What yuppies want, yuppies get and many of them get it from Richard Thalheimer. His highly successful, executive toy-filled catalog, The Sharper Image, has a circulation of more than 50 million. In the late 70s, lawyer Thalheimer made his seed money selling watches to joggers. Today he heads a San Francisco based company that this year will take in more than $100 million of the upwardly mobiles’ disposable income. His eight stores include one in downtown Los Angeles and another, just opened, in La Jolla.
Q: If you ‘re a cardinal in the yuppie hierarchy, who is the Pope. Are you proud of being a yuppie?
A: We’d have to define yuppie – and there are several criteria – but if you did it just on money, I think that Steven Jobs (co-founder and former chairman of Apple Computer) would have to win hands down. Perhaps you’d also put George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in that category. But that’s not to say that those people are necessarily enjoying the accouterments. Steven Jobs has hardly furnished his home, for goodness’ sake.
I guess I am perhaps the ultimate yuppie. I used to think that was a disparaging thing, but it’s become sort of respectable.
Q: Do you mind paying taxes?
A: No, but I think it’s a shame that the money is not used intelligently. I’m not referring to philosophical choices like defense or social services. I mean that once we make a decision to spend money in an area, we don’t necessarily get our money’s worth.
Q: What do you do with junk mail?
A: Throw out about 90% without reading it. Most advertising in this country is an insult to the consumer.
Q: Do Americans generally get what they pay for?
A: In many areas, yes. It’s amazing how many items such as TVs, washers, VCRs, even cars, are bid down to a competitive level. But there are other areas where you get very little for your money. Contracting, for instance. Try to put an addition on your home, and the plumber wants $52 an hour. Who in your company makes $52 an hour?
Q: Ever have any shopping nightmares?
A: Every Christmas, because I have a lot of trouble buying things for people. Most retail stores don’t offer exciting things. But I hate to give presents from The Sharper Image because it looks like I didn’t work at it hard enough.
Q: What do you want for Christmas?
A: I wouldn’t mind a castle in France.
Q: Who is your favorite new entrepreneur?
A: I’ve never met her, but probably Debbi Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies. She started something, it’s grown rapidly, and she’s done a tremendous job. And at the same time, she manages to raise a family. I don’t know how she does it.
Q: You once issued a catalog for women. What did you learn about them from the experience?
A: That one shouldn’t generalize about men and women. I’d gotten so heady with the success that I thought I could figure out anything. I don’t know anything about what women want. But if one still wants to generalize, then most men and some women want to buy the newest things, but most women would rather buy clothes.
Q: Which of The Sharper Image items are indispensable to you? In other words, how much does the catalog reflect the man?
A: Well, I’m a fitness freak, so I have the $4,000 Universal Home Gym. It’s a high-end luxury product that most people can’t afford or don’t have room for. I also have the Nautilus home machines and the Acu Massage Table, a portable bed that gives you a heavy back massage through built-in rollers.
Because I’m a business person, I have a cellular telephone in my car. I have Insta-Dial, which is a calculator-size product that automatically dials your numbers and holds 85 of them. I have had a duck phone at times. I also have the suit of armor. I’ve wanted one all my life, so there’s one in the office and one at home.
The Sharper Image Catalog is really just a reflection of a lifestyle that is somewhat material goods, travel and leisure-time activities. Certainly, there are other things in life besides those, but in that realm the catalog…reflects my life. Exactly.
Q: What scares you?
A: One simple thing: It scares me that we have created a technology that, because we are imperfect still, is hurting us in random ways of which we are not aware. At one point in the past, there was so little technology that it was hard to get hurt. At some point in the future, we will be so technologically advanced that we will know the consequences of our actions. Right now we’re living in the Middle Ages. Nuclear power plants are a perfect example. We’re living with something chancy. So, I just wonder if I will end up in that 5% or 10% who will suffer from the byproducts of these new things we’ve created.