Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois on November 17, 1983 · 120
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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois · 120

Chicago, Illinois
Issue Date:
Thursday, November 17, 1983
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8 Section 5 Chicago Tribune, Thursday, November 17. 1983 WC Tampo Salesman turns love of show-and-tell into huge profit with Sharper Image By Mike Capuzzo 1 1 AM I For the second day in a row, Richard Thalheimer is up before dawn in a strange town. The world s greatest mail-order microcnip 1 mogul. 35. bounds out of room 1428 at the Eden Roc hotel, a body electric: He swims 20 laps in the hotel pool, dons a pressed shirt and tie and sells the wonders of Chess Master over a ham-and-cheese omelet in the coffee shop of the Miami Beach hotel. All by 7:45. Forget Willy Loman. This former door-to-door salesman has found fulfillment and $6,000 every 60 seconds peddling the wares in his Sharper Image catalogue: knives to skin alligators, machines to harness gravity, stones to light flames in lovers' hearts. He sells a meter to test the salt level in food ("Protect yourself against killer salt". A $2,650 reproduction of a Spanish suit of armor "The 15th Century three-piece suit"). A wood phone "grown in a tropical rain forestr-and signed by Oleg Cassini" l$159-. Instant alcohol breath-testers $54, blood pressure takers $175, bulletproof raincoats I $400, 10-call-a-minute Demon Dialers I $199 and the Grand Master Chess board $495. The kings and pawns move themselves, Thalheimer says, flashing blue eyes and a natural smile, his hands fluttering like birds over the quarterly catalogue shipped to 50 million Americans a year. "THIS IS a great product," he said excitedly. "It counters your move with wandering magnets under the board. If you want to play with it, and you're not sure what your next move is, you press a button, and it wiggles the piece that would be your best move. If you still haven't figured it out, you press a clue button, and it moves the damn piece for you." Who is this California entrepreneur who foresaw that America's managers and professionals longed for a home Geiger counter to detect nuclear power plant leaks, or a James Bondian aluminum crossbow that fires 45-mile-an-hour bolts? In the beginning 1892 was the Sears catalogue, then the electronic revolution, and now comes Thalheimer, once a lawyer and door-to-door salesman, once Cosmopolitan's bachelor of the month, now sole owner of the specialty catalogue whose average order 1150 is triple the closest competitor. "I know what makes people tick," Thalheimer said. "The lucky thing is 1 have a feel for what's coming next." None of Thalheimer's competitors needs to be told the secrets of his success: Sharper Image taps Americans' fascination with electronic wizardry, reaches into the pockets of two-income households that don't have time to shop in stores, is the first luxury mail-order catalogue for professional men 30 to 50. "PEOPLE TEND TO trade houses and cars less than they did 5 or 10 years ago," Thalheimer said. "They surreptitiously pick up the telephone during working hours and pull out a credit card and say, 'Send me a survival knife,' or 'Send me the ultimate rowing machine.' " , Every 60 seconds in a busy morning in Thalheimer's San Franciso offices about a dozen customers from across the United States call toll-free to place an order to 40 sales people. Muhammed Ali calls. So do Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Burt Reynolds, Barry Goldwater. Three orders came in last week for RB5X, a $1,750 robot who walks, talks, vacuums $595 for the vacuum cleaner and says, "Whoops. Excuse me," when it bumps into an obstacle. "It's an incredible sight, to watch about half a million dollars' worth of orders come in on a good day," Thalheimer said. "Macy's does that, the big department stores. But consider this is a .five-year-old business dreamed up in someone's imagination with no capital, no debt. It restores your faith in American entrepreneur-ship. You can still make a million.". The idea struck in 1977, when the peddler of Thalheimer Paper Systems, "supporting my law practice by selling officejwoducts door to door," was jogging in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The idea: a - , .7, T I -f" - , x .&r. 7 ' ' : t"ij- : 7 ; '" ; "7 . - A f . Vr j i in i .f t iim-. iii n. r 1- 1 ' t lrf,ll.,lllm 1,11 in, -i. i I nri -i I runner's watch. He bought 25 from a small manufacturer, took out a small ad in Runner's World and got 100 orders. The $200 profit prompted a second ad for a costlier wrist chronometer. The result: 1,000 orders and a $20,000 profit in three weeks. THE ADS which he still buys in publications such as science magazines and the Wall Street Journal-spawned the idea for a catalogue. "Thalheimer Paper Systems really was a very un-glamorous name if I'm going to be like Xerox," he said. "I thought, 'I want a sharper image." " The Sharper Image image sends Thalheimer ceaselessly scouting for something new. Newsweek's international edition, one of 45 magazines he reads, sent him scurrying for calculator-size, flat-screen TVs. I The domestic edition doesn't run the New Products and Processes page. , He travels The nation for trade and gift shows and conventions. He listens politely to would-be inventors "Gee, do I have an idea for your catalogue. Uncle Pepy's Clam Opener" knowing another Audiolite is just around the corner. The Audiolite sets all the lights in your house blinking at the sound of a burglar. Sharper Image sells up to 50,000 a month. "When I the inventor first brought it in I didn't think much of it. It was dull, a little black box. But 1 took it home and tried it, and I thought, this is