For the second day in a row, Richard Thalheimer is up before dawn in a strange town. The world’s greatest mail-order microchip, 35, bounds out of room 1428 at the Eden Roc hotel, a body electric: He swims 20 laps in the hotel pool, dons a pressed shirt and tie and sells the wonders of Chess Master over a ham-and-cheese omelet in the coffee shop of the Miami Beach hotel. All by 7:45.
Forget Willy Loman. This former door-to-door salesman has found fulfillment and $6,000 every 60 seconds peddling the wares in his Sharper Image catalog: knives to skin alligators, machines to harness gravity, stones to light flames in lovers’ hearts.
He sells a meter to test the salt level in food (“Protect yourself against killer salt”), a $2,650 reproduction of a Spanish suit of armor (“The 15th Century three-piece suit”), a wood phone “grown in a tropical rainforest and signed by Oleg Cassini” ($159), instant alcohol breath-testers ($54), blood pressure takers ($175), bulletproof raincoats ($400), 10-call-a-minute Demon Dialers ($199) and the Grand Master Chessboard ($495).
The kings and pawns move, Thalheimer says, flashing blue eyes and a natural smile, his hands fluttering like birds over the quarterly catalog shipped to 50 million Americans a year.
“This is a great product,” he said excitedly. “It counters your move with wandering magnets under the board. If you want to play with it, and you’re not sure what your next move is, you press a button, and it wiggles the piece that would be your best move. If you still haven’t figured it out, you press a clue button, and it moves the damn piece for you.”
Who is this California entrepreneur who foresaw that America’s managers and professionals longed for a home Geiger counter to detect nuclear power plant leaks, or a James Bondian aluminum crossbow that fires 45-mile-an-hour bolts?
At the beginning (1892) was the Sears catalog, then the electronic revolution, and now comes Thalheimer, once a lawyer and door-to-door salesman, once Cosmopolitan’s bachelor of the month, now the sole owner of the specialty catalog whose average order – $150 – is triple the closest competitor.
“I know what makes people tick,” Thalheimer said. “The lucky thing is I have a feel for what’s coming next.”
None of Thalheimer’s competitors needs to be told the secrets of his success: Sharper Image taps Americans’ fascination with electronic wizardry, reaches into the pockets of two-income households that don’t have much time to shop in stores and is the first luxury mail-order catalog for professional men 30 to 50.
“People tend to trade houses and cars less than they did 5 or 10 years ago,” Thalheimer said. “They surreptitiously pick up the telephone during working hours and pull out a credit card and say, ‘Send me a survival knife,’ or ‘Send me the ultimate rowing machine.’ ”
Every 60 seconds in a busy morning in Thalheimer’s San Francisco offices about a dozen customers from across the United States call toll-free to place an order to 40 salespeople.
Muhammed Ali calls. So do Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Burt Reynolds, and Barry Goldwater. Three orders came in last week for RB5X, a $1,750 robot who walks, talks, vacuums ($595 for the vacuum cleaner) and says, “Whoops. Excuse me,” when it bumps into an obstacle.
“It’s an incredible sight to watch about half a million dollars’ worth of orders come in on a good day,” Thalheimer said. “Macy’s does that, the big department stores. But consider this is a five-year-old business dreamed up in someone’s imagination with no capital and no debt. It restores your faith in American entrepreneurship. You can still make a million.”
The idea struck in 1977, when the peddler of Thalheimer Paper Systems, “supporting my law practice by selling office products door to door,” was jogging in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The idea: a runner’s watch. He bought 25 from a small manufacturer, took out a small ad in Runner’s World and got 100 orders. The $200 profit prompted a second ad for a costlier wrist chronometer. The result: 1,000 orders and a $20,000 profit in three weeks.
The Ads – which he still buys in publications such as science magazines and the Wall Street Journal – spawned the idea for a catalog.
“Thalheimer Paper Systems really was a very unglamorous name if I’m going to be like Xerox,” he said. “I thought, ‘I want a sharper image.”
The Sharper Image Image sends Thalheimer ceaselessly scouting for something new. Newsweek’s international edition, one of 45 magazines he reads, sent him scurrying for calculator-size, flat-screen TVs. The domestic edition doesn’t run the New Products and Processes page.
He travels the nation for trade and gift shows and conventions. He listens politely to would-be inventors, “Gee, do I have an idea for your catalog. Uncle Pepy’s Clam Opener,” knowing another Audiolite is just around the corner. The Audiolite sets all the lights in your house blinking at the sound of a burglar. Sharper Image sells up to 50,000 a month. “When the inventor first brought it in I didn’t think much of it. It was a dull, little black box. But I took it home and tried it, and I thought, “this is a miracle product,” he said.
Every Tuesday afternoon, he huddles with his six buyers in his San Francisco office and narrows 50 to 70 new products down to five to seven for market research.
Above all, he loves to write copy for the catalog “(Space age crossbow fits in your hand”) and to test the products himself. “At 25 feet,” the catalog says, “our bolts went through the Yellow Pages to page 339.”
“I have what most people think is the ideal life,” Thalheimer said. “I get to try all my products, then show them. When I was a kid in school, my favorite day in school was show and tell. In fact, that’s what I still do – show-and-tell presentations.”