Ty Liotta isn't just any overgrown nerd. He's the ultimate arbiter of geek taste—the Anna Wintour of the pocket-protector set. As senior merchandiser for the e-commerce site ThinkGeek.com, Liotta, 39, is responsible for discovering and creating such must-haves for geeks as a T-shirt that sniffs out Wi-Fi hotspots and the Tauntaun sleeping bag, modeled after the animal carcass that saved Luke Skywalker from certain death on the frozen planet of Hoth.
Against a backdrop of shrinking U.S. retail sales, the geekonomy is fast expanding. Fueled by the success of items such as zombie dolls and spy cams, Fairfax (Va.)-based ThinkGeek's sales grew 57 percent in the first quarter of 2010. Analyst Jon R. Hickman of MDB Capital Group expects sales to surpass $64 million this year—up from $49 million in 2009. Hickman rates parent company Geeknet a buy.
Rival X-TremeGeek.com is also enjoying a bump, says Tim Burns, head of that site's consumer operations. In an age when an iPhone antenna is front-page news, many expect sales to keep rising. "Steve Jobs has made geeks cool," says James L. McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research (FORR), who once programmed his own computer. "Knowing about hot new technology has become as much a status symbol as owning a Lexus."
After launching in 1995 as an online T-shirt retailer called WizardNet.com, ThinkGeek has evolved into a full- service destination for all things nerd. Liotta heads a five-person "Geek Lab" charged with discovering products that will incite geek pandemonium. It buys some, such as electronics, and contracts out its other tchotchke-based ideas, such as a Wi-Fi-detecting T-shirt, to Chinese manufacturers. Liotta holds court in an office cluttered with Super Mario Bros. figures, an R2-D2 trash can, and collectible Star Trek action figures. A large Millennium Falcon, resembling the one flown by Han Solo, hangs overhead. A prototype of a night-vision camera sits on a counter.
"We're all geeks around here," says Liotta, whose father used to build robots in the basement. "We figure that if we like it, it's going to sell." The company's top sellers follow certain themes: They are either goofy products that do weird things (such as a T-shirt that plays songs), goofy products that serve some function (like a Bluetooth earpiece in the form of a retro telephone), or anything having to do with Star Wars or Star Trek.
Proving one's geek bona fides isn't easy: There's hazing involved. The first question of a new applicant's interview invariably is, Liotta says, "How geeky are you?" He adds: "And you have to back it up. If you say you like Battlestar Galactica, someone is going to make sure."
Approximately 3 million people log on to ThinkGeek.com every month, the company says, with buyers plunking down $56 apiece on average. More expensive items include the $119.99 Star Wars light sabers with sound effects recorded from the George Lucas blockbusters, or a $349.99 gizmo that converts an iPhone into a movie projector. "What we don't do is golf," says Liotta. "Geeks are definitely anti-golf."
"We've tapped into the inner geek of a lot of people," explains Scott L. Kauffman, chief executive of Geeknet. ThinkGeek remains the company's growth engine. The site's traffic soared when the stars of the CBS (CBS) sitcom The Big Bang Theory donned ThinkGeek T-shirts displaying the molecule for caffeine.
In May the company paid $1 million for Geek.com, a news and review site from which it hopes to direct more traffic to ThinkGeek. (Geeknet also operates the advertiser-supported SourceForge.net site that provides free open-source software.) Liotta's crew now makes regular appearances at geek gatherings around the country. A team headed to the comic book industry's flagship event, Comic-Con International, in San Diego on July 22-25 in search of emerging trends. "To some people, we're rock stars," Liotta says—right up there with actual famous people, like Angelina Jolie, who also appeared at Comic-Con to promote her new movie, Salt. In August, Liotta will head to Orlando for the Super Bowl of geekdom, the annual Star Wars convention.
Earlier this summer, ThinkGeek received an unexpected boost when the National Pork Board filed a cease-and-desist order after the site staged an April Fool's promotion through the sale of "Unicorn meat," which they dubbed "the new white meat." The tussle received national attention. To capitalize on the moment, Liotta says ThinkGeek is busily planning a can of faux unicorn meat for purchase on its site.