Air Travel Gets A Little Less Entertaining


SkyMall, surely the most interesting thing to read in your seat-back pocket, looks like it’s folding. Roberto Ferdman sums up the news:

SkyMall made its business over the past 25 years by entertaining commercial airline passengers and, occasionally, persuading them to purchase whimsical, often expensive products, including a $1,000 serenity cat pod, a $2,250 garden yeti statue and a $16,000 personal sauna system. But the company has suffered at the hands of recent changes to airline policy, which have given passengers alternative means of entertainment and flooded them with different avenues for online purchasing. The permitted use of smartphones on commercial flights has usurped the magazine’s place as the de facto way to pass the time while cruising at 30-some-odd thousand feet in the air. And the growing number of airlines providing in-flight Internet service has not only further eaten into the catalogue’s bread and butter but also paved the way for more competition in the form of online retailers.

A nostalgic Emily Dreyfuss reflects on the end of an in-flight era:

SkyMall was a tradition. An absurd, capitalistic embodiment of everything that was shallow and wrong with our lives, and yet it also brought us comfort. No matter if the plane was delayed, or we were stuck alone on a layover, missing whichever parent we were leaving, missing the friends and the life we were leaving behind each time we went between homes, it was there to make us laugh. To let us roll our eyes. To surprise us with a new level of novelty and frivolity.

SkyMall, that stupid wonderful completely American wonder that, with its insistence that you take your own free copy, announced it was your right as a human in the ‘90s to never not be shopping. Never not be consuming.

Joe Pinsker thinks through the value SkyMall has provided for businesses:

It’s essentially a classified section, with pictures. Manufacturers, retailers, and lone-wolf inventors could pay for space in the catalog—with a full page reportedly costing $129,000 per issue—and then give a small cut of any sales to SkyMall. While it lasted, this was a pretty sweet deal: Sellers, some of them amateur inventors, saw big leaps in sales after their products were exposed to nearly 700 million flyers. And SkyMall got access to a well-off demographic: Their average customer was a college grad earning more than $75,000 a year.

Either way, the catalog’s demise makes sense to McArdle, who’d much rather browse her iPad than flip through eclectic junk:

Skymall was something that frequent flyers all over this great land had in common, like getting groped by the TSA. [But aficionados] of the catalog shouldn’t fret too much; you can still buy the Zombie of Montclaire Moors from Amazon.

But, paradoxically, Danielle Kurtzleben points out that other dead-tree catalogs are actually seeing a mini-renaissance:

In 2013, retailers sent out 11.9 billion catalogs in the US, the first uptick since 2007, but also down from nearly 20 billion sent out in 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal. And that’s in part because retailers have increasingly figured out how to use catalogs to their advantage.

For an example of this, look no further than one resurrected catalog: JC Penney. That retailer announced just this week that it’s bringing its catalog back from the dead. Yes, catalogs take money to print and distribute, but they also bring customers in. In a recent report, retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon found that eliminating catalogs in an effort to cut costs can backfire for a retailer, because it engages customers so much less. Meanwhile, customers engaging with a retailer on multiple platforms (online, with catalogs, in stores) also spent a lot more. This is part of what retailers call an “omnichannel” strategy — using several mediums simultaneously to attract customers. And it makes intuitive sense: encourage customers to find your goods in a variety of ways and places, and they’ll both remember you and keep coming back.

In the end, Barro feels a little guilty:

I’m sorry to report that even I have been a free rider. Like a Times reader who clears his cookies daily to avoid the paywall, I have enjoyed the SkyMall catalog hundreds of times without ordering so much as a single inflatable body pillow.

(Image: A collection of SkyMall products)