Much of the success of Richard Thalheimer and The Sharper Image – the $750M, 200 store retail giant he founded in 1977 and led as CEO until 2006 – can be traced to Richard’s preternatural ability to decide what people wanted often before they knew it themselves. This intuitive knack to drive market trends combined an ability to spot products that could produce millions, combined with his lawyer’s precision, a healthy dose of entrepreneurial drive and an eternally playful outlook give Richard Thalheimer the well deserved title, “America’s Gadget Guy.”
As a teenager, looking through the toy department of his father’s Little Rock department store, through his Yale study of Psychology and Sociology and his first successful entrepreneurial venture (selling enough Britannica Encyclopedias in his first year in college to buy a new Porsche) it was clear Richard would find a way to put his deep understanding of people to work. It was also obvious any business venture he put his mind to would be unique, life enhancing, and on an impressive global scale. He was identified as a superstar early on in his career and is now a Living Legend and one of the great marketing visionaries of our time.
Richard’s business success story was launched by a $69 Realtime watch for runners, which he discovered at a 1977 Las Vegas trade show. Impressed to find a genuine chronograph that was waterproof and shock resistant, but still affordable, Richard was determined to acquire its exclusive US distribution.
This watch would become the first major consumer hit of his new company, The Sharper Image. With a stroke of marketing genius, Richard convinced his friend, legendary ultra-marathoner, Walt Stack to feature wearing his watch in a full page Runner’s World ad. The headline copy grabbed the reader’s attention, saying, “Finally, a chronograph that keeps up with amazing Walt Stack.”
The company name came from the “Sharper Image” promised by the copier and toner products Richard had marketed before the watch through his San Francisco company. The business was set up with a modest investment of $500 in copy paper.
As the watch orders poured in, Richard was already one step ahead; using his legendary ability to spot the products that would connect with the child in every adult man and woman for his first mail-order catalog. He described his mission in life as “Picking out fun toys for grown ups”.
The “toys” Richard sought out and marketed via The Sharper Image included the precursors to what we would now consider life essentials such as the first cordless telephone, the first telephone answering machine and the first handheld micro- computer. The company also early on focused on health and wellness and luxurious gifts for the “person who has everything.”
The catalog itself became a cultural icon and a darling of Hollywood’s A-listers, many of whom were featured in the catalog before they were known. Raving movie fans have spotted The Sharper Image Catalog in The Firm featuring Tom Cruise, When Harry Met Sally with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, Snow Dogs with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sex In the City. Many consumers remember The Sharper Image card used in A View to Kill with James Bond.
Richard’s Three Core Questions in the Product Selection Process:
“Is it new?”
“Is the price right?”
And, most vitally,
“Is it something I would want to own?”
Demonstrating both his sophisticated insight into human nature and businessman’s awareness of sales and profit margins, Richard defended the high prices of many of the products by quoting Frank Lloyd Wright in one of his many TV interviews, “Give me the luxuries of life and I’ll willingly do without the necessities.”
From the first 1979 catalog and three initial San Francisco employees, it was a short step to visioning and building an entire retail empire based on sophisticated “Toys for Adults.”
In 1987 the company successfully went public and was listed on NASDAQ under the symbol SHRP.
At its peak, The Sharper Image employed more than 4,000 employees and had almost 200 retail stores from San Francisco to London.
Richard Thalheimer and The Sharper Image team created many retail innovations that are still industry defining today. The company boasted San Francisco’s most advanced photo studio and developed an admired in-house design and copy style by the top ad agencies. The Sharper Image’s sophisticated approach to design was noted by Steve Jobs at Apple and emulated by other product design and retail innovators.
In its quest for every more unique and innovative products. The lab started with just a few engineers and designers, but by the mid-nineties there were two dozen employees responsible for 300 plus patents and 100 new products… all the way from the useful to the exotic. The company set up a top secret Sharper Image Design Lab in Novato, California. Chuck Taylor, one of the lab’s inventors described it as the place “where the inner child could come out in every man, with gizmos blinking and whirling. The only thing missing were white coats and propeller hats.”
Sharper Image Design developed for The Sharper Image catalog and stores including the famous fogless shower mirror, the “Sound Soother” white noise machine and a highly popular battery powered nostril hair trimmer.
The Sharper Image stores themselves (the first was opened at Jackson and Battery in San Francisco in 1981) ushered in a new era of experiential retail. The stores had a distinctive aspirational modern decor and had been devised so that shoppers could, as Richard put it, “touch, feel and play” with the merchandise. Any visit to a Sharper Image store was a uniquely immersive and entertaining experience. It also meant the stores became a destination within the mall that was (unusually) as popular and successful with men as it was with women.
Even when the internet was in its infancy, Richard quickly saw its potential to shorten both purchase time for consumers and costs for retailers. He envisaged a linking of phones and websites which he termed “electronic stores”.
In a period of just eight months, sharperimage.com online sales soared from $7 to $31 million in less than a year with Meredith Medland Sasseen, as Director, Internet Division and continued to grow into a major contributor to the bottom line.
Richard was fully aware of the power of media opportunities and his vital role as the face of the growing brand. He appeared in infomercials for the company’s best selling Ionic Breeze and Fresher Longer Miracle Food Storage Set with his daughter and was the face of The Sharper Image on every major day time and late night show from Good Morning America to Letterman.
So influential is his legacy you can even watch parts of his story in media such as Oprah, The Today Show, ABC’s 20/20, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with David Letterman, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Fox News, The Hustle, San Francisco Weekly, Eastbay Times, Business Insider, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Gate, Reuters, Inc., The New York Post, The LA Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, Bizjournal, Business Wire… and more!
Richard generously shared his business insights in the 2004 business book, “Creating Your Own Sharper Image.” The audio version features Richard’s voice. It is an inspirational and educational read or listen for aspiring entrepreneurs
By Richard staying closely involved in product selection through his famous “Burrito Brainstormings” with buyers and constantly looking ahead to changing trends, the company was able to ride out many of retail’s usual ups and downs through the 80s and 90s. In 1987 the company successfully went public and was listed on NASDAQ under the symbol SHRP. As late as 2000, the company had the top selling gift of the year in the Razor scooter which Richard himself had spotted at a Chinese toy fair.
Through time, even this legend of retail marketing could not stay immune for ever from the vagaries of economics. After twenty nine years at the helm Richard Thalheimer relinquished his role as CEO of The Sharper Image in 2006 and left the company for good in 2007. In 2008 at the height of the recession, and only a year after Richard left, The Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy and all 187 retail stores were closed.
Former employees say that the company was never the same after Richard’s charisma, good will to employees and daily doses of inspiration dimmed after his absence at executive meetings. After a variety of owners, the company continues in 2019 as an online consumer brand.
Even some 10 years later, the current company owners acknowledge the organization’s debt to Richard Thalheimer’s original concept saying, “SharperImage.com continues the tradition of fun, innovation and excitement that The Sharper Image originated in 1977.”
Today, Richard Thalheimer continues to connect with the inner child in all of us through his lovingly curated online business RichardSolo. He regularly flies his beloved Cessna aircraft, serves on the board of the San Francisco Ballet and engages family time with his wife, daughters and two dogs.
His legacy to business, retail and humanity is substantial and pervasive. In many ways he revolutionized the way we create, think, live and play and brought new excitement, quality and innovation to the consumer experience. He single-handedly created the upscale gadget market sector.
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