Anyone who shopped at a mall in the 1980s or 1990s – particularly with their dad (or, really, anyone’s dad) likely enjoys a twinge of nostalgia anytime they hear the words “The Sharper Image.”
More than a store or a brand, The Sharper Image was the traditional mecca of the husbands, fathers and boyfriends along for mall trips they didn’t really want to be on, offering consolation in the form of a session in the vibro-massaging leather recliner and the opportunity to touch a plasma globe.
“The brand is 40 years old, and when you mention it to consumers, they still smile and remember the stores in the malls or looking at the catalog," David Conn, CEO at ThreeSixty Group, told Karen Webster in a recent conversation. "And that is what attracted us to the brand: that consumers have such a positive reaction to it. We think those brands – those with an authentic history and story to tell – are going to be the winners in this changing retail environment.”
ThreeSixty bought The Sharper Image brand in December 2016 – a time when, Conn noted, the brand had been going through “some issues” adopting to a retail environment that saw fewer and fewer consumers heading to the mall.
With the brand’s reset, he noted, its focus has moved to distributing its widening array of branded offerings through large-scale store channels like Target, Kohl's and Bed, Bath & Beyond, expanding its licensing agreements and thinking beyond the mall when it comes to serving up the old-school “Sharper Image experience” in real life and in real time.
Last week, in fact, it announced its four newest licensing agreements with Conair Corporation, Allstar Products Group, Aerus LLC and Mystic Apparel, expanding the brand into beauty, infomercials, healthy homes and pet care.
Conn said that one of the brand's unique attributes that attracted he and his team is that The Sharper Image is less about any particular product category and more about an idea that can be embedded into a lot of products – the products that they directly manufacture. Toys, especially robotic toys and drones, is a big category, and the brand is quickly expanding into home goods, tabletop games and barware, with about a dozen license agreements ranging from speakers to luggage. And health, Conn said, is a “monster” category.
The Sharper Image Idea
The Sharper Image shopper, Conn told Webster, is looking for two main things. First, he noted, they are looking for quality goods, and they associate the baseline brand with high quality. Beyond that, he noted, they are looking for products that go beyond the core function in an unexpected and surprising way – the “wow factor.”
The big brand box stores, he told Webster, have been critical in keeping the brand and its expanding catalog of wares in front of consumers – but when they look at their market research, The Sharper Image brand has an independent pull for customers, independent of the specific physical retail channel.
And that customer base, Conn noted, is probably more diverse than most people would assume. Despite the fact that the store is mostly associated with gadget-hungry male shoppers, the reality of the demographic data is that the majority of the customer base is female. It’s a slight majority, Conn noted, likely explained by the more expansive line-up of goods – and also because The Sharper Image is a "gift-y" brand, and women do the majority of the nation’s gift shopping.
“What we have found is that this is less about a specific demographic – it is about the mindset of the customer,” Conn said, noting that the challenge is to find new ways to deliver on the historical expectations that customers have tied to the brand.
Meeting the New Marketplace
While the death of brick-and-mortar is often predicted, Conn told Webster, he thinks the reality will actually be quite a bit different than the wholesale purge that some of the most pessimistic watchers are observing.
That said, he noted, there will be casualties forthcoming – because “there were just way too many stores out there.”
“I think we see brick-and-mortar survive in a different format," he said. "I think we are going to see a lot more transient retail, I think landlords are becoming much more flexible about the kind of leases they will pursue, and retailers will have to get a lot more creative about the experiences they offer.”
In launching their first pop-up shop in Times Square during the holiday season in 2017, Conn noted, they got a very front-row view of the new nature of the transient retail promise.
Since brands like The Sharper Image gain strength from the consumer interacting with the product, Conn said they wanted the New York pop-up to recreate the “ain’t it cool” feeling they created in shoppers in malls 20 years ago. In that space, customers could fly drone toys, race remote-control cars up and down the aisles and play tabletop games. The goal was to keep the customer in the space by entertaining them with the experience – one that leads to higher conversions at checkout.
“I think consumers actually like to shop,” Conn said. “Going forward, retail won’t be about online and offline competing with each other; I think it will be about cooperating with each other to deliver those better and new consumer experiences.”
And cooperating on and over digital, incidentally, is something into which The Sharper Image brand has a particular and unusual insight. Though ThreeSixty Group owns The Sharper Image brand in terms of products and physical distribution channels, The Sharper Image's online brand is a separately owned entity.
But they are entities that have to work closely together and cooperate, Conn told Webster. The Sharper Image's manufactured brands live on the site, and when the pop-up came to New York, the digital side of the business did the social media promotion. Ultimately, he noted, seeing themselves as collaborators opens more opportunities and creates more chances to interact with customers for both brands.
And finding those new access points, he noted, is an ongoing project.
The World of the Infomercial
Among the brand’s new licensing partners, one that stands out is the deal with Allstar Products Group, will which see The Sharper Image venturing forth into the world of direct response programming in 2019.
For those unfamiliar with the term, direct response programming is another name for "infomercial." And, as Conn told Webster, he was not instantly in love with the idea. “The brand snob in me said, no way, that is a cheesy way to advertise and we’re not doing it.”
But after that first approach on the topic, he gave direct response a second look, and realized it had evolved quite a bit from its “ShamWow” days. In place of the screaming frenetic hosts and “programmed for insomniacs” feel of the past, looking at examples like Peloton helped Conn to adjust his outlook.
“And so our challenge to Allstar was to do this in a way that was in fact brand-enhancing, to bring us something that isn’t just loud, but is actually more aspirational," he said. "Done right, I think this is a great channel for the brand, because it gives us a platform to both tell our stories about the products and demo them in action.”
The future of retail, Conn believes, will come down to the customer experience over and over again. Sure, it’s about the products, he posited: Customers of The Sharper Image are particularly interested in what is new and cutting-edge. But beyond just the products, it's about giving the merchant the ability to really connect with the product.
Consumers want to shop, Conn noted, and they are looking to the next generation of retailers to build better experiences that make the activity more pleasant.
That means The Sharper Image is doubling down on building a more direct way to experience their products. More pop-ups are on the table, but so are live product demonstrations with experts in the big-box stores they serve.
And, Conn said, that experiential focus is traveling across the entire ThreeSixty Group.
This holiday season, starting in November, the firm will be bringing FAO Schwarz (a brand it also owns) back to New York City. Yes, a toy store – a category that Amazon all but gutted, and which resulted in last week's sunsetting of all Toys R Us stores.
“This is going to be a flagship store that will be experiential and theatrical," Conn said. "We are bringing toy demonstrations, magic shows and special product opportunities to this location. When it comes to toys, it is all about playing – and delivering that 'wow' experience to kids and their parents that is very different than what Amazon could ever provide.”