SHARPER IMAGE USES FIRST TV ADS TO PUSH OWN 'TOYS': RETAILER OFFERS Q BALL PRODUCT FOR HOLIDAYS

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The Sharper Image, the chain built on a "toys for boys" positioning, is making its latest private-label gizmo the centerpiece of a first-ever TV advertising campaign.

Emboldened by a successful sales season last year for its popular Weebots electronic pets, Sharper Image is following up this year with another in-house design, the Q Ball. When shaken, the Q Ball offers 140 different "mystic" answers in 20 voices to the person using it.

Spending on the effort, which includes radio, is estimated at $5.5 million.

TEENS VIA NICK

Each TV commercial will run on targeted programming. The teen spot, for example, will run on cable's Nickelodeon.

In one commercial, a group of teens pass the Q Ball around while dancing. In another, an executive pondering a decision on the phone at work shakes the Q Ball to get the answer. In the third execution, a Q Ball left on a kitchen counter is picked up by one family member after another seeking "answers" to everyday questions.

The current approach, done in-house, veers sharply from Sharper Image's last concerted ad effort, a sophisticated print campaign in 1996 from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco. One, for night vision glasses, featured an embracing couple.

Started up in 1977 by Richard Thalheimer, Sharper Image built its business by taking the offerings of other manufacturers and selling the gadgets a season or two before they became more readily available to consumers. Some of its products sold for novelty value alone, such as a telephone with a built-in lie detector.

DESIGNER PRODUCTS

Now the company, which is projecting $300 million in sales this year via its 100 stores, online and catalog operations, is emphasizing its own merchandise.

"We are pushing our own designer products," said Kathryn Grant, Internet media manager.

About 50% of its products are now private-label or designed in-house.

Among them: Weebots, electronic pets that resemble tiny space ships. The original line proved so popular last year that Sharper Image is now extending the franchise with a trio of "PeeWee-Bots" named Twizzer, Zop and Bop.

STORE REDESIGN

In a move to boost sales, Sharper Image last year had tinkered with a store redesign intended to provide more of a "retailtainment" venue. The retailer reduced inventory and encouraged customers to come in and play with featured products. It abandoned the approach earlier this year because it failed to lift sales.

Like several other retailers, Sharper Image also is making a concerted push toward global e-tailing, putting in place the means to clear products through

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