Battle of the gadget store titans

SAN FRANCISCO (02/18/2004) - I shop for food and clothes because I have to. I shop for gadgets because I love to. And aside from a cleverly stocked hardware store here or there, I have found few retailers dedicated to gadgets except the two Goliaths of the category: Sharper Image, with some 140 stores, and Brookstone, with about 260.

So whenever I end up at a shopping mall I take a look-and-feel cruise through the Brookstone Inc. or Sharper Image Corp. store that's invariably part of the retail mix. During my last few visits I finally figured out what distinguishes each chain from the other.

Sharper Image: A visit to high-tech heaven

Sharper Image is maintaining the high-tech image cultivated in the millions of catalogues that it mailed out before it had even one retail store. While it sells gadgets and gizmos from name-brand companies such as Sony Corp. and Panasonic, it now emphasizes in-house products described as "Invented Here."

From the outrageous Turbo-Groomer 5.0 vanity appliance (a US$60 nose-hair trimmer) to the clever, all-in-one Personal Entertainment Center (a $600 portable DVD player-TV-radio-alarm clock) the company's inventory runs the gamut of gadgets gone amok.

I always like to take a tumble in the Leather-Covered "Human Touch" Robotic Massage Recliner. The inviting leather easy chair massages me from top to bottom until I purr. It has, however, never relaxed me enough to spend the $1,800 it costs. Before a sales person can tackle me to launch into a spiel about it, I move on.

I'm also intrigued by the Avante Elite Toaster by T-Fal, a high-tech toaster with an LCD countdown timer that cues you on launch time for your bagel.

But I feel like I have attention deficit disorder in this store: No sooner do I see the toaster than I see a wristwatch-like device that stimulates pressure points on your wrist to put you to sleep. Ooh... ooh... but wait, here's a watch that prevents motion sickness. Over there's some exercise equipment. Glowing alarm clocks of every shape and size are everywhere. And here's the Sharper Image Electric X2 Scooter. I'm like a kid in a candy store where all the treats happen to run on batteries.

Sharper Image definitely goes for the flashy, high-tech devices that radiate an instant "Wow!" effect that's dangerous for impulse buyers. Integrated into the mix are executive toys as well as practical personal and household gadgets, all strategically placed to grab your attention (and hopefully, your credit cards). Walk in because you're curious about one item, and you'll inevitably be drawn to another you didn't know existed.

Tooling up with Brookstone

Invariably the items that attract my attention at Brookstone are doodads like the talking remote thermometer and the see-through desktop CD player. But what keeps me in the store are the items that the company dedicates an entire catalogue to: "Hard to Find Tools." Brookstone has even trademarked that phrase.

These are the types of tools that most hardware stores don't carry, but Hold Everything or Pottery Barn might. Here you'll find functional shelving for nooks and crannies in every room of your home, futuristic-looking space heaters and air purifiers, door and window jams to stop drafts or water seepage, an aluminum snow rake for your roof, and a slim wall-mount kitchen scale that folds in to double as a clock.

Brookstone's exclusive products include the Fom Stress-Relieving Cushion, a $39 nylon pillow filled with soft microbeads that bend, twist, and squish. Surprisingly, you do relieve stress as you mindlessly manipulate the cushion.

Little gizmos are scattered in racks around the store. Office, home, and travel products abound in an environment that is less flashy than Sharper Image's. Brookstone has a sedate, easy-to-browse atmosphere that invites you to discover things you didn't know you needed. For example, I bought a universal garage door opener to replace the one I had, which I thought was irreplaceable.

Left to my devices, I will continue to frequent both chains, but for different reasons. When I want "Wow!" I'll head to Sharper Image; and when I need that special tool that I can't describe but know when I see it, I'll go to Brookstone.

Gadget shorts

Kanguru FC-RW: Saddled with a terrible name for such an ingenuous device, the Kanguru FC-RW ($200) is a stand-alone CD-RW drive that backs up seven different types of flash media and can be used with or without a PC. Stick a Compact Flash, Memory Stick, Smart Media, Secure Digital or other card into one of the available (and appropriately labeled) slots, and the device copies the data to a CD-R or CD-RW at up to 36X speed. You can fill discs with data from different cards up to a disc's capacity; an LCD window on the device shows how much room is left. When it's not copying, you can use the FC-RW to listen to music CDs with the available headphone port. Too bad it doesn't run on batteries, but it is a clever little device.

Kensington Pocket KeyPad Calculator: Made for the laptop user who wants the keypad found on standard desktop keyboards, the Pocket KeyPad Calculator doubles as a battery-powered calculator, either attached to or free of a PC. A mode button lets you toggle between calculator and keypad, and a Send button exports the number on the keypad screen directly to the cursor point in a document. This is the first portable keypad I've seen that provides a comma and backspace key, handy when you don't want to jump from the keypad to the keyboard. It lists for $45, but you can get it for $30 at various vendors online.

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