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Making Life a Little More Amazing

Online novelty shop taps into the bizarre side of us.

Holy batstache! There’s no room for boredom at Mark Pahlow’s shop, Archie McPhee, where bacon-scented air fresheners and instant underpants rank among the store’s more popular products.

What started as a home business founded on rubber lizards and other oddities soon turned into a niche market that appeals to the weird child in us, regardless of our age. The store features toys, collectibles, party supplies and other classic items that range between awesome and zany.

Pahlow started Archie McPhee—which has been “super awesome since 1983,” according to the site—in California before settling in the state of Washington. Since the World Wide Web was not available at the time, Pahlow had to run his business out of a brick-and-mortar store. While the physical store still exists, the Web store has been up and running since 1996 and accounts for about half of the company’s sales.

“We had a catalog business for weird people, so moving it to the Internet seemed like a perfect plan,” says David Wahl, the store’s “director of awesome,” in an interview. “After all, the Internet is where weird people gather!”

Pahlow and his team design and produce products that are “necessary for life,” in their humble opinions. The products might not have a practical purpose, but they make life more amazing, Wahl says. Indeed, why have an ordinary bandage when you can have one that looks like bacon?

“We take common items around your house and add a twist to make them a unique way to express your personality”

Selling since childhood

Entrepreneurship began at an early age for Pahlow, who has been known to build ideas, or buy and resell for a profit since elementary school. Pahlow was determined to be self-employed after his father was laid off just months before his eligibility for pension kicked in.

After a few random jobs across the nation and over the sea, Pahlow settled in L.A., where he started a mail-order business for collectible stamps and labels. He would also look for vintage toys at five-and-dime stores, and resell them to higher-end retailers in places like Hollywood and New York.

Eventually, his “collectible junk” needed its own storefront, so he opened Archie McPhee in Seattle. Its namesake comes from Pahlow’s great-uncle-in-law, who wanted to bring jazz music to the Orient in 1924 and succeeded. The store is meant to reflect McPhee’s initiative and fun-loving spirit, according to the store’s site.

To do so, Pahlow would find “strange and unexplainable things” that were being made. When strange and unexplainable became harder to find, he began making his own. Pahlow says it takes energy, tenacity and courage to create the zany ideas he has, but he finds inspiration in sources such as MAD Magazine, the Federal Register and an Ernie Kovacs skit called “The Nairobi Trio.”

He may think “far out” to another universe, but not everything is completely off the grid.

“We like to think of what we do as making reality better,” Wahl says. “We take common items around your house and add a twist to make them a unique way to express your personality.”

For instance, Pahlow and his team added horns to the virtuous bathtub rubber ducky, which has since become one of the store’s trademark products. Among the other thousands of products Pahlow sells, fans will find creepy horse masks, yodeling pickles, inflatable food, stylish mustaches, Dashboard Jesus and—of course—rubber chickens.

Build it and they will come

Early on, Pahlow learned the trick was to source from Asia, where his creations could be manufactured quickly and inexpensively. This allows him to run a profitable small business and sell items that range from one penny to more than $1,000, though most of his products cost less than $15.

“With some effort, you can make inexpensive items that look good and function well, and sell them and make people happy,” Pahlow says.

Customers return to Archie McPhee because they love to see what the newest creation will be. Kids love the products, of course, but adults enjoy them, too. Wahl says people feel they can express their uniqueness and distinguish their personalities through the store’s products. Plus, those who hanker for the good ol’ days of childhood will feel right at home with the eclectic mix that Archie McPhee offers.

“If you don’t create a unique personality for your business, you might as well just give up. Don’t try to appeal to everyone”

People are always attracted to other eras, Pahlow says. Iconic images in his store, like the cowboy rug or fire-breathing nun, can trigger a person’s memory and remind them of things that otherwise would be hard to recall.

Perhaps a fire-breathing nun is a little over the top, but Archie McPhee products often poke fun without being too offensive. You won’t find fake vomit, or politically or sexually crass toys in this shop. What you do find is a wildly particular niche of pop art that is marketable to children and adults, alike.

By selling these products online, the store is able to reach new customers across the nation and around the globe. Pahlow and his staff believe the most important thing about selling online is to set the business apart from others.

“If you don’t create a unique personality for your business, you might as well just give up,” says Wahl. “Don’t try to appeal to everyone.”

While word-of-mouth is the best way to discover the unique personality of Archie McPhee, the store also markets through Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Tumblr and Twitter.

Hard work and time

For online sellers who want to follow in Pahlow’s footsteps by creating their own inventions through Asia, he says you get there by not giving up. Pahlow found an experienced importer in the 1980s and consulted with him for 10 years to learn how to work with China, and how to “jump through myriad regulatory hoops,” he says.

“There is no shortcut to learning the rules of the game,” Pahlow says. “It took me over 30 years of hard work.”

Visit Archie McPhee.

About the author

Sarah Brown
Sarah Brown is a freelance writer who writes about e-commerce and small businesses. She recently graduated from Chico State with a journalism degree and is also a budding online entrepreneur, having launched two Web businesses and her own line of handmade products. Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

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