303 W. Erie Street
Hammacher Schlemmer is an established retailer and cataloger specializing in high-quality, innovative and unique products for today's discerning customer.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 1998, Hammacher Schlemmer & Company publishes America's longest-running mail-order catalog. Though it does not rank among the nation's largest catalogers, its clever and unusual offerings have made it one of the most recognized names in the business. The missive's varied lines of specialty goods includes housewares, electronics, leisure and sports products, giftware, collectibles, and toys for adults as well as children. The company boasts that it was first to offer a number of innovative gadgets and goods to American consumers over the years, from the electric toaster in 1930 to the hand-held paperless fax viewer in 1997. The catalog, which claims a circulation of 30 million, generates an estimated 75 percent of sales, with the remainder coming from retail outlets in New York, Chicago, and Beverly Hills.
The company's name comes not from its founder, but from a pair of early investors. William Tollner founded the business in 1848 as a hardware store in Manhattan's Bowery section. Over the next 11 years, German immigrant Alfred Hammacher invested about $5,000 in the store, accumulating a half-interest in the business along the way. The company name was changed to Tollner and Hammacher in 1859 in honor of his financial contribution. Throughout the early 1860s, Tollner's nephew, William Schlemmer, gradually bought out his uncle's stake in the store. Young Schlemmer had emigrated to the United States in 1853 at the age of 12 and thereafter worked for his uncle, often hawking tools on the sidewalk in front of the store. By the time Tollner died in 1867, 26-year-old Schlemmer had entered into partnership with Hammacher. The company published its first catalog in 1881, and took its present name two years later. Hammacher, Schlemmer & Company was incorporated in 1898, 50 years after its foundation.
Though there were only 600 cars in all of New York in 1908, Hammacher Schlemmer diversified into automotive tools and replacement parts at the turn of the century, soon amassing one of the broadest selections available at the time. The company's international renown grew with its product line; at least one budding communist considered its collection seminal. According to a company publication, "In 1916 a member of the Russian government's staff purchased a sample of every piece of hardware offered in the company's 1,000-page catalog to use as manufacturing masters in preparation for the Bolshevik Revolution."
Hammacher Schlemmer maintained its original location until 1906, then moved into its flagship, 12-story New York store on East 57th in 1926. Though this would be its sole retail outlet for over a half-century, retail sales often exceeded catalog revenues. William F. Schlemmer succeeded his father as president of the company upon the latter's death in 1914.
Hammacher Schlemmer launched its first housewares catalog in 1931, and began to earn a reputation for making the newest technologies available to American consumers. Many of the now-mundane items were the first of their kind to appear in the U.S. market. Company publications crow that the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog offered America's first toaster in 1930, the first steam iron and electric dry shaver in 1948, the first answering machine (the "Telephone Valet") and first microwave oven (Amana's Radarange) in 1968. Though revolutionary at the time they were launched, these and many other "gadgets and gizmos" inaugurated by Hammacher Schlemmer would later become staples of the American household.
While Hammacher Schlemmer had its own trademarked elves to promote its wares, a 1929 Broadway production titled "The Little Show" gave the company free nationwide publicity. The program included the song "Hammacher Schlemmer, I Love You," which rhapsodized,
Hammacher Schlemmer, I love you
Post-World War II Emphasis on Luxuries
Though the company's early housewares probably seemed exotic to catalog recipients, it was not until after World War II that Hammacher Schlemmer shifted its focus to luxury goods. The change came after 1953, when William Schlemmer's widow, Elsie, sold the cataloger to Chester H. Roth's Kayser-Roth investment group. The firm dropped its hardware items two years later, and began to emphasize unique, if not one-of-a-kind articles targeted to upscale customers.
Dominic Tampone, who had joined the cataloger as a stock boy at the age of 15, worked his way up to president of the company in 1959. He has been credited with leading Hammacher Schlemmer's quest for the unusual and outlandish for its catalogs and store. Tampone described the typical Hammacher Schlemmer item in a September 1968 profile in Merchandising Week: "it's brand new ... it could be too clever in concept and looks. It could be like a Rube Goldberg contraption. But the idea is good and it serves the purpose for which it is intended." Offerings in the catalog soon ran the gamut from electric shavers and massagers to such fantasy gifts as British taxis and spa trips. In 1961, the company proffered regulation-sized bowling alleys for $4,300 a lane, or a $600 "discount" for two. Hammacher Schlemmer also started offering limited edition and collector's items, including signed baseballs and lithographs during this period.
