Catalogs: Disposable but Indispensable

Drinking my coffee on a recent morning, I found myself indulging in another, equally addictive habit of mine: browsing through catalogs.

I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything. I might be a catalog retailer’s worst nightmare. I love to endlessly pore over them, but rarely purchase from them. For me, catalogs aren’t a means to an end – they’re an end in themselves.

In fact, I’ve come to loosely define this particular pastime of mine as catalog profiling. Distinct from actual shopping, this activity is aimed instead at working up a rough composite of the catalog’s typical shopper, using the featured retail items as clues. It’s an ideal form of entertainment for wannabe criminal profilers, or just people too broke to actually buy anything. If you find the right catalog, it can be endlessly fun.

I flipped open the catalog and instantly I was richly rewarded for my effort. There it was: a full description and photo of an item called the “evaporative cooling hat”.

This item, according to its description, “uses evaporation to keep your head up to 30° F cooler than outside air temperature.” Apparently, the hat cools the environs of the head by “by first running it under cool water and shaking off the excess.” A similar clothing accessory – the “insect repellant hat” features “an odorless EPA-registered repellent permethrin” bonded into the hat’s material. As an image of the wearer of these hats began to form in my mind, I smiled with slightly deranged zeal – this was going to be thoroughly enjoyable.

I don’t think I’m alone in this particular fascination; people probably do this without even realizing it. Done properly, perusing a catalog is more than just a listing of items available for purchase — it’s a fascinating sociological study. We get a glimpse into a particular demographic, their needs, desires, and conveniences of choice. It’s practically its own highly succinct form of literature. I’ll take a good catalog over a bad magazine any day.

In fact, I think I’ve probably been catalog profiling for most of my adult life. I remember in my younger years being intrigued with what I considered the great riddle of the Fredrick’s of Hollywood catalog. I used to puzzle over that catalog, asking myself one question over and over: Who is this shopper who needs size 13 stilettos, wigs, and fake breasts? OK, admittedly my skills weren’t so finely honed back then.

These days, my browsing preference tends toward the high-end electronic gadget and nifty home innovation-type catalogs. My love for these catalogs is all the more poignant because I fear that they (and the disposable-income shopper they represent) may become as extinct as pterodactyls in the current US economy.

Case in point: I once rifled devotedly through The Sharper Image catalog, but this company apparently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2008, blaming “low sales aggravated by a decline in consumer spending.” While The Sharper Image still maintains an online catalog, they have reportedly closed their retail stores.

My current favorite is easily the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog (maker of the evaporative cooling and mosquito repelling hats, and seemingly still a viable business). A veritable feast of high-end electronics, mind-bogglingly geeky innovations, and wholly unnecessary conveniences, this catalog is a profiler’s heaven.

Originally established as a Manhattan hardware store in 1848, the company shifted its focus after World War II to luxury goods, according to a company history published on Funding Universe. At this time, the company began offering “unique, sometimes one-of-a-kind articles targeted to upscale consumers.” In the ‘70s and ‘80s, according to this history, “the company’s reputation for carrying outlandish, extravagant and expensive products continued to grow,” and was bolstered by such items as personal submarines and home ski slopes.

In the 2000s, catalog sales reportedly suffered from competition, and the company closed its Chicago store and focused more on retail sales. It seems that Hammacher Schlemmer is surviving the economic crisis surprisingly well, and I hope it continues to do so. It provides me, a decidedly not rich person, with entertaining speculation about the bottomless ennui that must drive consumers of this catalog.

In fact, I am so delighted by the overwhelming abundance of absurdity in this catalog that I decided to chart out a full day in the life of a member of its core demographic. Although this is obviously a (slight) exaggeration, the products are all real. Here’s what I came up with:

7AM – Awaken from a restful night aided by my personal Between the Sheets Bed fan, which provides my own personal climate by directing air through a flat conduit that tucks into my bed sheets. I feel wonderful, in part because I fell asleep easily using the Mind Relaxer, which consists of two pairs of LED-embedded glasses, which have surrounded my orbital lobes with gentle, pleasing biorhythms. As I open my eyes, I see the time and current temperature projected onto my ceiling like an angel. This service is provided by my Projection Alarm Clock and Weather Monitor.

