The Future Was Then

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

For all of its flaws as a business, nobody can accuse the Sharper Image of over-promising. The name explains precisely what it can do for you. Spend money here, it says, and we will improve the way you are perceived. You want an actual enhancement? Try the Greater Substance store, if one opens up. Until then, drop some money in this gleaming gadgetorium and bask in the regard of your awestruck friends.

Until last week, this seemed like a surprisingly durable premise. Then the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced it would close 90 of its roughly 180 stores "as soon as possible." Two days ago, it added to the air of doom by announcing that its shares, which were recently trading for a mere 45 cents, would be delisted from the Nasdaq.

But where will I kill time while my wife shops, you hear a few million husbands murmuring to themselves. Fair question. The company is likely to remain alive in some kind of dramatically altered shape, analysts say. (A few messages left at the company's headquarters in San Francisco were not returned.) But you don't need to stick the Grill/Fork Thermometer -- which "measures the internal temperature of chicken, beef, pork and fish" -- into the Sharper Image to grasp the obvious: The place, as we've known it, is done.

What are we losing? A world of luminescent safety leashes, hideaway gyms, telescoping ladders -- an entire chain dedicated to the idea of streamlining your life by .002 percent. The Sharper Image is a place that sells a lighted nose-hair trimmer, which is to say it targets men who already own a regular nose hair trimmer in the hopes they'll think it's worth $40 to get a better look up their nostrils. Bought a fine bottle of wine? Why throw it in a bucket of ice when for $99.95 you can treat yourself to a "professional wine chiller" with 33 built-in settings, and chill that Chablis to its optimum temperature.

This was a Sharper Image forte: taking the guesswork out of realms in which you never knew you were guessing. The ideal product is a contraption that stands this close to the realm of the purely inane. Which is to say that although the product mix now includes hair dryers and "miracle food storage" containers, it's basically a store for men. Especially men in desperate need of a gift, especially a gift for a man -- arguably the most desperate creature in all of giftdom. The store is filled with objects that say, "I had no idea what to get you, but I spent some real money."

Here's a NeatReceipts Scanalizer 3.0. Enjoy.

Of course, if you don't have your heart set on a Scanalizer, odds are good you won't actually use it. For countless Sharper Image products, there is the sad and inevitable migration that starts in the office, moves to a closet, then to the attic and finally, a year or two later, to the front lawn for a yard sale, where the $50 desktop power shredder is priced to move at $15. It waits next to an old adding machine and a red plaid thermos until a neighbor picks it up from a table ("Does this thing work?") and the journey starts all over again, at a different address, with a fresh set of batteries.

Given that the product mix hasn't changed much since the store debuted in 1977, why is the Sharper Image hurting now? Certainly, this is a lousy time to be in the luxury gizmo business. As market researcher Jack Plunkett put it in a phone interview: "If you're suffering economically, how important is it to run out and buy a $3,000 vibrating chair?"

The company also made a bunch of strategic missteps. It relied too heavily on blockbuster products, like the Razor scooter. It sold a ton of Ionic Breeze air purifiers, which Consumer Reports panned so viciously in 2002 that a class action lawsuit was filed against Sharper Image for refunds. (A judge's rejection of a settlement to that lawsuit -- she didn't like the $19 store coupon proposed for each Ionic owner -- seemed to precipitate the Chapter 11 filing.)

It doesn't help that so much of the stuff at Sharper Image is now sold all over the place, in Best Buys, through hundreds of online stores. Maybe there was a time when customers would spend $1,000 for a Panasonic camcorder that can be acquired through B&H Photo for $785. (Yes, that's a real, present-day example.) But not anymore.

The Sharper Image also has a well-funded rival in Brookstone, which was acquired three years ago by an Asian company that specializes in high-end massage chairs. Exactly how Brookstone is faring isn't clear, because Osim, its new owner, is privately held. But those massage chairs are a high-margin item.

"So in addition to other problems, the Sharper Image's biggest competitor is attacking one of their core categories," says Scott Tilghman of Soleil Securities-Hudson Square Research. "That hurt."

But even if the Sharper Image had sidestepped all of these bear traps, it was headed for trouble. Once, a visit to the store seemed like a trip to the future's very own showroom, or a museum exhibit called "What Is Next." Brushed aluminum was the surface of choice, back when only very cool stuff had a brushed aluminum surface. Staffers dressed in head-to-toe black and looked like they could serve drinks on the space station.

Well, they looked like that in 1984. Today, they could be baristas.

It's not just that the idea of the future as curated by the Sharper Image now seems hopelessly dated. (Although ask any 22-year-old about the store and get ready for an eye roll.) It's that the number of curators of the future has exploded. If you want to stoke your gadget lust, you head to Gizmodo or Engadget, two of roughly 74 million gadget blogs. Or you head to the Apple Store, or Circuit City.

Even for the chain that brought us the Equalizer Foot Pro Massager, it's hard to keep your image sharp in that much company.

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