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Exceeding Extraordinary

Stephen Farrell, Director of Merchandising at Hammacher Schlemmer
Michael Hemsworth
October 29th, 2013
Director of Merchandising Stephen Farrell started his career at catalog company Hammacher Schlemmer and after a colorful career, he has found himself back at the world-renowned company with fresh new insight to boot. Known for its wide array of products ranging from straight-forward to extraordinary, Hammacher Schlemmer has made a name for itself by delivering unique items in a diverse way via a primarily mail order business model. Farrell’s eye for detail and attention to consumer trends allows him to pinpoint some seriously fantastic items for the brand to deliver. Through an extensive vetting process and discussion, the team at Hammacher Schlemmer decides what will make it into one of its coveted catalogs that mail out 19 times a year.

5 Questions with Stephen Farrell:

1. How does your team generate new ideas?

We review each category for sales trends and brainstorm on which trends can be expanded. We are connected to the major manufacturers so we have insight as to what is coming to market Say, if you're developing a shower head with a speaker in it. We want to work with vendors to find out how something will be received, how it will sell and what kinds of people it will relate to. We’ll do research on our competitors – big and small – to get the most comprehensive snapshot of what’s out there and how something might be received once it becomes available. It’s trial and error in the end, so something that you might have perceived as something that will do great might flop and vice-versa.

2. Do you have specific rituals for re-setting your team to be creative?

Our buying team is by nature a creative group, so the best thing we can do is a free-form conversation in a meeting with a specific topic like new product performance. I encourage the buyers during these meetings; the ideas will change in a heartbeat and anything goes. We rarely get out of the office as much as we like, but our buyers are constantly talking with suppliers. We'll present new products every 3-4 weeks for upcoming catalogs. We review the item from every angle: quality, uniqueness and whether we think our customers will respond to the product story we will tell about the item. Some items can be over-designed to the point where customer doesn’t care about the features built into an item.

3. How do you identify trends? What resources does your team use to spot trends and consumer insights?

Each member of the team is responsible for specific categories, so we’ll each do research accordingly. We’ll look at a variety of different sources for inspiration including blogs, magazines, trade journals and the like. We’re always trying to translate what’s happening in the general marketplace to something our customers need It takes a certain level of research to get the maximum amount of potential out of each item we sell.

4. What is the biggest challenge you face when innovating?

We're always trying to find ways to get an item into the catalog sooner. If we see a trend that we think is great but isn't quite ready for any number of reasons, that can be our biggest challenge. It’s all about being able to come up with a quick and concise way to present a product so that it’s intriguing and encourages the reader to turn the page. Finding the appropriate angle to go on to ensure it’s going to be unique, exciting and appealing enough to incite interest. We’re always trying to bring a great product to the table that isn’t too out there. Essentially, we’re a catalog that contains around 300 opportunities for our customers to find something they wouldn’t find anywhere else. It’s like writing a pop song; you’ve got to have a hook.

5. Have you identified any gaps in your innovation process that you're looking to improve on?

Having enough resources specifically dedicated to developing better products is always a challenge so we have expanded our department to focus more on creating the best products we can for our customers. We would like to continue to expand this in the years to come.
References: trendreports, hammacher