8AM – I prepare a cup of coffee in my Acid Reducing Flavor Enhancing Coffee Hourglass. I seamlessly retrieve two pieces of impeccably browned toast using my Trapdoor Toaster, which automatically releases custom toast through an under-mounted trapdoor. The dog begins to bark, causing a brief moment of vexing unpleasantness, but luckily, my Indoor Dog Barking Deterrent emits a harmless and humane ultrasonic tone which startles the animal into mute terror. The Talking Pet Bowl proceeds to play a soothing message recorded in my voice, relaxing the dog and allowing me to enjoy my first after-coffee drink of the day using my authentic French Absinthe Fountain, which dispenses my favorite psychoactive spirit from an elegant mouth-blown glass decanter. Ah, it is going to be a fine day.

9AM – People without a huge disposable income generally go to work at about this time, I’m told.

9:15AM – Time for a workout. I strap on my Hand Fitness Trainer, which strengthens the extensor muscles in my hands, wrists and elbows, easing the discomfort of my recurring tennis elbow. I then proceed to my Wide Platform Programmable Vibration Trainer, which causes my absinthe-relaxed muscles to involuntarily contract 30 to 40 times per second, and provides a full body workout in just 10 minutes.

10AM – My spouse and I proceed outdoors; it is a dazzlingly sunny day, albeit somewhat warm. I promptly don my Evaporative Cooling Hat, which instantly causes a soothing temperature drop in my head. I put on my Eye Fatigue Preventing Sunglasses and sit down in my Instant Gazebo. I find myself troubled by mosquitoes, and so I remove my Evaporative Cooling Hat and exchange it for my Mosquito Repellant Hat.

10:30AM – Damn, it’s hot. Time for the Evaporative Cooling Hat again.

11AM – I decide to go for a swim. I put on my Digital Camera Swim Mask and take several fuzzy shots of the pool drain, as well as some covert, creepy images of my spouse’s ill fitting swimsuit.

12 noon – Lunch, prepared on indoor outdoor Electric Convection Grill. I monogram the steaks with our personal Monogrammed Branding Iron. I squabble once again with my spouse about the exclusion of her hyphenate name from the monogram. She eschews her steak in protest. More absinthe.

1PM – Curses upon these mosquitoes. Back to the Mosquito Repellant Hat.

2PM – I take a walk along the beach wearing my Metal Detecting Sandals. These convenient (and very fashionable!) sandals feature a copper coil built into the right sandal, which is powered by a battery pack strapped to my calf. The apparatus uses beat frequency oscillation technology to alert me to the presence of metal objects underfoot, primarily soda can pull tabs. Conveniently, my hands are free as I conduct my search, allowing me to do more hand exercises with my Hand Fitness Trainer.

4PM – My spouse announces that she has some “errands to run”. I happily bid her farewell, knowing that unbeknownst to her, her car has been outfitted with the Driving Activity Reporter, which monitors her car’s activity and “provides a detailed report of places, routes and speeds traveled.” It utilizes a built-in magnet “for covert purposes”. Very enlightening information is yielded. Very interesting, indeed.

5PM – I attempt to forcibly mash the Mosquito Repellant Hat and the Evaporative Cooling Hat into a single, streamlined accessory, but instead create a horribly mangled piece of mesh and khaki, bent beyond recognition and scientifically altered in such a way that it now attracts bats and spritzes intermittent mist.

6PM – Disenchanted, I attempt to teach my goldfish how to navigate the slalom course or score a soccer goal with his Fish Agility Training Set, but the animal is stupid and fails to amuse me. More absinthe.

8PM – My spouse returns home from her treacherous “errands”. She has at least prepared us dinner using the Portable Microwave Oven, which she has conveniently plugged into her car battery. It is possibly her best meal yet.

11PM – I once again put on my Mind Relaxer, which soothes and quiets my mind at the end of this difficult day. I recline my head upon my Snore Reducing Pillow and read for a while with my Lighted Reading Glasses, which fit somewhat awkwardly over the Mind Relaxer and perhaps negate its effect. Too distracted to concentrate on a book, I pick up a favorite catalog and flip through its pages. Hmm … there must be something here I need.