Richard Jay Thalheimer (1948–)
Entrepreneur Richard Thalheimer is the founder and former CEO of the Sharper Image Corporation. The company, which Thalheimer launched in 1979, became iconic for its unique high-tech consumer items that were often called “toys for adults.” At the height of the company’s success, Thalheimer employed 4,000 people and led Sharper Image to annual revenues of $750 million through mail-order catalogs, online sales, and almost 200 retail stores nationwide.
Richard Jay Thalheimer was born on July 19, 1948, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to Alan Thalheimer and Gladys Miriam Thalheimer. His family had founded Little Rock’s Blass Department Store, which traced its roots to 1871 under Gus Blass and, at one point, became the largest such store in Arkansas. As a senior at Hall High School, he was listed in the yearbook as R. J. “Dick” Thalheimer. He is among Hall High School’s distinguished graduates, along with General Wesley Clark, athlete Sidney Moncrief, and Governor Jim Guy Tucker.
Many of Thalheimer’s early years were spent working odd jobs in the toy section at Blass, where his father was manager. After graduating from Hall High School in 1966, Thalheimer attended Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. At Yale, he studied psychology and sociology, graduating in 1970. He sold encyclopedias during his freshman year of college, earning enough to buy a Porsche sports car.
The year after graduating, Thalheimer visited San Francisco, California, at the suggestion of a friend. He liked the city and settled there, attending the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. Thalheimer graduated with a JD degree in 1974. He was admitted to the California bar, practicing law for a year in San Francisco.
While in law school, Thalheimer created a wholesale company catering to the photocopier business sector, which was growing in the early 1970s. He named it “The Sharper Image,” marketing his paper and toner as allowing people to make better, clearer copies. He was making deliveries of photocopier supplies to businesses in San Francisco’s Financial District each afternoon between classes, but the physical strain took its toll. Thalheimer then thought about running a mail-order business.
At a trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1977, Thalheimer visited a small booth where the vendor was selling a digital watch for $35 wholesale. The device was similar to the new $300 Seiko digital watch that was desirable among runners in the United States. Making a deal with the vendor for exclusive U.S. distribution, Thalheimer bought a full-page ad in Runner’s World magazine featuring the picture of a friend, well-known distance runner Walt Stack. Thalheimer advertised his affordable “Realtime” waterproof, shock-resistant watch at $69, with the headline, “Finally, a chronograph that keeps up with amazing Walt Stack.” The watch became the first major consumer hit for the Sharper Image.
The Runner’s World advertisement for the watch, which cost Thalheimer $1,000, generated $10,000 in sales. Repeating the methodology with other products, by age twenty-seven, he had made his first million dollars. He decided to launch his own San Francisco–based mail-order catalog in 1979 with three employees. The first catalog offered twenty-five items, personally selected by Thalheimer, who described his process as picking out fun toys for grown-ups. Items included what was called the first cordless phone, an early answering machine, and a car radar detector along with luxury gifts for the “person who has everything.”
The Sharper Image became a nationally known brand in the booming 1980s, an era when the conspicuous consumption of flashy gadgetry was in vogue. Thalheimer thus expanded into retail stores, opening locations in upscale shopping areas across America, including one at 12319 Chenal Parkway in affluent western Little Rock.
In 1987, the company’s initial public offering was listed on the NASDAQ exchange under the symbol SHRP. At its peak, the Sharper Image employed about 4,000 and had 183 retail stores from San Francisco to London. In 2000, the company had the top-selling gift of the year in the Razor scooter that Thalheimer had spotted at a Chinese toy fair.
In a quest for innovative new items, Thalheimer created the Sharper Image Design Lab at Novato, California, near San Francisco. The Design Lab’s assignment was to develop proprietary products that would increase profit margins for Sharper Image. As Thalheimer’s fame grew, he made appearances on such programs as Good Morning America, The Late Show with David Letterman, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Oprah, The Today Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and 20/20, and profiles of Thalheimer appeared in major media outlets.
Thalheimer and Sharper Image entered into a legal conflict with Consumer Reports magazine over one of the company’s products called Ionic Breeze, which was marketed by as an air purifier. Consumer Reports printed an article in October 2003 citing what it said was false information about the ability of Ionic Breeze to reduce airborne particles. The Sharper Image sued the magazine for libel but lost $525,000 in legal costs after the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge. In May 2005, two months after the lawsuit’s dismissal, Consumer Reports renewed its criticism, stating that the Ionic Breeze air purifier failed to significantly clean the air—and may even release unhealthy levels of ozone. After the second article was published, company stock began to fall. Thalheimer was included in a class action suit by shareholders who claimed that the company withheld information in order to maintain the price of the company’s stock. The Sharper Image agreed to make concessions in order to settle the lawsuit.
In 2006, after internal struggles with the company’s board of directors, Thalheimer departed from the company he had created. Forbes magazine published an article stating that Thalheimer had been “sacked.”
The Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy in 2008, closing all 183 retail stores, including the one at Chenal Place in Thalheimer’s hometown of Little Rock. After having various owners, the company launched online as a general consumer brand.
Within months of leaving The Sharper Image in 2006, Thalheimer started a new online company called Richard|Solo, a boutique website for upscale gadgets. Thalheimer began managing the Sharper Fund, which pitches itself as “a private fund with exceptional performance.” He and his wife Christina live near San Francisco.
For additional information:
Barrett, Stephen. “Court Dismisses Sharper Image Lawsuit against Consumers Union.” Quackwatch, April 19, 2005. https://quackwatch.org/legal/ionicbreeze/ (accessed May 5, 2023).
Crockett, Zachary. “The Man Who Sold Bulletproof Raincoats.” The Hustle, March 28, 2021. https://thehustle.co/the-man-who-sold-bulletproof-raincoats/ (accessed May 5, 2023).
Donald, Leroy. “Ex-Sharper Image Chief Goes Back to Roots, But Online.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 23, 2007. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2007/sep/23/everybodys-business-ex-sharper-image-chie-20070923/ (accessed May 5, 2023).
Huffman, Mark. “Ionic Breeze Suit Drives Sharper Image into Bankruptcy.” Consumer Affairs, February 20, 2008. https://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2008/02/sharper_image.html (accessed May 5, 2023).
Richard Thalheimer.com. https://www.richardthalheimer.com/ (accessed May 5, 2023).
“Sharper Image CEO Gets Sacked.” Forbes, September 26, 2006. https://www.forbes.com/2006/09/26/thalheimer-sharper-image-face-cx_sr_0926autofacescan04.html (accessed May 5, 2023).
“Sharper Image to Close All Stores.” Arkansas Business, June 2, 2008. https://www.arkansasbusiness.com/article/42561/sharper-image-to-close-all-stores (accessed May 5, 2023).
Thalheimer, Richard. Creating Your Own Sharper Image. Audiobook. San Francisco, CA: Sharper Image Corporation, 2004.
———. Sharper Image Success: Business Lessons from America’s Gadget Guy. Austin, TX: Lioncrest Publishing, 2020.
———. The Sharper Investor: The Winning Formula That Boosts Your Returns. Austin, TX: Lioncrest Publishing, 2021.
———. “What Arkansas’ Business Owners Can Do to Maintain Growth in an Uncertain Political Climate.” Arkansas Money and Politics, March 12, 2022. https://www.armoneyandpolitics.com/author/richardthalheimer/ (accessed May 5, 2023).
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