Air-fueled taxicabs, conspiracy theories, a very special fly, Ryan Seacrest, what L.L. Bean has on Budweiser, the world’s most expensive Phil Collins record, hypersonic travel, and butts. Welcome to The Flying-with-the-Future-while-Mooning-the-Past Issue.
By Maria Popova
DRIVING ON AIR
Brace yourselves, people, for this may be the best thing to happen to the planet since Al Gore.
A rather Jetsonian new car that runs on nothing but air was first conceived in 1993. Inventor Guy NÃ¨gre, who previously designed F1 engines, at French R&D company Moteur Developpement International spent the next decade on research, development, and funding hunts for the yet-to-be-produced miracle machine. But without factories built, the project couldn’t even take off. After some press buzz in 2000, things took a turn for the worse: in 2001, a Swedish investigative journalist called the whole thing a scam and, in 2003, MDI was practically bankrupt.
But persistence, like buying Google stock circa 2004, always pays off in the end. MDI has just signed a 5.5-billion-dollar deal with Tata Motors, India’s largest motor companies. Under its terms, 6,000 air cars are slated to hit the streets by August 2008.
Okay, time for Oz to come out. How does this whole shebang really work?
It’s true, it does run on air. Compressed Air Technology is the name of the game, the same stuff power tools have been running on for decades. The engine has 4 cylinders, like a regular car engine, but because there’s no combustion at all, 90% of it is made out of lightweight aluminum, the lower melting point of which prevents it from being used in a normal combustion engine. The cylinders themselves are made from carbon fiber, which, unlike the metal used in regular cylinders, doesn’t shatter into shrapnel in crashes and accidents. The air car can run on one tank, which only takes 3 minutes to refill at a compressed air station, for almost 2,800 miles. That’s a trip from New York to L.A., plus a few spare miles to drive around West Hollywood gawking at the trannies.
That’s all neat and all but, really, let’s ask the most important marketplace questions: how much and how fast?
The final models are expected to max out at 69 miles per hour. Not exactly street racing fare, but perfect given they’ll be urban vehicles, mostly taxis, dwelling within city limits. And how much? They’re expected to start at $15,000. But get this: a regular gas car costs about $60 per week to fuel, a hybrid sets you back by $30, and an air car is just a few dollars. So they’re smarter than Smart Car, and don’t look nearly as ridiculous.
And speaking of, we’re tempted to spin a conspiracy theory, oh maybe something involving a Mercedes-Benz desire for US market domination maybe, as to why this clearly brilliant, pollution-reducing, cost-efficient concept is receiving hardly any press and certainly no billion-dollar deals on the oh-look-at-us-we’re-so-green US scene. But we’ll refrain.
THE PRODUCT LAUNCH THAT REALLY LAUNCHES
While we’re on the subject of Jetsonian stuff, the latest from Virgin entrepreneur (no, not in that Harvard Engineering guy way) Sir Richard Branson’s latest move on the much-hyped awhile ago project Virgin Galactic is as futuristic as they come. After signing a deal with NASA earlier this year, Virgin Galactic has finally chosen a winning design for its first 100,000-square-foot spaceport set to begin construction in 2008. Both the spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo (SS2) and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, are to be completed next year as well.
The $31-million spaceport will be built in New Mexico’s Mojave desert. Where, for those of you concerned with petty things like safety and, um, life, an SS2 prototype exploded on July 26, killing 3 people and injuring another 3. But that would too rational a concern for those willing to shell out an Ivy League education ($200,000, to be exact) on boarding the craft and aimlessly floating in ether for a bit.
Still, we’re not having too much trouble seeing the “cool” factor — imagine casually mentioning at your next dinner party that you’ve been on a hypersonic vehicle traveling five or more times the speed of sound. Which seems to us is the only real appeal anyway, given the folks at Virgin maintain that their 3-day pre-flight training program fully simulates the experience. So, um, if you can experience in 10 square feet what you can experience in a 200-grand getaway, why go?
Eh, but who are a few cheap bastards like us to stand in the way of progress and reckless spending? Make your own call.
We’ll give it this though — from a mail-order record retailer to a space travel agency, Virgin has gone a long way from selling the Dark Side of the Moon for $18.98 a pop to putting a $200,000 price sticker on it.
With ever-growing online spending, it’s no surprise the fashion segment is sucking up some major e-dollars. Here’s a snapshot of how the top 10 big online guns in apparel and accessories are doing and (of course) why it matters:
1. eBay: $2.98 million total apparel and accessories sales in July, $35.83 average spend per shopper. Doesn’t hurt that they own some of the most powerful e-commerce tools — PayPal, Skype, shopping.com, and more.
2. Victoria’s Secret: $663,000 total, $177.74 average spend per buyer. But before you roll your eyes like we did and think it’s a bit much to spend on undies while at the same time welcoming a sign that less people are foregoing those, keep in mind there’s more to Victoria’s Secret than lingerie: after dumping Express and The Limited, the brand still includes Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel, C.O. Bigelow, White Barn Candle Co. and La Senza.
3. J.C. Penney & Co.: $568,000 total, $68.65 per shopper. That’s a 17.4% growth in online sales for Q2, making a smartly entrepreneurial someone reach around his shaved-but-really-bald head, pat himself on the back, and feel the love.
4. Chadwick’s: $305,000 total, $62.15 per spender. Small wonder given they’re owned by French conglomerate PPR, the mother ship for Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta. The folks at Chadwick’s anticipate to have sold 750,000 dresses once summer wraps up. (Nope, not an inflated ego case — they were at about 500,000 end of August.) Let’s see, that’s 2 and a half dresses (kinda like two dresses and a skirt) to every 10 American women. Or a dress for every 2 1/2 out 10 American women. Kinda like a dress for every two women and Ryan Seacrest.
