

CONAN: That's sort of like an advanced form of what, you know, buying a bottle of alcohol at the duty free shop.

Ms. DAUM: Well, I assume that a lot of people were drinking alcohol while they were making these purchases. So that was quite�

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So that may be connected with it. But�

Ms. DAUM: Part of the idea.

CONAN: �it turned out that instant delivery was not an essential part of the service.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. You know, Christine Aguilera, the CEO, when I spoke to her, she said, you know, we did realize - and she's only been the CEO for 12 years, so she was not involved in the air-phone era of this. But she said, you know, the lesson was that a lot of these items weren't necessarily things you needed in an emergency. So they've gone to this other way. But, you know, a lot of people order from SkyMall even not on the plane. They have subscriptions. They receive the catalog at home.

CONAN: But this is - in fact, a lot of these items come from the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog�

Ms. DAUM: Yeah.

CONAN: �which is, of course, been a source of similar kinds of amusement for much longer than that. So, let's see if we can get some callers in on the line. This is James(ph), James with us from San Antonio.

JAMES (Caller): Yes. I was on a long flight to New York City, sitting next to a very nice Russian woman. And we were flipping through the catalog, making fun of all the garbage inside. And one thing that she found was a toaster oven for $70 that browned the hotdog bun and warmed the hotdog. And she turned to me and said, this is why the world hates Americans. And we just laughed�

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMES: �for about 10 minutes. And I think that kind of encapsulate the whole catalog.

CONAN: Well, there may be some foreign policy issues as well. But nevertheless, we get the point, yes.

JAMES: Yeah, yeah, yes.

CONAN: James, thanks very - did - and I take it, she did not order it.

JAMES: She did not and neither did I.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call. This is a catalog that can be used for games in flight.

Ms. DAUM: You know, there is so much you can do in this. I don't even know where to get started. You know, one of the things I found amazing is that people can actually, like, order, you know, there's entire lines of Harry Potter. You can order these, you know, these presidential portraits. It's really quite endless. You can do anything. Oh, and in terms of - oh, well, you're talking about games like�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DAUM: �like Balderdash, like SkyMall Balderdash, like - you know, making up items and�

CONAN: And that - or you pick a page and say, all right, if I had to buy one of these things, which one would it be?

Ms. DAUM: Oh, that, definitely. I mean, that's a game that I like to play, you know, with just - with mail-order catalogs generally. And with SkyMall, it's great. Often I might decide that I really want the branding iron that can brand your initials into steak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's just a short-lived pleasure.

Ms. DAUM: I always come back to that. Yeah. Well, not if you make a lot of steak. You can, you know?

CONAN: Yeah. All right.

Ms. DAUM: I think it goes in the dishwasher.

CONAN: Some emails. This is from Russell(ph) in Madison. I love my inflatable pillow that can rest on the seatback tray. It's sort of like falling asleep at your desk in school, which I never did. And Fred(ph) in Buffalo writes: If I have the money to pick, it would be the remote-controlled shark. Yes, he says.

Ms. DAUM: Mm.

CONAN: A tweet from Crupolli(ph): I have bought the travel map to mark every place I have roamed to. The most hilarious item I saw was the travel bidet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And let's see if we can get Jeff(ph) on line. Jeff's calling from San Francisco.

JEFF (Caller): Hi, how are you? Great show. And yes, I am a victim of having too much time on my hands. I was flying from San Francisco to Houston a couple of years ago, and I have a Bassett hound who stands all of about 18 inches at the shoulder. And I saw that little doggy ramp, the kind that gets them from the floor up to the bed.

CONAN: Hmm.

JEFF: And I - yeah, I was like, oh, I've got to have this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: So I ended up ordering this two-piece, plastic ramp. I think it was a little more than $100, shipping included. And I love it to death, but I know I probably could've found it just about anywhere. But the SkyMall magazine was there, and I was hooked. I had to have it at that time.

CONAN: And does your dog use the doggy ramp?

JEFF: Absolutely. My wife and I love him to death. He's our cuddle teddy bear right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I see. You do realize a cardboard box would've probably served the same function?

JEFF: Yes, I do now. Yes. Now seeing that - what it was that I got, absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Meghan?

Ms. DAUM: But it's so great. It's a SkyMall success story. And I'm not surprised that it's pet related. The pet-related products, to me, are some of the most remarkable. When I was talking to Christine Aguilera about which items were the biggest sellers, I was not surprised to hear that the indoor dog restroom is really high up there. So, you know, you can imagine what this is. It's actually - it's a patch of fake grass that's attached to an absorbent mat and has like, a tray underneath it. So, that way, if your dog is indoors a lot, it can have its own little bathroom. It doesn't have to go outside. But yeah, there's�

CONAN: OK.

Ms. DAUM: �a lot of pet stuff.

CONAN: Jeff, have you considered that? No. I think Jeff has left us to see how his doggy ramp is doing. Anyway, thanks very much for the call.

This is - John(ph) in Jackson, Wyoming, writes: We've never ordered but always have a contest to see who can find the most ridiculous item. The lawn-spike shoes were the champs until the snow shovel attached to a pivoting wheel took the prize.

We're talking with Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Lost Angeles Times, whose recent column is �SkyMall: A Catalog with Altitude.� And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And Will(ph) is on the line from Reading, Massachusetts.

WILL (Caller): Yeah, hi. Not too long ago in England, they were doing tests on a device called a smoke hood, that you could pull over your head and help you get out of a burning airplane still alive. And then I saw one in the SkyMall catalog�

CONAN: And that�

WILL: �while I was flying, and I thought that was rather ironic.

