The Burnsville-based tool and equipment company puts its tongue firmly in cheek with its novelty catalog.
For every sensible gift of a flannel nightgown, tie or pair of socks opened on Christmas, some merry prankster will be sneaking something edgier under the tree and into the stockings — a Duck Dynasty Beardhead, Roadkill Summer Sausage or perhaps Camouflage TP.
At least that’s the hope of the people at Burnsville-based Northern Tool + Equipment, which also owns Kotula’s, a catalog and online retailer with a good share of hardy, har har type gifts. Founder Don Kotula, who started the tool business with a store in Burnsville in 1981, now has 85 stores and a catalog and e-commerce business with more than $1 billion in annual sales.
While most of Northern’s customers are more familiar with its heavy-duty generators and air compressors, Kotula still enjoys searching for the gotcha gift, said Jon Thorsen, director of database and new catalog marketing at Northern Tool.
“He goes to trade shows in search of the latest novelty,” he said. “He’s a merchandise guy at heart.”
What kind of merchandise did the founder find? There’s the Beer Pager/koozie, a bestselling remote device that burps and flashes so owners can easily locate their beer up to 60 feet away. And there’s the Off-Road Commode, a camo-covered toilet seat that attaches to a trailer hitch. “A great gift for hunting, fishing and camping buddies,” the catalog says, “but not for use when the vehicle is in motion.”
The pager and the commode have been delighting fans of the Northern Tool catalog, mostly blue-collar men, since it began. But now the novelty gifts have been “sent down” to the equivalent of the kiddie’s table, a k a Kotula’s catalog and kotulas.com.
Started from scratch in 2008, the Kotula’s catalog has grown to reach 5 million subscribers and will produce more than $20 million in sales this year, far exceeding expectations, said Thorsen. Nearly 40 percent of the buyers are women. “There’s a lot of gift buying,” he said.
A few items, such as giant wine glasses, are created by the company. But most are found by merchandise buyers dedicated to Kotula’s. Even Northern Tool’s buyers are told to be on the lookout for a unique gadget or gag gift.
This year, the company riffed off its popular “Flair Hair” visors, with built-in spiky hair, to add “Beard Heads.” If the “Duck Dynasty” dudes invented a ski mask, it might look a little like the Beard Head knit hats, which have detachable beards and stubble.
New this year is the Hunter’s Reserve Roadkill Summer Sausage Gift Pack. “It’s wa-a-a-ay too good for vultures,” according to the description. The fine print discloses that the ingredients weren’t actually found on highways, but when the label reads “Roadkill” in oversized type, the ingredient list is likely to be the most closely read fine print under the tree.
While Kotula’s doesn’t veer into Spencer Gifts territory, with its adult-themed products and more than a few related to gastrointestinal disturbances, it’s still party central.
Besides the Beer Pager, there’s the two-pack of giant wine glasses, large enough for an entire bottle of vino, and the Harley Davidson 7-liter handblown Pilsener glass, which is large enough to hold 18 cans of Bud. Kotula’s also sells a 54-quart country cooler made from barn boards.
If you can’t get the perfect gag gift to the recipient by Christmas, the next-best thing may be to put a sensible gift in a Prank Pack. Locally-designed and manufactured, Prank Packs fool the recipient with a large photo of the item on the outside of the box — such as bacon-scented Sizzl dryer sheets or a Bathe & Brew Shower Coffee Maker + Soap Dispenser. “People like a diversion to pass around the room and break the ice,” said Arik Nordby, creative director of 30 Watt in Eden Prairie, the parent company of Prank Pack. A pack of three empty photo boxes ($20) is also available in Bed, Bath & Beyond stores. Designs can be seen at www.prankpack.com.
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633