Richard Thalheimer smiled, snapped his fingers and the light went on courtesy of one of the gadgets to be found thumbing through The Sharper Image mail order catalog that’s made him rich.
When Thalheimer. 33, calls himself a marketing genius, it’s hard to argue.
The switch is one of 170 items available through Thalheimer’s catalog business, started in 1977 with first-year sales of $250,000. Sales hit $35 million this year.
“It’s fun, but it’s useful,” Thalheimer said about the sound-activated light switch selling for $34 as a burglar-stopper.
And if that doesn’t stop them, try a suit of Spanish armor for $2,450, or another new item a lightweight bullet-proof vest that Thalheimer says will stop a .45-caliber bullet at point-blank range.
Most of Thalheimer’s items, however, are functional and many are electronic like a runner’s watch that gives you an instant pulse readout.
You can also buy a pillow that looks like a BMW automobile, a cordless telephone or an executive chair modeled after a seat found in imported sports cars.
With an average sale of $160, Thalheimer targeted a specific market – businessmen between the ages of 25 and 50 with “upscale incomes” between $25,000 and $40,000.
This recession-proof slice of the market partly accounts for the vitality of The Sharper Image, he says. Sales more than doubled in the past year, while Thalheimer said other mail order businesses grew 15 percent.
Thalheimer was a Hasting Law School graduate who decided he didn’t want to spend 30 years as a lawyer before heading a successful business.
“I wanted to have a successful business in five years,” he said.
After peddling typewriter ribbons door-to-door in San Francisco’s financial district. Thalheimer hit on the idea that blossomed into The Sharper Image. He placed a $200 ad for a $29 stopwatch in a runner’s magazine, an investment that returned a $500 profit. This year’s advertising budget was $6 million.
Thalheimer keeps the 106 employee operation simple, using his tastes as a guide, tracking down products, writing the ads and even answering the phones.