February 24, 2008

Sharper Image Collapse: A Harbinger of Trouble Ahead?

UPON HEARING THE NEWS of the Sharper Image Corp.’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, one may be tempted to simply write off the disaster as the isolated struggle of a badly-performing retail company. However, one wonders if that’s all there is to it.

After all, this is the Sharper Image Corp. For decades, it has produced goods that no American – much less the company’s customers – have actually needed. When times were good, it made millions of dollars per year doing so. When times weren’t so good, it still made millions of dollars, because many people have far more money than sense. Thus, its spectacular collapse – SHRP lost nearly $60 million on revenues of $525 million this past year – may be symptomatic of a far more serious problem: that many American consumers are finally tapped out and have stopped buying crap they really don’t need.

To best explain just what Sharper Image sold, it is perhaps useful to rely on an old episode of "Garfield and Friends." In this episode, Jon becomes angry with Garfield upon discovering Garfield has bought goods including an indoor birdbath, a lifesize statue of Leonardo DaVinci sculpted from macaroni, and – I quote – "a battery-operated battery charger that’s only good for charging its own batteries." This is not, I would submit, all that different a product selection than what one would find in Sharper Image’s catalog. Indeed, consider the goods on offer at the chain’s Web site:

* A $500 air purifier that magically cleans the air of bacteria, mold sports, viruses and other nasty pathogens. A perfect product for people who a) find the idea of opening their windows to the elements appalling; 2) never vacuum their apartments and c) want to pointedly show off to friends their air purifier from the Sharper Image Corp.

* A $3,995 “Human Touch Zero-Gravity Massage Chair” that improves circulation and expands lung capacity, along with providing massage therapy. Of course, for $3,995, some might want such a chair to do a bit more, like cure the gout and toast bagels, along with – well, you figure it out. Alarmingly, although the Human Touch Zero-Gravity Massage Chair retails for $3,995, the people at Sharper Image also sell three-year and five-year service guarantees for an additional $299.95 and $399.95, respectively. I don’t know about you, but if I paid four grand for a goddamned massage chair, I’d want the company to stand behind it until California falls into the ocean.

* A $50 electric wet-dry shaver for men that – wait for it – can be used to “trim and shave everywhere -- chest and abs, underarms, groin area, legs, back and shoulders.” You know, because this couldn’t be done with an $8 safety razor.

* A $70 set of knives – now selling for $27 – used solely for slicing and preparing cheese. Oddly, although this comes with a cutting board, the set doesn’t come with anything useful, like a cheese grater. Interestingly, one of the selling points for the knives is that they’re “ergonomically designed for comfort and safety.” This may explain why the knives were price-reduced, because they’re fucking cheese knives. They’re supposed to be sharp, and thus, inherently unsafe.

* A $50 set of high-end Tupperware, although supposedly better than Tupperware. Oddly, the high-end not-Tupperware also comes with a service guarantee available. I mean, it's (practically) Tupperware, for Christ's sake. It will last until the end of time.

* A $500 GPS device that tracks one’s dog when one’s dog escapes the grasp of his owner and bounds off someplace. Speaking as someone who had to go retrieve the family golden retriever when she would bound off into the wilderness, part of me thinks it should be incumbent upon the dogs to return home to their masters. After all, dogs are smart animals. As such, they should know they have a sweet deal going: their masters provide them with food, water, shelter, dog treats, table scraps, and attention, in return for following five or six simple commands a day.

Indeed, why anyone would buy any of these products is a complete mystery. Even people normally prone to making stupid decisions – marketing executives, disc jockeys, the Detroit Lions’ front office – would be hard-pressed to come up with reasons to buy this stuff. So in that regard, one can argue that the crap Sharper Image sold was so craptacular that eventually, even idiots balked at buying the stuff.

Still, there’s no denying that for a long time, Sharper Image sold lots of stuff, and did so at a profit. So one might argue that Sharper Image’s operation wasn’t prepared for a time when many people are tightening their belts and looking towards the future with a wary eye. If it was the latter situation that led to the company’s bankruptcy and not the former, then perhaps we shouldn’t laugh too loudly about Sharper Image’s troubles.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at February 24, 2008 02:09 PM | TrackBack
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