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Old School Meets New in Gay Adult Retail

Old School Meets New in Gay Adult Retail

September 21, 2009
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" The gay men who come in now are younger or they’re more open and turned off by the old ways of marketing gay stuff. If they feel like the store owner is embarrassed or just doesn’t care about their gay product then gay guys aren’t going to come back. "

The ever-evolving retail market is changing at such a rapid pace that tracking the latest micro-blip in consumer tastes is virtually impossible. It can be tricky enough for a brick-and-mortar retailer to keep pace with its overall consumer base, much less the interests of a sub-niche.

And yet, given the state of the economy right now you ignore any erotic niche at your own risk. Case in point: The gay-male adult market. How does a retail store properly devote the physical space and dwindling marketing resources to properly cater to this sector of the market?

Bottom line: You reach out to them the same as you would any other audience. “It’s pretty obvious what gay men want,” stated a clerk at one of West Hollywood, Calif.’s preeminent brick-and-mortar adult superstores with blunt precision (he asked not to be identified). “They want hot guys. They want to see hot guys — all men are visual, everyone knows that.”

And gay male consumers aren’t interested in being pushed to the back of the store. “The guys who used to sneak around in raincoats get their kicks online now,” the clerk said. “The gay men who come in now are younger or they’re more open and turned off by the old ways of marketing gay stuff. If they feel like the store owner is embarrassed or just doesn’t care about their gay product then gay guys aren’t going to come back.”

The Bijou Theater in Chicago is part of a brick-and-mortar store and sex club at the same location. The venerable outlet — a local icon with a strong national reputation — serves as a prime example of how retailers can grow and change with their customer base.

And the Bijou is healthy despite carrying only a particular sub-genre of gay adult: “We only carry classic gay material, specifically pre-condom-era gay classics,” said company rep Jack Cole.

Bijou has remained dedicated to preserving gay adult’s early films. “Our owner, Steven Toushin, has been instrumental in getting both retail customers and wholesalers to see classic gay films as a viable segment rather than just catalog filler. Many of our films are groundbreaking — from the early films of Toby Ross and Peter De Rome to gay icons like Jack Wrangler and Al Parker — and we want to show how important they are to gay erotica.”

“Of course, we also want men to see how hot the sex is, even 20-30 years after they were originally released.” This single-minded focus has translated over the years into trust and devotion from a brand-loyal gay male audience.

The Bijou retail layout also was designed to convey a specific attitude. “Our theater lobby is our display area for DVDs, and we let it all hang out, so to speak,” Cole said.

“We display DVDs and posters with explicit content up front; we want our customers to know that we’re not embarrassed by gay sex, and we don’t want them to be, either. At least not at the Bijou!”

The company is scheduled to debut a line of T-shirts based on their films and they will be placed front-and-center alongside the DVDs. Otherwise, the basic floor plan has remained essentially the same.

“Our only change has been to remodel a bit, giving DVDs more shelf space and putting some of our classic posters out where customers can see a wider variety of products on display,” said Cole.

Despite the specific nature of their catalog, Bijou’s customer base varies from younger guys to men of a certain age who enjoy a nostalgic kick. “We always have the customers who remember the old Brentwood loops from their youth, and want to see them again. These customers are a major reason we restore the films with such care,” Cole notes.

“But we also see the younger gay men taking a look at these films for the first time, and appreciating them.” Bijou’s dedicated brand-specific focus has been the key to keeping those younger men hooked.

The same kind of laserlike focus also is the secret ingredient employed by production and distribution house Channel 1 Releasing, which opened its first brick-and-mortar outlet in October 2008. Chi Chi LaRue’s, named for the directrix and C1R partner, has proven itself a roaring success.

Located in the heart of gay-centric West Hollywood, Chi Chi LaRue’s was recently nominated for a StorErotica Award in the category of Independent Store of the Year.

The decision to open a retail outlet during a wave of economic turbulence was a simple one, said Andrew Moore, C1R director of public relations. “We had enough product to fill one. It’s impossible for any one retailer to stock our entire catalog of products,” he said. “We have over 2,000 titles and that is DVDs alone. Add our toy line, books, calendars and other products and you have the inventory for an entire store. It just made sense.”

Nevertheless, C1R put plenty of thought into their store layout. The bright, gleaming aesthetic was specifically chosen to banish any lingering image of an adult store as “dark and seedy.” Even if an actual physical location is brightly lit and clean, Moore notes, the seedy image stubbornly persists and intimidates potential consumers.

“There are two key aspects to our design: It had to be something that was fitting of the Chi Chi LaRue persona. Chi Chi herself is big, loud, colorful and over-the-top, so we needed to make sure those qualities translated into the look and feel of our store,” he said.

C1R also wanted to make sure casual passersby as well as determined customers would not think twice about walking into an adult outlet. “We modeled the store as an upscale boutique. It has definitely worked to our advantage. We have lots of foot traffic from people just walking down Santa Monica Blvd. and coming in simply because it caught their attention.”

That kind of attention to detail also extends to C1R’s line of adult novelties with Topco Sales, right down to package design and recommendations for how the products are displayed.

“We’ve had rave reviews from our customers,” Moore said. “People have said they love how everything looks, they love the wide variety of products. We are involved with Topco’s product development every step of the way. They have been amazing and their guidance is invaluable.”

Although Bijou and Chi Chi LaRue’s cater specifically to the gay market, reps for both see the boundaries between straight and gay product blurring.

“We see plenty of guys coming in and going from the gay racks over to the straight side,” said the clerk interviewed at the top of this story. “We see male/female couples come in and do the same thing. You can’t just put the straight stuff up front and the gay product in the back anymore like an afterthought. People want their options right up front.”


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