SkyMall was Amazon before Amazon... and before the internet
You can thank an in-flight catalogue, not the internet, for the emergence of convenient same-day deliveries.
We have been led to believe that the internet is a new idea. Yes, it is indeed something of a marvel, but the things we think it invented are mostly things we were already heading towards before it arrived on the scene.
Let’s start with next-day delivery. Thirty-two years ago, back in 1990, a man named Bob Worsley had a dream of a new kind of shopping experience. It would be an updated version of the Argos catalogue, an on-the-go, one-stop hub of the things people needed but didn’t know it until they’d been told they needed it by reading enthusiastic descriptions. A hot dog warmer! A self-winding wristwatch display case! A statue of a zombie boy crawling out of the earth! SkyMall had them all.
SkyMall was a genius proposition. People travelling through the US on aeroplanes before Wi-Fi and seat-back entertainment needed something to fill their time. Why not give them a magazine full of stuff that they could buy, and get before they realised what they’d done? Mail order had been a staple distribution channel for decades, but SkyMall tied it to a hyperspeed network and hit the right note with the right innovation at the right time.
Initially, SkyMall had warehouses at most airports across the country, which meant that travellers were often next to one every time they landed at their destination. So if the lady sitting in seat 32D decided she wanted zombie boy while she was en-route from New York to New Orleans, she could pick him up as soon as she landed in the Big Easy. The idea was to get customers their items within 20 minutes of arrival. And so same-day delivery of zombie boys, or any of the other things offered in SkyMall’s catalogue, was born.
SkyMall struggled with the costs of keeping so many warehouses open, and then later with the advent of the internet and the dip in travel after 9/11. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2015. But it certainly demonstrated an appetite; at one point, it had a circulation of 20 million. But it didn’t pivot quickly enough, and it missed the online train. And Amazon – who would eventually offer a marketplace to sell its own zombie boys – became the industry leader.
But there are shades of SkyMall in Amazon’s business strategy. The online giant acquires companies not necessarily because they believe in the product they sell, or the technology they’ve developed, but because they have warehouses where they need them. Whole Foods is a great example. Upmarket groceries weren’t Amazon’s main focus in that sale; what it bought were warehouses and distribution centres in cities, which get the fancy foods to people pronto.
Now, we have Prime and Prime Day and all kinds of other ways to get our whatever-we-want right now. And we can only do that because an in-flight catalogue gave us a taste of it.
You’ll be pleased to know that you can still buy a zombie boy from skymall.com. It just doesn’t come the next day.
- This article first appeared in issue 376 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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