Over the years, Hammacher Schlemmer's unique range of items drew a globe-trotting clientele. Sheiks, princes, Hollywood stars, and U.S. presidents all shopped at the flagship store, buying everything from flashlights to beds to cars. Their shopping sprees often brought Hammacher Schlemmer free publicity, as the press eagerly covered the spending habits of the rich and famous.
Tampone created a wholesale operation in the early 1960s that quickly grew into Hammacher Schlemmer's Invento Products Corporation. Invento soon evolved into a clearinghouse for the new and unusual, sourcing items from around the world and selling them under its own namesake brand. It sold goods not only to Hammacher Schlemmer, but also to such major national retailers as Sears and Nieman Marcus. By the end of the decade, Invento was generating annual sales of about $2.5 million.
Changes in Corporate Ownership in 1970s and 1980s
Tampone continued to guide Hammacher Schlemmer though two changes in corporate ownership. Conglomerate Gulf + Western Industries, Inc. acquired the company in 1975, then sold it five years later to John Roderick MacArthur's Bradford Exchange Ltd. Inc. After over a half-century with the company, vice chairman Tampone died in 1982.
Under MacArthur's chairmanship, Hammacher Schlemmer opened two new retail outlets in Chicago (1984) and Beverly Hills (1986). The company's reputation for carrying outlandish, extravagant, and expensive products continued to grow, driven by such products as $139,000 "bionic dolphin" personal submarines, $39,0000 home ski slopes, and $34,000 model train sets. Hammacher Schlemmer's unconditional guarantee of satisfaction clearly inspired a great deal of confidence in its customers. But high-priced, "gee-whiz" articles like these were little more than attention getting devices for Hammacher Schlemmer. Long-running favorites were far more down-to-earth: electric shoe buffers, portable clothing steamers, ultrasonic jewelry cleaners, and air cleaners. And though the prices of its most widely publicized items were often sky-high, the cataloger's annual sales totaled less than $35 million at the end of the 1980s.
Though Hammacher Schlemmer did not manufacture any of its products, it stamped many with its own seal of approval. The company started "an associated but independent" testing arm, the Hammacher-Schlemmer Institute, and inaugurated its "Best" rating in 1983. At the Institute, products are graded by both consumers and category experts for ease of use and durability, among other relevant criteria. Instead of touting brand or manufacturer names in its catalogs, Hammacher Schlemmer emphasizes quality by highlighting products that win its "Best" rating. "Bests" and "Firsts" in 1997 catalogs ranged from the "Best Nose Hair Trimmer," at just $19.95, and the "First Flat Panel Television," a whopping $25,000.
Growth Speeds Up in 1990s
Like many other catalogers, Hammacher Schlemmer rode a cresting wave of mail-order success in the 1980s and early 1990s. As baby-boomers entered their peak earning years, they found themselves with more disposable income and less time to spend it in malls and shopping centers. Many turned to catalogs as a convenient way to shop without leaving the house, and mail-order houses were quick to oblige them. The catalog industry in general benefited tremendously from these trends in the 1980s, as mail-order sales increased more than 300 percent during the decade. Catalog sales constituted about three-fourths of Hammacher Schlemmer's total revenues by 1989, up from 40 percent in 1968. The company's overall sales grew as well, nearly tripling from an estimated $70 million in 1992 to about $190 million in 1996.
Notwithstanding its global renown, Hammacher Schlemmer was one of the U.S. catalog business's smaller players in the 1990s, constituting far less than one percent of the industry's total annual sales. And though the venerable merchandiser faced competition from upstarts like Richard Thalheimer's The Sharper Image, it seemed highly unlikely that a company with 150 years of experience and the backing of the wealthy MacArthur family would soon relinquish its reputation for "Offering the Best, the Only and the Unexpected."
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