5. L.L.Bean: $271,00 total, $122.40 per shopper. With the exception of the underwear people, that’s an average spend per person almost double what the other top-fivers can claim, and more than triple (closer to quadruple, really) what top player eBay scores. Oh, and these folks give top online players even outside the apparel industry a run for their money — llbean.com gets over 2.3 million U.S. monthly unique visitors, half of what TV Guide’s massively promoted website boasts. (It also happens to be the exact number must’ve-been-hammered Anheuser-Busch execs anticipated for Bud.TV, only to end up with just 6% of that a mere month after its launch.)
6. Lands’ End: $263,000 total, $76.48 average spend. After being acquired by Sears in 2002, the retailer grew from the 100-products-plus-buncha-essays-and-travelogues it was in 1995 to a full-blown online shopping destination. Even so, they’ve got quite a bit to catch up with main clicks-and-mortar competitor L.L.Bean. (In 2000, actually, Lands’ End and L.L.Bean were the top two online apparel retailers, respectively, separated by less than one point in Forrester’s rankings. Way to drop the ball, Lands’ End.)
7. Coldwater Creek: $259,000 total, $182.71 per shopper. Seems like these folks (and their bottom line) were so happy with their ever-climbing online performance (how’s a 10% increase since last quarter?) that they sucked up the mind-blowing expenses of operating a store in Manhattan and just opened their first, sticking their flag on 15,000 square feet at Third Avenue and 68th Street.
8. Lane Bryant: $253,000 total, $60.50 average spend. Acquired by Charming Shoppers Inc. in 2001, the retailer’s online home seems to be doing just that. And in a plus-size category where fashion and fit must be like Starsky and Hutch, their smart new Right Fit technology seems to be, once again, just that with shoppers.
9. QVC: $204,000 total, $98.89 per spender. Named after terms out of a Marketing 101 textbook, these folks have managed to put a tangible, hefty price sticker on intangibles quality, value and convenience. And if you think of QVC as an outlet for washed-up celebs’ jewelry lines (we’re talking to you, Paula), reconsider: they carry Bradley Bayou, Pamela Dennis, Bob Mackie and Diva By Dana Buchman for apparel, and Dooney & Burke, Maxx New York, Etienne Aigner and Michael Michael Kors for accessories.
10. Kohl’s: $200,000 total, $84.26 average spend. And we’ll keep an eye on this one — unless you’ve been living under a brand rock, you know Vera Bradley signed a deal with Kohl’s awhile ago. Her Simply Vera line just kicked off to an understated but fourfold-outperforming-projections launch last week. And we’re pretty sure it’ll make competitors drop down the rankings like hemlines at this year’s Fashion Week.
Get the full scoop from the pros at Women’s Wear Daily.
But here’s why we care: turns out, some 15% of consumers are responsible for 1.5 billion brand impressions per day. Each of these 32 million “conversation catalysts” mentions a brand 184 times per week, on average. They dish out on a wide range of topics and industries, with media and entertainment getting the most tongue time at 16 mentions per week. But get this: fashion and retail get over 10 weekly mentions. And these WOM moguls are not your expected chatty herd of 20-somethings: 37% of them are boomers.
So, combined with the fact that WOM is more likely to move women to action than men, it’s starting to dawn on us that, perhaps, a large portion of the business on the above retail fat-cat websites, who in reality sell more to women than to men, is driven by a small percentage of middle-aged consumers. Kind of helps make sense of why the whole ooh-let’s-make-a-Sears-brand-island-in-Second-Life platform that’s been the trend this year is only populating the virtual world with ghost towns creepier than Harry Potter doing erotica.
BACKLESS COUTURE GOES SOUTH
And speaking of erotica, while we’re still (sort of) on the too-much-(for)-underwear note, there’s hope for those who want to reconcile their love for fine lingerie with their desire, well, not to wear any.
If expensive thongs are too much of a trip back to grade school for you (bully takes lunch money, bully gives wedgie, you end up broke and uncomfortable), there’s an alternative. Thanks to N De Samim, a lady (or Ryan Seacrest) can shake her tailfeather without the aforementioned discomfort. Yep, it’s buttless underwear.
Inspired by 16th century France, when wearing undergarments was considered indecent because of how it accentuates the anatomy, designer Nona de Samim decided to give this concept a buttlift, although we suspect indecency was not their primary concern. In their own words, it “creates a private world. One that creates a passion, to provide an experience, [sic] only few can imagine.” Eh, we’ve imagined those anatomical features before. And they go on to promise “…a whole new way of seeing…more, a way of being.” We’ll give them the seeing more part.
But at 95 Euros (or $131.85, at today’s rate) apiece, we ask the obvious question: isn’t it easier, cheaper and more cost-efficient to just go comando? Be your own judge, if you can squint through what we’re now convinced is an optometrist-sponsored sea of 32-point Edwardian Script ITC.
FLY OFF THE WALL
And on a less offensive note, let’s check out one guy who makes art out of dead pest.
Nicholas Hendrickx, a recreational macro photographer and general creativist from Belgium, takes one dead fly where no dead fly has ever been. With a little bit of photo equipment (a Canon EOS 350D plus various accessories) and a whole lot of patience, Nic has created The Adventures of Mr. Fly, an astonishing photoessay of miniature brilliance.
From Mr. Fly’s wonderfully retro portrait, to his laid-back chill-out moment, to our personal favorite, his stint as a professional bum, the project is a testament to the power of a little bit of spare time and a seriously creative mind.