Does SkyMall need a makeover?

May 15, 2014

SkyMall, the iconic inflight magazine known for its garden gnomes, shiatsu leg massagers, upholstered pet stairs and other eclectic items, is apparently losing money. A recent Los Angeles Times article explored whether the catalog "must modernize or join the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs on the scrap heap of retail history."

Details were a bit sketchy as to how much SkyMall was struggling. Xhibit Corp., a publicly-held Arizona digital marketing firm, acquired the catalog last year. Regulatory filings show SkyMall lost $3.2 million in May through September of 2013, the only figures available.

Moves last year by the Federal Aviation Administration to ease restrictions on the use of portable electronic devices (tablets, cell phones, etc.) as well as expanding internet access on planes are said to be taking away SkyMall’s "captive" audience. The Times article also questioned whether SkyMall’s quirky mix was still relevant.

The current front page of features an summer/outdoors theme with items including Mermaid Swim Fins, Floating Table-Tennis Set and motorized Singing Gondola, along with some staples such as a Floating Lounge Chair.

Founded in 1999, SkyMall claims to be seen by approximately 88 percent of all domestic air passengers, reaching more than 650 million travelers annually.

SkyMall and Xhibit CEO Kevin Weiss agreed that, "Like everything else, we have to evolve." But he also told the Times the new owners won’t deviate from the catalog’s mantra of selling "the coolest stuff on the planet."

Indeed, much of the article and several recent ones around the merger celebrated those quirky items and explored how SkyMall’s internal team scours toy conventions, electronics expos and inventors’ conferences to discover the next hits. SkyMall’s director of marketing, Jinine Martin, told ABC News that many products, citing Keurig coffee systems and SodaStream soda-makers, made their debut on SkyMall before going mainstream.

Speaking last fall shortly after the merger with the ExpertFlyer blog, Mr. Weiss also counted greater Wi-Fi access on airlines as an advantage. More than 80 percent of SkyMall’s sales already come from its website. An upgraded website with video, games and apps for smart phones arrived last September and more online investments are planned. Mr. Weiss said, "With the Wi-Fi on the plane, we’re just a click away."

What are the overall strengths and weaknesses of the SkyMall catalog? Will increased WiFi access and mobile-device use on planes help or hurt SkyMall?

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12 Comments on "Does SkyMall need a makeover?"

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Dick Seesel

SkyMall can do a better job leveraging the rapid growth of in-flight WiFi. It could partner with providers like Gogo or the airlines to become one of the free sites that passengers are entitled to access. It could also use QR codes and other mobile technology more effectively to make the shopping process easier.

As to the random assortment in SkyMall…I’ll leave that to another panelist!

Bob Phibbs

Having been quoted originally for this article, I think the point I made is still valid. How many elevated pet water bowls are we really looking for while on a plane?

The catalogue and offerings look like a time travel backwards. There’s a reason Sharper Image and Brookstone have had to become highly promotional.

Wi-Fi won’t change that.

Ryan Mathews

With all due respect to garden gnomes … and, I’m sincere about that … “cool” is in the eye of the beholder and SkyMall jumped the “cool” shark almost from its inception.

Today’s flyers aren’t the cash flush idle rich, airborne heirs to the Great Gatsby just pining away for the chance to divest themselves of excess lucre via some print incarnation of the love child of an unholy dalliance between Spencer’s Gifts and Sharper Image.

No! They are the beat down, downsized and down hearted casualties of modern commerce, battling for survival in flying kindergarten size seats — more Road Warrior than Road to Eldorado. Today’s Platinum Flyer is yesterday’s Greyhound bus customer and they are mad as hell and not going to shop anymore!

Ask yourself: Would Mad Max stop long enough to purchase a Floating Table Tennis set?

I think not.

The problem, dear SkyMall lies not in your WiFi, but in your very soul.

Steve Montgomery

SkyMall was one of three reading choices on a plane – the emergency brochure (if you were lucky enough to be in the exit row), the airline’s magazine and SkyMall. As such it did get a lot of flyers looking at it, especially during the 10 minutes after takeoff and the 20 minutes prior to landing when you couldn’t use “small electronics.” That is no longer the case and that means fewer people will browse through it. Fewer eyes looking at it means fewer sales and that means fewer advertisers in it.

Will Wi-Fi make a big difference? Probably not. Why? With Wi-Fi availability comes many alternatives. For it to work for SkyMall, it has to find a way to get flyers to open its cover. Plus, if I am going to pay for connectivity, I am going to use it for something other than finding more information on items in their catalog.

Carole Meagher
3 years 8 days ago

My favorite airplane pastime is the “SkyMall Catalog Game!”

Each player chooses the most ridiculous item in the catalog that no real person would actually buy. Usually everyone chooses a top 3, but sometimes we have to go to 5. The winner is chosen by acclamation.

I mean… really… does anyone actually buy a 6-foot resin Moai statue?

Eliott Olson
Eliott Olson
3 years 8 days ago

SkyMall is read for entertainment. The products need to be showcased in an entertaining and descriptive way.

Ed Dennis
Ed Dennis
3 years 8 days ago

Back in the day when the pocket book was the only form of in-flight entertainment, people actually looked at the magazine, but I never knew anyone who ordered anything from them. I guess someone did, but with the advent of the age of the smartphone, Kindle, iPad, laptop, etc. the value of SkyMall has dwindled to near zero. Another outdated venture falling from grace with the consumer in the digital age. Good riddance!

Cathy Hotka

Where will we buy 4′ tall resin statues of the Yeti if SkyMall goes away?

As long as Internet on mainstream airlines is as slow and expensive as it is now, the catalog will still have some relevance, regardless of how random the merchandise is. Don’t go in for the long-term, though.

BTW, the responses to the original piece are easily the most entertaining RetailWire feature ever.

Brian Numainville

Relevance is the major weakness. With the strange assortment of items and antiquated delivery system (especially now that you can leave your approved electronic devices on and aren’t looking at the magazine or the catalog to fill a few minutes) a catalog like this now just takes up room in the pocket.

Tony Orlando

I pine after the $17,000.00 fitness wheel, which will give me fabulous abs in under 5 minutes a day. They must be making a profit somewhere, and more power to them, but there isn’t anything in there that I need. They should partner with Amazon, and maybe boost their sales a bit.

Anne Bieler
Anne Bieler
3 years 8 days ago

SkyMall used to be fun to browse and consider purchase of neat gadgets and accessories not easily found elsewhere. As a captive audience, it meant lots of eyes on the pages. Now, widely expanded assortment of much less relevant, useful or interesting items on SkyMall are competing for fliers’ attention with far more entertaining and personalized choices on mobile devices.

An opportunity to reposition as a new kind of digital catalog, easily searched for interest?

Sylvain Perrier
Sylvain Perrier
3 years 3 days ago

It’s unfortunate but I believe that SkyMall has become a casualty from three fatal blows. The first being its product mix; how many different Harry Potter wands should you carry? The quirkier the mix, less confidence consumers will have in your brand and its relationship to your ability to satisfy their needs when money is tight.

The second as mentioned by others, availability of wi-fi has now made it that much easier to price compare against at the moment when SkyMall is top of mind.

The third, the .com experience needs to be the lead point of entry and promoted from the flight. I’ll give them credit in using the Google Play experience on the .com using a continuous scroll that allows consumers to explore and see all the items for sale.


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