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How does Hammacher Schlemmer survive in the age of Amazon? (chicagomag.com)
116 points by pepys 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments



This was an interesting read. I had to think of The Wirecutter. Do some tests and then present "the best X". (I've heard quite some criticism over the Wirecutter and don't want to argue, for lack of real knowledge).

When I'm well invested in a topic, I might research for hours and then buy "the best", but for thing where I just want a "not shitty" option (say, an umbrella maybe?) I like this model. I wish there were more sites like that, where I can trust the opinion/result enough to not have to research for myself.


Unbiased tests are very popular in Germany [1]. So much so that good placement in a test often ends up included in the product packaging itself, as it's a good booster of sales. I find this to be a great concept.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stiftung_Warentest


I think that’s a big part of the appeal of Costco. For most items, you only have one or two choices, and they are fairly reliably good, so you don’t have to think too much about it.


That's what Ive been telling people past few weeks. Got a Costco membership a month or so ago. Thoroughly assessed store before that.

When I explain non-food/bulk parts, I tell them to imagine if you wanted Amazon-like experience that fit in a single, walk-in warehouse. The only strategy that makes sense is to pick the best or a few of each category of product. They have everything from work shoes to pillows to containers to a diesel generator. People will occasionally want some of that stuff. The already go to Costco. They know its prices are low. So, maybe they just grab some of it while there. And finish saying Costco was doing this before Amazon existed.

On the groceries, they need to carry more smaller portion sizes, though. Walmart and Kroger are price waring so much that Costco costs more on most stuff. Making sizes of stuff like ketchup or spices comparable, but maybe still in little packs, could shift more sales to them. Hammacher already does this where the types of items are same as Walmart and Amazon: just differentiated on vetted quality. Costco can do similar with quality and price, which they already do a bit.


I didn't make the connection to Costco, but you're absolutely right as Costco also has a similar set really good guarantees.


Electronics excepted, 90 day return policy, which also includes major appliances. https://customerservice.costco.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/1...

I can vouch for coverage for minor electronics: I was able, without complaint or even a question from Costco, to swap out a Braun electric toothbrush that failed somewhere around year 1. The replacement is going on ~5 years. (The brushes are frigging expensive compared to a manual toothbrush, that's where the money is, give away the battery+motor for free!)


When Costco reduced the electronics return period to 90 days, they also started extending the manufacturer warranty to 2 years, so they still have your back more than most retailers do. They just cracked down on people returning computers and TVs several years after purchase, and getting a free upgrade.


When was this? I bought a TV barely a year ago and it's a flat 1 year warranty with paid upgraded warranty. And then a number of years ago my mom bought an Apple iPod which failed within 6 months and Costco shrugged, said it wasn't covered beyond 90 days at all.


That includes the Kirkland house brands, Kirkland and Trader Joes seem to not cut corners on putting out house labeled products.


Except for batteries. Kirkland batteries last a while, but they leak practically every time.


Very true, best not leave Kirkland batteries in a device as pretty much all of them leaked.


> where I can trust the opinion/result enough to not have to research for myself

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Consumer Reports. They are run by non-profit consumer advocates, they are very careful about editorial independence (they buy all products at the store rather than accept freebies, there is no advertising in their print publication, etc), and they have labs, scientists, and scientific testing. They have a track record going back to 1936. The only drawback I find is a lack of detail in their reports; they keep it pretty simple.


Long time CR subscriber. Love them. They're a UL [https://www.ul.com] for consumer goods and services.

Sadly, CR has struggled to make the transition to digital / online. thewirecutter.com is now my go to review site for most small ticket items.

I continue to hope that CR adapts. Independent labs remain worthwhile, needed.


Amazon isn't really a competitor to them at all it seems. You go to Amazon to get stuff you know you need. You read the HS catalog to find the stuff you didn't know you need. That's how I perceive it anyway, as an outsider to the US.


We have other catalogs like these in Sweden and my 70+ year old father is one of their consumers. He just doesn't understand computer interfaces enough. A catalog is the extent of what he can grasp outside of regular stores.

When someone feels insecure online. Not sure what they're doing or what they can trust. Then they turn away from the internet.


