Friday, February 26, 2010

The Most Unusual Mail Order Catalog

Quick! What's that thing to the left? Yes, I know it's a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog cover, smarty-pants. I mean what's that thing pictured on the cover?

Don't feel bad if you didn't know that it's a Superplexus. Actually, it's "The Superplexus". Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs often feature items on their cover whose identity and purpose could challenge Einstein.

In case you didn't know, Hammacher Schlemmer (H.S.) is a New York based retailer established in 1848. Aside from their New York store, they also sell via mail order and, of course, the internet. So how did one of their catalogs come to land in my mailbox?

Simple. I mail ordered something from somebody else's catalog. I couldn't tell you what I ordered or from whom, but a lot of these vendors love to share their mailing lists. "Hey Alfred! I've got another chump who has too much money on his hands and loves to spend it on stuff that he's only seen pictures of!" Next thing I know, Alfred Hammacher and William Schlemmer's catalog adorns my mailbox, sporting some inscrutable object on its cover. It was probably the inscrutable object on the cover of the first H.S. catalog that I received which coaxed me into opening it (the catalog) in the first place, rather than just throwing it out. "I've just gotta find out what that thing is!" I probably muttered to myself.

Then it happened. Somewhere among the pages of that fateful catalog I saw that Hammacher Schlemmer's inventory included Hasbro's interactive R2-D2; the very same interactive R2-D2 that I described in such detail in last week's post. I had already heard about Hasbro's R2-D2 earlier and, as I explained in my previous post, had already developed a serious case of the "I Wants" for one. Part of what kept me from rushing right out and buying one was the fact that there were none to be found in any of the stores in my immediate locale. I checked everywhere; Toys 'R Us, Sears, Zellers, even various obscure hobby and novelty shops. Nada. But there it was, in full color, among the rest of the H.S. merchandise, right next to the words "In Stock".

I think I began excitedly whistling "I've found it! It's here!" (that was an obscure Star Wars reference for you non-geeks out there) until my wife came over to find out what the commotion was all about. After settling me down with the help of several tranquilizer darts, she managed to convince me to hold off ordering one long enough so that she was able to get me one as a Father's Day gift, because every father should own a toy R2-D2.

There's only one better way of getting on a catalog store's mailing list than by ordering from some other catalog store, and that's by ordering from them directly. Hammacher Schlemmer has been faithfully sending me catalogs on a quarterly basis ever since they received my wife's order for R2-D2.

For those unfamiliar with Hammacher Schlemmer, they are distinguished, in my mind, as being a merchant of unusual and/or hard to find items. If you're looking for a gift for that hard-to-buy-for person who seems to have everything, consult with Hammacher Schlemmer. It also helps to have a whole lot of disposable cash.

Take the Superplexus, for example. You're probably wondering what, exactly, a Superplexus is, even though you've seen a picture of one at the start of this post. I was getting to that. Ever see those wooden labyrinth games where you roll a marble through a maze by twisting the board around using two knobs? The Superplexus is something like that, except that it's three-dimensional, it's enclosed in a glass sphere, it stands just over four feet high and three feet wide, it weighs 65 lbs. and it retails for $30,000. Yes, that's right, I said thirty thousand ... with four zeroes. It's the ideal Christmas gift for Bill Gates' son, who probably already has all the video games he can possibly play; just a tip for anyone who happens to work for Microsoft and is looking for a good brown-nose opportunity.

Hammacher Schlemmer's catalog and web sites are full of this kind of stuff! If the Superplexus seems a bit "frugal", how about a genuine seven foot tall Robbie the Robot (the one that looks like a walking jukebox, remember?) for fifty thousand dollars (actually $49,999.95). Or, if you're a bit more budget-minded and the Lost In Space robot is more to your liking, H.S. will gladly sell you a life-sized one of those for only twenty-four and a half thousand dollars.

It's not just all toys, either. Are you environmentally conscious and in the market for an electric car? H.S. has three to choose from; a 4,000-watt roadster for $13,000, a one-person electric car for $36,000 or an electric two-seater that goes from zero to sixty in four seconds, with a top speed of 120 mph; a steal at $108,000. And, for the kiddies, how about a kid-sized electric SUV for just under $500? May as well start building that spoiled sense of entitlement during their formative years, right?

Not everything in H.S.'s inventory is priced for the Rockefeller set, but even their less expensive items tend to be unique. How about digital copies of every National Geographic magazine ever published on a DVD-ROM boxed set, for $69.95? Or a wallet that can withstand being put through a full dishwasher cycle for $49.95? Let me tell you, if I had a nickel for every wallet I've wrecked by dropping it into the dishwasher... well, let's just say I'd need H.S.'s Balance Keeping Coin Bank to keep them all in.

Another peculiarity about Hammacher Schlemmer's catalog (and web site) is that practically every item's description begins with the definite article, "The". It's not just "Gyroscopic Golf Trainer", it's "The Gyroscopic Golf Trainer". It's not just "A Bucket Seat Bicycle", it's "The Bucket Seat Bicycle". This probably makes sense, since the use of the definite article implies uniqueness, as in "there is only one", and I daresay much of H.S.'s inventory is definitely unique. I mean, how many different Upside Down Tomato Gardens can there possibly be out there?

For their less unusual or unique offerings, H.S. tends to add words such as "best", "most" or "genuine" to their product descriptions, implying top of class or best of breed, such as "The Best Electric Knife Sharpener" or "The Slimmest Bluetooth Speakerphone". While I can't vouch for such claims, as doing so would mean comparing every possible brand and make of a given product in order to determine if H.S.'s is truly the best one, I will say that I've been very satisfied with "The VHS To DVD Converter", which I purchased from H.S. two Christmases ago (yes, I was actually able to afford two items from the H.S. catalog back when I used to have a job).

The VHS to DVD recorder that I received from H.S. turned out to be a Sony model RDR-VXD655. This unit is by no means exclusive to Hammacher Schlemmer and I can't say whether there are better VHS to DVD recorders available elsewhere, but it's interesting to note that nowhere in H.S.'s catalog or on their web site do they mention that the machine is a Sony, let alone its model number. Considering that Sony is a fairly well-respected electronics manufacturer, most retailers would trumpet the brand name as a feature. Not Hammacher Schlemmer. They seem content to let their reputation speak for itself. "If we're selling it, you can rest assured that it's a top quality item." I find that unusual, and refreshing.

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