Hi-Tech Toys for Overgrown Kids

As a youngster, Richard Thalheimer adored all things mechanical – Erector sets, model cars and airplanes, wind-up clocks and such. “I loved taking things apart, but I could rarely put them back together,” he admits with a laugh.

Today, at the ripe old age of 35, Thalheimer still is playing with gadgets and making it pay off royally, as the proprietor of The Sharper Image, a much-imitated, San Francisco-based mail order and retail business specializing in “grown-ups toys.”

Thalheimer’s Marin County, California, home is his prime testing lab for new products, and thus a monument to the latest and greatest in consumer electronics and high technology gadgets: $30 Audiolite switches turn on room and closet lamps by voice command. The latest personal stereos, cordless phones, air-cleaning devices, and elegant, pewter-cast model cars litter his shelves. An RB5X Robot ($2,400, complete with arm) fetches Thalheimer’s morning paper. Out one window pokes a 400mm Tasco astronomical telescope telephoto lens ($399) for sighting and photographing “rural and urban wildlife” up to 1/2-mile away.

In his large, but crowded exercise room, Thalheimer works out the kinks on a $435 Nautilus Back Machine and tightens his tummy muscles with a $485 Nautilus Abdominal Machine – the first products Nautilus founder Arthur Jones has designed for home use and now permits the Sharper Image catalog to market exclusively. Thalheimer runs six-minute miles indoors on a $3,000 Amerec Treadmill, “the most elegant running machine in the world,” he coos.

And there’s more, so much more to play with here. In order to keep broadening his gadget perspective and catalog reach, Thalheimer is “continually taking up new-hobbies, somewhat to the chagrin of Mrs. Thalheimer,” he relates with mock weariness.

His new-found fascination with water sports is reflected in the spring 1984 Sharper Image catalog with a state-of-the-art Tekna Scuba Mask and Snorkel ($65) featuring ultra-wide-angle lenses and translucent blue polycarbonate frame and a $2,400 Surf-Jet craft that combines the thrills of surfing, water skiing and speed boating. The Summer ’84 catalog will tantalize readers with a two-person, $4,000 submarine.

So who buys this stuff from Sharper Image – this year to the tune of $100 million dollars?

“Our archetypal customer is an upwardly mobile professional or managerial type, average age 37, with a fairly high discretionary income,” Thalheimer explains. “Seventy percent are male. We know he’s security
conscious, likes to travel and to be in on the latest thing. I’ve also got a theory that professional people tend to trade houses and cars less than they did five or 10 years ago. Now they get their kicks buying a $200-$300 gadget every month or so.”

“But of course, this core customer is only part of the Sharper Image market. Some product buyers are 22 years old; people who’ve just started their first job out of college. We have 80-year-old customers, people who love to read catalogs all day long. When you’re mailing out seven million copies each of eight catalogs a year, and advertising on national television, as we now do, you’re going to reach a broad audience. And we do have specialty books: a Sharper Image catalog for professional women; a Gemstones catalog featuring excellent values in precious stones from Brazil, Israel and Bangkok; catalogs specializing in phones and watches; and now a Health and Fitness Catalog.”

The Sharper Image was born in Thalheimer’s imagination in 1978 when this former office-supply salesman and struggling lawyer placed an advertisement in Runner’s World Magazine to market a small, $29.95 electronic stopwatch. The profits made from that well-targeted pitch financed a more extensive run of ads for the $69.95 RealTime chronograph, the first inexpensive knockoff of a $300 Seiko model.

“I sold a thousand watches a month, made $24,000 profit a month for an entire year, and that money put the whole company into business,” details Thalheimer. “Actually, you could say the Sharper Image catalog was born from fear. I got so nervous, because my whole business was based on one product, that I felt I had to expand. I thought to myself, ‘I can’t afford to be a failure again. My psyche won’t allow it.'”

Thalheimer personally writes or supervises all his ad copy, stressing a snappy and entertaining writing style. “As a consumer, and a lawyer, I always hated commercials that made impossible claims,” says Thalheimer, who calls his print and television adverts “infomercials.” The idea here is to “tell the customer how an item will make his life better” be it a $29 “Buck Buster” (counterfeit bill detector); a $59 Rainmatic spigot attachment (“let a microchip water your lawn automatically”); or a $129 Electric Lava Stone Barbeque (“In only five minutes, its powerful magnesium-insulated electric heating element sets the natural lava stones sizzling”).

Along with entertainment and lifestyle improvement, The Sharper Image also sells a pretty big helping of sex appeal with its gadgets. The catalog, prose, while scrupulously honest, sometimes suggests a scene out of a pulp novel. “We give things an image of masculine potency, even if they’re harmless,” Thalheimer allows. “Sex has always been an appealing way to reach people.”

Trim, pretty girls with “let’s get physical” looks in their eyes pose on the Nautilus machinery in the latest Sharper Image books.

A $350 brushed-aluminum briefcase seems like a real smart buy in this Image-making pitch: “When you walk into a business meeting with this extraordinary attache, you may notice a hush fall of the room…”

Described as “Europe’s newest thrill machine” is a $119 Jet-Star Flyer. “Grab the hard rubber motorcycle grips, jump aboard and you’re off on the ride of your life.” It’s nothing more than a pogo stick for grown-ups.

No macho man can be without a Ka-Bar USMC Knife ($39). After all, “a knife that helped win Iwo Jima is tough enough for any job you need.”

And for the man or woman who has almost everything, $3,995 is not too much to pay for the Wolff System Sunbed tanning machine. “A billionaire’s secret for success…Your skin glows with a deep rich tan. You feel fit and healthy, confident of your appearance. In your clothes, you look great. Out of clothes, you look even better.”

Impulse buyers can purchase with confidence from the Sharper Image catalog. Thalheimer guarantees no-questions-asked refunds, should an item prove less than satisfactory “even a couple of years later”. (A random sampling of Sharper Image customers seem to bear out this claim.) He sells for the list price, or close to it, but matches advertised prices for an item “spotted by the customer within 30 days of purchase from us.”

It’s no wonder that many manufacturers beg Thalheimer to introduce their latest products in the Sharper Image’s glossy color pages, and grant him as much as a year’s “exclusive” on items he markets successfully.

“I have what most people think is the ideal life,” Thalheimer concludes. “I get to try all of my products, then show them. When I was a kid in school, my favorite activity was show and tell. It still is.”

Hi-Tech Toys for Overgrown Kids

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