What changed is that people began to have other things—electronic things—to reach for when the seatbelt sign was illuminated. A passenger trapped by the window pounding down gin and tonics somewhere over Colorado was a great target demographic, until that passenger had an iPad to prop up and use to watch Friday Night Lights. Before the FAA lifted its ban on electronic devices before and right after takeoff, this brief digital sabbath was one of SkyMall’s last windows of time in which to reach people. SkyMall was able to thrive only during moments like this, when there weren’t so many things competing for people’s attention.
All that said, sales from the catalog accounted for about 4o percent of SkyMall’s business in recent years. The majority of its sales came from its website, which has been around since 1996. But depending on digital retail—a brutally competitive, rapidly changing market—was much riskier than depending on seat-back pockets, where SkyMall, for a while, had near-exclusive access to potential buyers.
What was SkyMall’s strength—it was viewed primarily as goofy entertainment and only secondarily as something that wants your money—ended up being its downfall, as other forms of entertainment began competing with it. In fact, straightforward print catalogs in general are actually going strong these days. Just this week J.C. Penney decided to revive announced it was reviving its catalog. One estimate is that catalogs generate $4 of revenue for every $1 spent producing them. They can be so effective because they’re sent out to people who are expected to be interested in them. “Skymall’s publication depends on passengers to pick it up and place orders,” says Hamilton Davison, president and executive director of the American Catalog Mailers Association. “Catalogs are mailed to specific consumers who at some point have demonstrated an interest in buying from them.”