My old professor, Frank Knight, used to say, that what people wanted was not the satisfaction of their wants, but better wants. —Herbert Stein, Presidential advisor and economist, The Wall Street Journal
When I was a small boy growing up on Long Island, the big annual December outing was an overnight trip to Manhattan to visit my grandmother for the movie and Christmas pageant at the Radio City Music Hall and the annual visit to F.A.O. Schwarz, the great toy emporium on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street to see the newest in 0-gauge Lionel electric trains.
When I became a man, I put away childish things and started frequenting The Sharper Image. Founder Richard Thalheimer makes it far easier to spend money than the Schwarz of my youth; rather than a 25-mile hike into Manhattan, The Sharper Image comes to me—with 95 retail stores, 63 million catalogs, special e-mail offers and a Web site that is accessible from any hotel room in the world.
In 1977, Thalheimer, then a young office supplies salesman and sometime lawyer, used to jog in San Francisco and keep track of his progress on a wristwatch that had been specially designed for runners. All who jog should have this item, Thalheimer reasoned. So he cut a deal with the manufacturer and had designer Steve Sugar craft a small ad for Runner’s World, using the corporate moniker, The Sharper Image. The rest is history.
It was Simon and Schuster founder Richard Simon who said, “One book is an item, two is a line.” Young Thalheimer intuitively understood that Simon’s dictum applied to all businesses.
In a recent interview with Sales And Marketing, Thalheimer said, “My mission at the time was to find products that were interesting and unusual and put them together, first in a catalog and then, in 1981, in a store. We had a mix of unusual products, like the first cordless telephone. The idea was to show people unique and interesting products that they wouldn’t find everywhere else.”