CONAN: That's�

WILL. It's also used for escaping from burning houses.

CONAN: But nevertheless, that's one where delivery at the baggage claim would be too late.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah, too late.

WILL: Yeah, I know.

Ms. DAUM: You need sort of air-to-air refueling - delivering system or something.

CONAN: Exactly, yeah. They could just drop them off.

WILL: I have resisted buying one, but I may yet.

CONAN: Maybe there'd just be a, you know, a slot for quarters in the slot over your head. And if the, you know, the mask fell, the smoke hood, if you put enough quarters in, would fall too.

WILL: Yeah. There could be some political issues with that.

CONAN: I don't know. I don't know. Anyway, I'd give�

Ms. DAUM: The way things are going in air travel, we're going to have to pay for the oxygen mask. We have to pay for food.

CONAN: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILL: Yeah, absolutely.

Ms. DAUM: So this is not surprising.

CONAN: Don't give them any ideas.

WILL: Yeah.

CONAN: Will, thanks very much for the call.

Irina(ph) in Seattle writes: Yes, I do seek the comfort of the ridiculum(ph) found in SkyMall. And with every overpriced drink, I find myself getting closer and closer to that wall-sized crossword set or the all-edge brownie pan. Only once - I've seen that on TV - only once have I ever taken the plunge, it was for a birthday gift. I now know that an alarm clock with various scents built in is useless as it sounds.

So, OK. Can wake up to - what, sandalwood, I suppose? Let's go next to Marianne(ph), Marianne in Tempe.

MARIANNE (Caller): Hi. I think the SkyMall thing must have also had an incarnation ahead of that. Because about 30 years ago, going to Germany on now-defunct Pan Am, I succumbed to the urge to buy a crockpot, but the nice thing about it is, it still is working in my kitchen.

CONAN: Wow.

MARIANNE: But it's unique in that the base of it can be used to grill cheese sandwiches, and the pot can be actually put on top of the stove. So it's multidimensional.

CONAN: Is this a Ronco device, by any chance?

MARIANNE: I don't think so. I�

CONAN: It sounds like something that you had seen�

MARIANNE: It's German engineering.

CONAN: It could be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And I was going to say, you bought it all that time ago, you'd think that meal would be done by now.

MARIANNE: You would actually think. Actually, I just made dinner in it the other night. And so, I think anything that lasts for 30 years that you bought on an airplane catalog ought to get a gold star.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call and continued good luck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARIANNE: Goodbye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

This is from Skip(ph). Having somewhat questionable taste, I was delighted to find the tissue box cover that looks like a face from Easter Island - I have a friend with that; I always wondered where they got it. It so delighted me that I bought two, one for each black lacquer nightstand by my velvet- and satin-covered bed. Tacky, but happy in Corvallis.

Ms. DAUM: That's an NPR listener.

CONAN: That's an NPR listener. Go check the demographics, people. Let's go next to Jessica(ph). Jessica with us from Saint Paul.

JESSICA (Caller): Hi, I'm calling to tell you about the Humongatongue(ph).

CONAN: What is that?

JESSICA: Another pet-related item. It's like a big chunk of plastic that had a ball attached to the end. And you could throw it to your dog and then pick it up without getting your hand all slobbery.

CONAN: I have seen those in dog parks, yes, that�

JESSICA: And I just love the name so much. It points to the sense of humor of the writers of that catalog.

CONAN: And did you purchase this item?

JESSICA: Of course not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: OK. Do you remember how much they wanted for it?

JESSICA: Oh, I don't remember at all. It's just - the name has stuck with me after quite a few years.

CONAN: Thank you, Jessica.

JESSICA: Thank you.

CONAN: Jason(ph) in Oakland: My favorite of all time was the blowup guy who sits in the passenger seat to protect female drivers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAUM: I thought you were supposed to use those so you could drive in the carpool lane.

CONAN: Oh, that could be it, yeah.

Ms. DAUM: That's what they do here in L.A., yeah.

CONAN: But that might discourage carjackers, to think that Buster is sitting next to you.

Ms. DAUM: OK, OK.

CONAN: Tim(ph) is on the line. Tim from Milwaukee.

TIM (Caller): Hi, Neal. My favorite item, I just saw it on a recent flight to Florida and back, were the - well, actually, it's always been in the catalog. It's the Gravity Defyer shoes.

CONAN: Well, those sound useful. You don't need a plane.

TIM: Well, I don't know whether they're truly functional, but they have a bunch of springs and stuff. The most recent incarnation I saw of them were athletic shoes. And the thing that I found most amusing about them is like most athletic shoes, they have some sort of a little logo that they have developed and stuck on the side of it. But - and I'm not making this up. Please get a current copy of SkyMall and look. The little logo, the little insignia, is actually - can I say it - it actually looks like a little sperm. Somebody really, really needed to double-check that before they published it.

CONAN: Well, in any case, we're glad the copy editors will now have something to do at SkyMall.

TIM: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much.

TIM: Mm-hmm. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And Meghan, could you still get a SkyMall purchase when you step off a plane if you want to?

Ms. DAUM: No, no. It's strictly mail-order. I'm pretty sure about that. You know, it's impossible to get in the airport, really, at all. So do you think that they're going to be delivering yetis into the baggage claim? No. Times�

CONAN: No.

Ms. DAUM: �times have changed.

CONAN: Meghan Daum, happy flying.

Ms. DAUM: Thank you. You, too.

CONAN: Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She joined us today from the Marketplace studios in L.A. We have a link to her column on SkyMall at npr.org. Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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