I think we’ll come a full circle … not only with e-commerce but also with search in general. Instead of being bombarded with 1000’s of products/blue links, we will want few, highly curated products/links that we can blindly trust.


Reddit has r/buyitforlife that hints that way, but I really want a sub for premium products that I can enjoy (Bose QC, Allbirds, Icebreaker, Airpods, etc)


Someone has to do the sorting between good and bad products. Amazon bet on buyer reviews to do that, but seeing the fake reviews and all (dozen of post on that subject on HN), it's not working so well. So the seller has to do the job.


This is a great case study in niche sales. You see this pop up in small online businesses. The one risk right now that is pointedly raised here is that the niche is, unfortunately, young execs in the 80s - they are aging now!

Very cool business study about delivering perceived value.


I am surprised to know they exist. As an occasional visitor to the US 15-20 years ago, I used to be enamoured of this catalog and would often read it end to end (and a similar one present on some flights - though, I can't recollect which one). I used to wish I could buy some of the cool stuff in there. Some were fantastically drool-worthy; at least as I remember the then me feeling.


The similar airplane-pocket catalog might perhaps have been The Sharper Image (https://www.sharperimage.com/si/) ?


Or the sadly now-defunct SkyMall. [1] It was the Weekly World News of mail-order catalogs. Though apparently there are plans to publish again.

Apparently also they were affiliated with Hammacher Schlemmer.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SkyMall


The inflight catalog was probably SkyMall.


Consumers are hungry for curation. Not surprising at all.


How do they survive Amazon? By relying on lazy people.

The "barber eliminator" is mentioned in the article. I thought it was interesting, and within my budget and started to consider purchasing it.

But then I thought: What if Amazon has it cheaper? Pro tip: It's 2/3 the price on Amazon. Same exact product. You can even search "barber eliminator" on Amazon and find it under its real name.

So how do they survive? By providing a curated list of products to people too lazy to search for a better price.


> So how do they survive? By providing a curated list of products to people too lazy to search for a better price.

I think a more charitable explanation would be Hammacher Schlemmer customers aren't very price sensitive. They aren't going to waste $50 of their time looking for a $20 discount on a hair cutting machine.


I say it survives by providing the same benefit that Amazon does: a reduction in cognitive overhead.

With Amazon, the reduction comes from the streamlined buying process - you provide your name, address, billing info, shipping info up front, thereby eliminating the overhead of that task from future purchases. It's also a one-stop shop, you don't have to think if they will have an item you want, as 9 times out of 10 they carry a version of what you are looking for.

With Hammacher Schlemmer, the reduction comes from not having to do really any research about products before purchasing. They offer a limited selection of tested products, so you do not have to consider alternative products, sellers, shipping methods, reviews, and are not susceptible to accidentally ordering a counterfeit product. The catalog format is also approachable, you can pick it up and read it and "window shop" without knowing exactly what you want or need.

So I would say not really laziness, just a shift in cognitive overhead from the product purchasing process to the product research process.


Except caveat emptor Amazon might have the product or a reasonable fake.


And, not infrequently, an unreasonable one.


Isn't this the one which starts every single product description with some version of "the world's best (object which does this thing)"?


Not quite, but a very healthy percentage of all start with 'The'. eg: 'The Fitbit Alta Heart Rate Monitor' [0][1]

[0] https://www.hammacher.com/category/electronics-gadgets?promo...

[1] https://www.hammacher.com/product/fitbit-alta-heart-rate-mon...


It looks like they have a "the best" category for a lot of stuff, but their slogan is now incorporating "the best, the only, and the unexpected" now.


Simple: They don't. I get the sense (based on my family at least) that their audience is boomers that aren't really tech savvy looking for easy gifts. Once this existing audience base dies off, they'll struggle and ultimately be acquired.

Since they're based off mass-mailing of catalogs, they know their effective target is not a tech-savvy audience. They've run the numbers and they figure this demograph is a sufficient one to market to.


The majority of their revenue comes from online sales.


TBH HS was doing e-commerce on compuserve at least a decade before amazon even existed


I'll be honest: The first time I heard of Hammacher Schlemmer was when Dwight mentioned it in the Niagara Falls episode of The Office. It's pretty interesting to read more about them.


Ey! I always thought Hammacher and Schlemmer only existed as characters of Beerfest...




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