a miracle product," he said. Every Tuesday afternoon, he huddles with his six buyers in his San Franciso office and narrows 50 to 70 new products down to five to seven for market research. ABOVE ALL, he loves to write copy for the catalogue "Space age crossbow fits in your hand" and to (test the products himself. . "At 25 feet," the catalogue says, "our bolts went through the Yellow Pages to page 339." "I have what most people think is the ideal life," Thalheimer said. "I get to try all my products, then show them. When I was a kid in school, my favorite day in school was show and tell. In fact, that's what I do still show-and-tell presentations." Knight-Riddor Newspapers Extra tests of sparklingly clear water prove all that glitters is not good Knigfll-Hidder pnoto Richard Thalheimer and Sharper Image catalogues: Would you buy an aluminum crossbow from thfs man? nnn HEN RICH CHRISTIE decided to ill! r I test the drinking water of t ' Rockaway Township, N.J., for w w ' contaminants, he didn't expect to find any. As chief environmental officer for the wooded, residential community, Christie had read reports of bad water elsewhere and set out "to prove we didn't have a problem in this pristine wilderness." He was wrong. In November, 1979, Christie found traces of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, a suspected cause of cancer, in two of the township's three 150-foot-deep wells. Then, the next summer, gasoline additives from a ruptured gas-station tank were discovered in the third municipal well. A potpourri of solvents later turned up in private wells across town. Christie even found .trichloroethylene in the bottled water sold by a local company. The people of Rockaway Township, star tled, had to devise their own means of finding clear water. They discovered what thousands of others have learned in the last decade: The government has left our water largely unprotected. Consider: The Environmental Protection Agency requires water utilities to test for just 12 synthetic chemicals. Their dirty-dozen list leaves out hundreds of-hazardous chemicals, including those found, in Rockaway. Water-system suppliers frequently don't carry out the few tests required by the EPA, according to the General Accounting Office. Millions of private and public wells have never been tested for contamination. But when the EPA randomly checked 466 municipal wells in 1981, it found 99 contained toxic chemicals. Bottled water isn't regularly monitored for synthetic chemicals, except in states like New York that require it. Last year, the . health department of Suffolk County, Long Island, where about 2,000 private wells are severely contaminated, decided to test the-. bottled water sold in the county. It found ' potentially hazardous chemicals in 46 of 110 brands. The people of Rockaway began a massive cooperation effort involving homeowners, engineers, politicians, and local industry to Figure out what to do. They decided to buy a carbon filtration system for public wells. About 40 residents with contaminated private wells followed suit, investing $225 each to attach carbon filters under their kitchen sinks. As Christie says, "It seems that if you want to do something, you'll have to do it yourself." The first step is to find out whether your water is fit to drink. IT'S NOT that difficult to find out which chemicals, if any, are in your drinking water. Start by asking your water utility and health department. Although most local departments analyze your water for bacteria only, they can recommend labs for chemical tests.- If you live in a rural area, find out what pesticides local farmers use, and ask a lab to look for them. If you live in a city that gets its water from a river, you may find chlorine byproducts flowing from your tapL If water tests turn up worrisome con-taminants you have two basic choices: You' can filter out the pollutants flowing from your tap or get your water elsewhere. Nei-, ther way is cheap or foolproof. Bottled water costs an average of 70 cents a gallon municipal water, roughly $1 to $2 per 1,000 gal-: ; Ions. ';-, "People are buying bottled drinking water because of health concerns with public sources," says William F. Deal, executive . vice-president of the International Bottled Water Association. "I think it's a major v :. reason for the industry doing as well as it , IT MAY NOT always be the best reason, however, as Suffolk County found when it tested 110 brands of bottled water. Many of the seltzers and club sodas in the test, all basically carbonated tap water, had significant problems. - Despite these surprises, the sludy found the average bottled water was no worse than average tap water. Or make a long-term investment in a filter to cleanse your tap i water at your sink. Perhaps the most effective way to remove most manmade chemicals, as Rockaway Township discovered, is an activated carbon filler. Many are simply canisters filled with activated carbon, coal, wood or coconut shells brought to a high temperature. The :' heat etches tiny craters and channels in the carbon, and the chemicals in the water cling to thse nooks and crannies. , American Health Magazine SB Receive a free Riverside roiltop desk when you purchase any of the lovely home furnishings shown below Don't delay! Hurry In right n We've made a special arrangement wttn me manuiacturer could bring you this FREE desk. Choose your new furni ture from the exciting elections below and you'll take home an authentic hand crafted treasure from River side the most respected manufacturer of desks for the home. I l cj C,M ' 'gpFy ii c27 toltetSJ, A $699 value! now! i t - i' I H 699 . VALUE $1049 BOTH PIECES WITH FREE DESK Sofa and Loveteat In Geometric Pattern 100 Herculon. 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