Making Whoopee

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2006

It's the kind of exposure-pun intended-every company dreams of: Last December Jay Leno singled out a mooning toy Santa from Bradenton's Johnson Smith Company as a great gag gift for Christmas on The Tonight Show.

Turns out that, for years, Johnny Carson had bought magic tricks from the venerable mail-order company, one of America's oldest novelty-gift sellers, so Tonight Show producers periodically contact Johnson Smith for gag items. Two hundred of the naughty, motion-activated mechanical Santas, at $24.98 a pop, sold right after the broadcast.

If you're a baby boomer, chances are you grew up with Johnson Smith, which regularly advertised whoopee cushions and sea monkeys in the back of comic books and Boy's Life magazines. It's a slice of nostalgia actually featured in a Library of Congress exhibit on American pastimes.

The company got its start when Alfred Johnson Smith moved to Chicago in 1914 from Australia and published his first 64-page, black and white catalog, called Surprising Novelties, Puzzles, Tricks, Joke Goods, Useful Articles. For decades, through the Great Depression and World War II (and a company move to Detroit, in 1935), the Johnson Smith catalog provided inexpensive rubber chickens, joy buzzers and X-ray glasses to generations of the young and young-at-heart.

When Paul Hoenle bought the company from the Johnson Smith family in 1966, he moved it to larger headquarters, brought in a full-time buyer and merchandiser and added such improved technology as a letter-opening machine and an IBM accounting computer. In 1986 Hoenle moved the entire operation to a brand-new, high-tech, 60,000-square-foot facility in Manatee County. (An auxiliary 35,000-square-foot building in a nearby commerce park houses the mailroom, data-entry, accounting and purchasing departments as well as additional warehouse space.) Like many other business owners, Hoenle was tired of the Northern winters and wanted a relocation site that offered a good workforce and-at least in the late 1980s-lots of affordable housing. "He looked in North Carolina and Ocala," says son Ralph Hoenle, now president of the company, "and the Economic Development Council did a great job of selling him on this area."

Ralph and his sister, Kim Boyd, took over the company at their father's retirement in 2000. Boyd, vice president of marketing, remembers working from their home in a Detroit suburb as children, "peeling the money off mail-order coupons, because the shipping charge was 35 cents, and people would Scotch tape the coins to the order form. We were paid 25 cents an hour. Believe it or not, all the labels used to be typewritten and sorted on the kitchen table."

No longer. For such light-hearted merchandise, this has grown to be a serious business, with five catalogs and an Internet-only e-tail site, which together offer 3,000 to 5,000 items at a time. While the privately held company does not divulge revenues due to the intensely competitive nature of the industry (more than 8,000 different catalogs are published annually), it employs 130 year-round and an additional 200 seasonal employees in customer service, ordering, stocking and shipping. The day after Thanksgiving, traditionally its busiest day of the year, it took 10,000 phone calls and shipped 20,000 orders from the Bradenton warehouse. Biggest seller of the 2005 holiday season: an afghan into which is woven a full-color photograph of the customer's choosing; retail price $109.98. "It was huge," says Boyd.

Why are such seemingly frivolous products so lucrative? "People look to us for entertainment when times are tough," Boyd says. "They need to have something to laugh about and to tug at their heartstrings."

Boyd, who earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania, was an assistant buyer for The May Co. until she joined her father at Johnson Smith in 1986. Hoenle, who got a foreign-service degree from Georgetown and a J.D. from the Santa Clara University School of Law ("Go figure, I sell whoopee cushions," he says), was the manager of Old Navy's flagship store outside San Francisco until he came onboard in 1995. They're particularly proud of the company's family-friendly ambiance: The brother-sister team has shared the same office for five years, and their longest-serving employee has worked for Johnson Smith for 63 years. "She moved with us from Michigan," says Boyd, "and whenever she wants vacation time, she gets it."

Johnson Smith mails its catalogs 30 times a year, dropping anywhere from 500,000 to 4 million at a time. (The Lighter Side has the biggest circulation.) Catalogs are printed in Lisbon, Maine, by Dingley Press, which used to print the L.L. Bean catalog. A good customer response, says Hoenle, is 2 percent to 3 percent. "As my dad said, it's like going to Vegas every time we mail," he says. But the company increases its odds by renting mailing lists that reflect their target demographics (see "Thumbing Through Johnson Smith's Catalogs," below) and using sales-predicting software.

