at What They Do
By Marcia Faye
Clad in a fresh laboratory coat, Mohammed Faraj (EE ’92) points out glass cases filled with black-and-white headshots of former political leaders, Hollywood celebrities, and sports stars who were loyal customers of the oldest and arguably the most gadget-centric catalog merchandiser in America: Hammacher Schlemmer. While notable figures ranging from United States President John F. Kennedy to baseball luminary Babe Ruth provide a colorful touch to the storied company’s nearly 170 years in existence, Faraj, as director of Hammacher Schlemmer Institute, prides himself on knowing that every customer receives the highest-quality items that the catalog company can offer.
Hammacher Schlemmer’s flagship and sole brick-and-mortar retail space, located in New York’s Midtown Manhattan district, opened in 1848, but the in-house testing facility known as Hammacher Schlemmer Institute came into existence only 35 years ago.
“We are independent from Hammacher Schlemmer and operate without any commercial bias,” Faraj says about the nonprofit institute, which researches, tests, and rates consumer products, and compiles the popular “Best” category of catalog items ranging from heated vests to commuter cups to children’s tablets. “When we go out and search for these products, even though we partner with the merchandising team that wants to sell this product, we don’t care if the product is profitable or what its price point is, or even if we could work with this vendor. We don’t care. Our job as the institute is to find ‘The Best’ for the Hammacher Schlemmer customer. It’s not necessarily The Best for anybody; it’s only The Best for our customer. Everything we do here is for the Hammacher Schlemmer customer."
Faraj’s testing team is composed of a senior manager of product research, two product research analysts, and a fellow engineer. Depending upon the type of testing being done, team members work in an intimate laboratory filled with heat guns, wind meters, and other instruments; a kitchen; and a more spacious room accommodating larger items to be tested, such as inflatable beds. Faraj’s lab coat is especially handy on the day of the tour as he and his visitor make salsa in a mock panel test to demonstrate steps in selecting “The Best Personal Blender.”
A native of Jericho in the West Bank who emigrated to Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967, Faraj wanted to obtain his college degree in the United States. He supported himself and his employment at UL (Underwriters Laboratories) in Northbrook, Illinois, his last two years at the university paved the way for his career. Faraj managed UL testing and certification of electrical and electronic products for eight years and then accepted a three-year assignment to establish and supervise a UL business unit in Denmark. Upon his return to the U.S., Faraj spent nine more years with UL, ultimately becoming a global business and operations manager, and then became a small-business owner and distributor of green technologies before coming to Hammacher Schlemmer Institute.
From an early age, Faraj says that he wanted to find ways to improve things and that his career at Hammacher Schlemmer Institute has expanded his testing universe in unexpected ways. He and his team drew hungry colleagues after determining the performance of The Best Toaster Oven and visited a university facility where underwater testing was conducted on The Best Talking Scale. (Don’t ask him about the crickets that went missing as his team conducted tests on The Best Bug Vacuum.)
Sometimes it’s back to the drawing board. As head of product development, Faraj, along with his team, had an idea for a car dashboard heater and worked with a vendor to produce one to feature in a winter catalog. The item was popular, but too many customers complained that the heater fell off the dash if the driver applied the brakes too quickly. The item was restyled, but it didn’t project enough heat, so it was returned to the vendor for further refinements.
“If only one customer complains about something, I take a personal responsibility to ensure that customer’s happiness from a quality point of view,” says Faraj. While he acknowledges that the web has given purchasers a world of choices, he says that Hammacher Schlemmer, supported by his team’s efforts, qualifies for “The Best.”
“The Hammacher Schlemmer brand is still there,” he says. “We understand our customer.”