After years of selling high-tech gizmos to wealthy men with well-developed senses of whimsy, the Sharper Image is trying to find a new audience for its toys-women.
Forget the crossbows, the race-car models and the spare black and chrome decor that made the catalog retailer a niche success in the late 1980s.
A new line of Sharper Image Spa stores-softer, warmer and more relaxed than the company’s 81-store flagship chain-is designed to attract affluent professional women eager for technological pampering.
The first Sharper Image Spa opened this month in an upscale shopping center in Walnut Creek, Calif. If the store and three other prototypes set to open before the end of the year prove successful, the company hopes to open 100 more over the next five years.
After enjoying three years of intermittent growth following a pair of disastrous years in 1990 and 1991, Sharper Image is broadening its customer base.
“We built a $200 million business fundamentally on upscale professional males,” said Sidney Klevatt, Sharper Image’s senior vice president of marketing. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to say that’s a very small market.”
The company estimates that 70 percent of its sales come from men. Women generally peruse Sharper Image stores and catalogs only for Father’s Day or Christmas gifts, founder and CEO Richard Thalheimer said.
“We just kept finding in research and focus groups that women didn’t like the Sharper Image and its high-tech, cold imagery,” Thalheimer said. “And yet we know we had products they would want to buy if they were presented properly.”
It’s been a challenge, Thalheimer said, to refocus a firm devoted to men firmly in touch with adolescent fancy and their American Express gold cards into a relaxed spa aimed at women.
“It’s a risk, but we’ve had the advantage of testing the Spa catalog for the last nine months, and what works in the catalog generally works in retail,” Thalheimer said.
Thalheimer said the Spa catalog, with a circulation of 2 million, “almost broke even” since its launch last fall and the company expects $15 million in revenue from Spa products this year.
Though the lighter, airier Spa stores represent a move away from the company’s past, Klevatt promised customers would still find gadgets. This is, after all, the Sharper Image, a company that isn’t about to give up 18 years of marketing the new and quirky.
But instead of a $399.95 Panasonic business-card scanner or a $49.95 15-tool “pocket mechanic” featuring a “large spear blade,” the Spa will feature a $59.95 “ultra snore control,” the $89.95 “pulse action face massager,” the $49.95 “diet coach nutrition calculator,” as well as hair and skin-care products and fitness equipment.
Initially, Spa and Sharper Image stores will share about half their products. If Spa stores take off, Thalheimer said, 75 percent of their stock will be distinct within a year.
Price Waterhouse retail consultant Ira Kalish said the company’s distinctive image was as much obstacle as asset.
“The pitfall for them is their strong, male-oriented image,” Kalish said. “If they can establish that for women, the sky’s the limit, but the marketplace is crowded.”