Mom & Pop Retailers Face the Economy
Alison Nowak, general manager of the Smitten Kitten, a Minneapolis boutique adult retailer, said that the economic downturn has meant an upturn for her store.
“People are staying home more. They’re trying to save money, and not go out on the town. And one of the most fun ways to do that is to have sex,” Nowak told XBIZ. “Some people see it as the same sort of investment as video games. You get one toy and you can use it for months. You go out to dinner once and it’s gone.
“With 10 percent of people put of work right now, that does impact what people buy. It’s not that people aren’t buying, it’s that they’re choosing to buy different things. People can go with two different strategies: Some people go ‘I will buy a high-quality toy that will last me a long time,’ others go ‘I will buy a $6 bullet vibe and it will last me as long as it will last me.’”
Smitten Kitten makes it a point to only sell safe sex toys, many of which have higher price points.
“Our owner founded the Coalition Against Toxic Toys, so that’s really important to us,” Nowak said. “We’re never going to get to the point where we say ‘The market wants jelly rubber,’ because the market doesn’t know better. But if we start to offer better alternatives, the market will start to know better. We don’t sell anything that is toxic or porous. There are hard plastic toys that qualify. The least expensive toy we sell is a vibrator for $6. It reaches up to about $165 and there’s one that goes up to $300. We’re focusing on quality, and quality tends to be more expensive, especially with something that’s 100 percent medical grade silicone.”
Smitten Kitten also makes it a point to not sell a line that is a major draw in some adult stores.
“No lingerie. We made the decision that we’re about sex education — and once you get into lingerie it’s what sizes you carry and how many do you have,” Nowak said. “Because we have a feminist bent, we wouldn’t want to just carry zero to 12. That wouldn’t feel right. We don’t carry anything that’s clothing related.”
According to Nowak, the unorthodox approach of Smitten Kitten is paying off.
“The last year we did 13 percent better than the year before. It’s yet to be told if we’ll do that this year or not.”
Laura Anne Stuart, owner of The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique in Milwaukee, told XBIZ that the store has added higher-priced lines to its inventory, and is doing well with them. “I added the Lelo and SaSi lines and they have been doing surprisingly well. We also have Fun Factory toys. Although we also have a $13 vibrator that we can’t keep in stock.” The store also sells high-end organic lubes.
Magical Mystery Tour, an adult themed party shop in Chicago-adjacent Morton Grove, Ill., is a novelty, gift and costume store with an adult section. “We're like a party store with a slant toward adult,” owner Randy told XBIZ. “We’re not a typical party store with paper goods and stuff like that.”
The store is meeting the changing economic climate by changing its inventory to more quality sex toys and fewer gag gifts.
“We’re getting away from the funny-novelty stuff,” Randy said. “The gag gifts aren’t selling as well as they used to. Practicality is a big thing right now. Our midrange on sex toys is about $34, that’s where we like to be. We aren’t adding new lines.”
F Street stores, an eight-store chain in the San Diego area, keeps its merchandise under constant review by owner Alma Vasic and the chain’s buyers. Low-selling items are marked down and cleared out.
All eight stores in the chain are in the process of being remodeled to be more “romantic,” according to Vasic, keeping the stores open and light, adding product displays and laying out the store so softer products are near the front, and more intense items are farther in. Starting three years ago, samples of all vibrators for sale are available to be tested, to “give customers a hands-on chance to sample the product. That leads to customer satisfaction.” Regular promotions spotlight a product of the month, which is prominently displayed.
The Tool Shed offers a “Condom Bar” where condoms can be purchased by mixing and matching from bulk bins.
Many of the stores we talked to make it a point to advertise and do outreach efforts in their communities. The F Street chain’s community outreach efforts includes fundraising and charity work.
“We donate product, we support Planned Parenthood, we go to local college campuses and get involved with whatever events they may have there,” Vasic said. “For gay pride events, we’ve partnered with UCSD. They have an amazing research center and we have provided giveaways and prizes. We keep the interest of our customers by staying involved with our community. Radio stations invite us to events and we put a booth up.
“We still do print advertisements. Our website is opening the door to people. We’re on Facebook and we’re starting a Twitter feed. We’re trying to stay current with what’s going on in the world.”
In its advertising and promotion, Smitten Kitten reinforces that despite the name, there is product for men in the store.
“We have a lot of stuff for men. The atmosphere is more feminine, but we like to provide a nice, clean, airy space to shop in,” Nowak said. “We do a lot of outreach in the gay male community, because with a name like ‘Smitten Kitten’ you think female. But we’ve got racks and racks of cock rings and somebody’s got to be buying them. What we’re trying to get out is that even though we have a female bent and women work here and it is feminist in nature, we really are for everyone, and believe really strongly in providing toys and information to everybody.”
Smitten Kitten does print advertising with magazines, including national magazines Utne Reader and Bitch, and a local alternative newspaper and a gay magazine called Lavender. The store also advertises on the local Air America radio station.
“They’ve been really good to us. I think it makes sense,” Nowak said. “Open-minded people are open to not just sex, but having a new paradigm of sex, which is what we’re after.’
The Smitten Kitten store also donates money and merchandise to local groups in the Twin Cities area, including a gay softball team, a breast cancer fundraiser and local community theater and art projects. The store also operates an event called “Dildo Bingo” with various groups, like the Aliveness Project which encourages self-empowerment and provides services for persons living with HIV and AIDS. “It feels really good for us to do it, and it also generates goodwill,” Nowak said. “It’s a win-win.”
The Tool Shed advertises through the local alternative newspaper and local-interest websites. Stuart does volunteer work at local gay community organizations (“I’m part of the queer community.”) and has worked as a sexuality instructor for 15 years. She considers The Tool Shed an educational facility as well as a store (“We’re here to help people learn to take control of their sexuality.”) and issues a monthly schedule of seminars and classes at the store. Tristan Taormino and Mistress Midori have appeared at the store, and author Rachel Kramer Bussel and performer Buck Angel are scheduled to appear in August.
“We like to bring people to the Midwest, because nobody else is doing it,” Nowak said. “It’s nice to get people to come to town and give people an opportunity to meet them.”
Not everyone believes in advertising or promotion. Juan Luna, who owns all-rental video store Action Video in rural San Benito, S.C., told XBIZ that his store does no advertising, “all word of mouth. Everybody knows us. We work with people in town.” And even though he doesn’t advertise, business is “steady. We’re making a living, that’s what we do.”
Magical Mystery Tour has refocused its advertising efforts away from print to online.
“We cut Yellow Pages advertising,” Randy said. “We used to do Yellow Pages, now we do some Google AdWords and word-ofmouth. We’ve been here since 1976, we have a reputation.”
Building a reputation is also the aim of Smitten Kitten.
“It’s important to us that we are a trustworthy source of information for the community here — sex information and information about materials and the liability of products, all of that,” Nowak said. “Just a positive, trustworthy place to get toys and education. I think that’s the crux of it.”