Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Skymall's Guilty Pleasures and Hazy Future
January 29, 2015 -- It turns out business travelers are mean girls and had a " burn book" prepared for the moment SkyMall bit the metaphoric dust. "It was useful for used gum," one emailed me after SkyMall and its parent company filed for Chapter 11 last week. "Never used the SkyMall catalog except as a covering so as not to get newsprint on my slacks," said another. "A waste of trees," added a third. "A collection of overpriced useless junk."

One even sent a snarky checklist of uses for the catalog: "to soak up spilled coffee, to make paper airplanes, tissue receptacle [and] I ripped out pages to use as bookmarks in real books."

But I like this one best: "The SkyMall catalog reminded me just how much junk I already owned."

If these sentiments seem severely at odds with the outpouring of nostalgia and whimsy served up in recent days by the general media, it probably has everything to do with how the world naively approaches the seatback pocket and how we business fliers look at that little bit of real estate in front of us.

For the average flier, SkyMall and the seatback may be a "retreat from boredom." For them, the goofy eccentricities SkyMall peddled for other catalog merchants may be "lost national treasure[s]." The wish book of garden gnomes and odd furniture may have been "the best option for slackers." It may even have been the easiest place to buy the King Tut Tissue Box Cover.

But business travelers are more practical about airline stuff. A lot of us look at SkyMall, airline in-flight magazines, duty-free catalogs and other sky-high paper products as an obstacle.

"Immediately before taking my seat, I always pulled everything out of the seatback pocket and stuffed it in the overhead [bin]," one told me. "I gained an extra 1/16 [inch] of legroom." Another business traveler thought removing seatback paraphernalia added as much as half an inch of precious knee room. "Voila! Economy Slightlylessdiscomfort Class!"

While a solid plurality of the hundreds who emailed me last weekend insisted they never bought anything from SkyMall, at least as many of you said you perused the catalog sometime during a flight. And many business travelers admitted that they had made a SkyMall purchase although some qualified the admission with the claim that they'd already had a few in-flight libations.

But it turns out that SkyMall hasn't been about buying stuff not even the faux rock that hid your front-door keys for a long, long time. Its initial iteration in 1989 you ordered an item using a seatback phone and picked up your purchase at the airport when you landed was a flop. So was its attempt to sell its own merchandise. For most of the last 25 years, SkyMall was actually a catalog of catalogs, offering up our captive eyeballs to a ever-changing roster of merchants that advertised their own gear and gadgets. Brands such as Frontgate, Hammacher Schlemmer, Brookstone and Design Toscano once paid hundreds of thousands of dollars each quarter to SkyMall for the right to pitch us while our seatbelts were fastened low and tight across our laps.

Sebastian Harrison, who founded Cellular Abroad, briefly advertised in SkyMall to promote his National Geographic Travel Phone. He was under no illusions about the ad's purpose.

"They told me from Day 1 that if you got your money back you were ahead of 90 percent of the people in SkyMall," he told me. "They very carefully explained that SkyMall was an advertising vehicle. It wasn't about selling things. They were very clear about what to expect."

Clarity, however, isn't something that is often mentioned in the same sentence with SkyMall, especially when it comes to finances. For most of its existence, the company was privately owned and its profit-and-loss performance was unknown. It went public in the spring of 2013 when it merged with Xhibit, a shadowy, closely held shell company.

The numbers we do know about, from the last two years, have been awful. According to the bankruptcy filing, SkyMall generated just $33.7 million in revenue in 2014 and only $15.8 million for the first nine months of 2014.

Why the precipitous fall? Acting chief executive Scott Wiley blamed last year's decision to allow travelers to use their personal electronic devices throughout a flight and the rapid deployment of in-flight Wi-Fi.

"With the increased use of electronic devices on planes, fewer people browsed the catalog," he said in the Chapter 11 filing. Business travelers I spoke to over the weekend made the same point. Take-off and landing was prime time for SkyMall browsing and, as soon as they could use their laptops, tablets, smartphones and ebook readers, the catalog became superfluous.

The availability of in-flight Internet "resulted in increased competition from e-commerce retailers and ... negatively impacted SkyMall's catalog sales," Wiley contended. That claim, too, is be supported by the business travelers with whom I spoke. Many said they used SkyMall as a guide to find products, then surfed the net to find the same item cheaper from another retailer.

SkyMall's future is hazy. The company hopes to auction itself off in late March, but its inability to find any pre-bankruptcy investors isn't a good sign.

SkyMall also has few friends at the airlines. Delta Air Lines booted the catalog off its planes last year and Southwest Airlines was in the process of purging the catalog from its seatbacks. SkyMall also has stiffed the carriers and suppliers lately. According to court filings, it owes Delta $1.4 million, American Airlines and its US Airways division a total of $1.6 million, Southwest nearly $400,000 and United almost $300,000. It owes $480,000 to United Parcel Service, $327,000 to American Express and several million to catalog partners such as Steiner Sports and Norm Thompson.

Still, seatback retailing isn't dead. Asian fliers especially Chinese travelers just venturing out into the world remain frequent buyers of duty-free and other in-flight merchandise. Although they are a shadow of their former selves, the in-flight magazines of the U.S. carriers still carry some advertising, too.

And if we've learned nothing else in the last few days, the SkyMall brand has very high (if somewhat ironic) name recognition. There's a parody called SkyMaul, Jonathan Coulton's SkyMall song and product placements aplenty in reruns of How I Met Your Mother.

Even mean girl business travelers can admit to having something of a soft spot for it.

"I shall miss you SkyMall NOT!" wrote one transoceanic business traveler I know. But he made that comment after detailing his obsession with the catalog and ticking off his purchases: a can dispenser for his refrigerator shelf, a trouser press he never used, a laptop pillow, a Halloween skeleton, and, yes, the fake rock to hide his keys.

This column is Copyright 2015 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.