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SkyMall was Amazon before Amazon… and before the internet

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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 he invented are mostly things we were already heading towards before he hit the scene.

Let’s start with next day delivery. Thirty-two years ago, in 1990, a man named Bob Worsley dreamed of a new kind of shopping experience. It would be an updated version of the Argos Catalog, a single, mobile hub of things people needed but didn’t know until they were told they needed it by reading enthusiastic descriptions. A hot dog warmer! A self-winding wristwatch showcase! A statue of a zombie boy crawling out of the ground! SkyMall had them all.

SkyMall was a genius proposition. People traveling across the United States on planes before Wi-Fi and in-seat entertainment needed something to occupy their time. Why not give them a magazine full of stuff they could buy and get before they realize what they’ve done? Mail order was a staple distribution channel for decades, but SkyMall tied it to a super-fast network and hit the right note with the right innovation at the right time.

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Initially, SkyMall had warehouses in most airports across the country, which meant travelers were often next to one each time they landed at their destination. So if the lady sitting in seat 32D decided she wanted a zombie boy on her way 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 arriving. And that’s how same-day delivery of Zombie Boys, or anything else offered in SkyMall’s catalog, was born.

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SkyMall struggled with the costs of keeping so many warehouses open, then later with the advent of the internet and the drop in travel after 9/11. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2015. But it certainly showed its appetite; at one point it had a circulation of 20 million. But he didn’t swing fast enough and missed the train in line. And Amazon – which will eventually feature a marketplace to sell its own zombie boys – has emerged as the industry leader.

Artwork by SkyMall

©Scott Balmer

But there are SkyMall nuances in Amazon’s business strategy. The online giant acquires companies not necessarily because they believe in the product they sell or the technology they have developed, but because they have warehouses where they need them. Whole Foods is a prime example. High-end groceries were not Amazon’s primary focus in this sale; what he bought were warehouses and distribution centers in cities, which get refined foods to people on the spot.

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Now we have Prime and Prime Day and all sorts of other ways to get everything we want right now. And we can only do it because an in-flight catalog gave us a taste of it.

You will be glad to know that you can still buy zombie boy from skymall.com. It just doesn’t come the next day.

Learn more about Aleks Krotoski:

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