The seven buyers-two of whom have been with the company more than 30 years-have a good feel for what's going to be popular, but every once in a while something buried in the back pages catches fire. This past holiday season, it was a handheld electronic version of the Japanese number puzzle Sudoku. Introduced first on The Lighter Side Web site in November, then in the holiday catalog, more than 10,000 units sold in just two months, at $14.98 each.

How did it happen? Much in the same way the other 50 to 250 new products are introduced in each catalog, says Boyd: "One of our buyers read a little newspaper blurb saying Sudoku was the latest thing, and she hopped on it." Hopping on it-keeping in touch with pop culture and detecting trends before every mass merchant latches onto them-is key. Johnson Smith's buyers travel to Asia and the big U.S. merchandise marts in search of the next big thing, and a constant stream of vendors with merchandise packed in rollaway suitcases visits the Bradenton headquarters. But, says Hoenle, "Our favorite conversation at company lunches is what we read in People magazine."

In 2005 Johnson Smith's top sellers did reflect today's pop culture-a deluxe TV poker game and a talking Napoleon Dynamite figure. In the 1970s anything Star Wars was a big hit; in the '80s, E.T; and in the '90s, anything related to the Backstreet Boys, Pokemon and Beanie Babies.

After CNBC ran a piece on Johnson Smith last October, "a lot of old customers wrote us," Boyd says. "They said things like, 'My grandfather used to order from you,' and 'I didn't know you were still here.'"

Web sales have become increasingly important, accounting for 20 percent to 35 percent of all sales, and Johnson Smith employs five Web managers and another five information-technology managers. IT has become the backbone of the company, says Hoenle, and it runs everything from inventory management to the customer-service call center. The goal is to answer a call in under 20 seconds; if the Bradenton center gets backed up, a computer automatically reroutes phones to 24-hour call centers in Vermont and New Mexico that are under contract with the company.

Computers generate "pick-velocity" reports, which indicate the fastest-selling items; those best-sellers are then moved forward on the "pick line" so employees can access them faster. "We don't end up with a lot of excess inventory," says Hoenle. "We bring in enough for the first week, then we can tell whether we need to order more or not."

Hoenle says it's not that easy explaining to people what he does. "I sometimes refer to myself as 'the King of Whoopee Cushions,'" he says. "That's a small part of our company now, but it's our history, it's something they're going to remember us for; it's the fun part."

Jean Shepherd, author of A Christmas Story, once wrote an essay about the 1929 Johnson Smith catalog, saying it "might well be the Rosetta Stone of American culture. Students of the future, in deciphering it, will learn far more about us through its pages than through any other single document I know of. Read it, enjoy it and honor it. It is about us."

Says Hoenle, "I believe this still to be true."

Thumbing through Johnson Smith's catalogs

Things You Never Knew Existed: The original Johnson Smith catalog, its mix of gag gifts and techie toys is geared to appeal to boys eight to 80. Star Wars bobble heads, wrist-watch walkie-talkies and T-shirts that read things like "I'm not Santa, but you can sit on my lap anyway" are its forte.

The Lighter Side: Introduced in 1979, it's Johnson Smith's biggest catalog. Its figurines, T-shirts that read things like "It's not shopping, it's retail therapy" and personalized picture frames are aimed at fun-loving, middle-America moms age 25 to 55 for whom $30 is a serious purchase.

Betty's Attic: Added for the serious collector in 1998, its nostalgia includes John Wayne cookie jars, cartoon Beatles wall clocks, Magic 8-balls and everything Elvis and Liberace.

Clever Gear: Launched in 2000, here you'll find electronic tie racks, MP3-playing sunglasses and lots of iPod accessories.

Full of Life: Started in 2003 and aimed at aging boomers, its "ideas for active, healthy living" include shoulder massagers, toothbrush sanitizers, exercise DVDs and anti-wrinkle capsules. Johnson Smith's sole Internet-only site, it hawks costumes, masks and haunted-house supplies.

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