Inside the Head of an Adult Store Buyer

Anne Winter
Being responsible for stocking a store with the newest, latest and greatest products balanced with the tried and true best sellers is not an easy task, especially with the glut of product on the market today. Retail chains alter their inventories constantly to keep up with customer demand, and it’s up to their buyers to decide what to order and what to pass on. Many rely on traditional research methods — reading the trades, attending trade shows — while others incorporate social networking and technology into their departments’ research methods.

Josh Porter, novelty buyer for national retail chain Fascinations, said the company utilizes strong reporting software that can tell him and his modest-sized purchasing department every detail about a product, what locations in which it sells the most, and what locations in which the item might not need restocking.

But using this software is only a small part of Porter’s daily routine, and he said the Internet has helped change the way buyers keep up on trends and anticipate what the next hot items will be.

“It’s a sign of the times,” Porter said. “Everything in the adult industry is more mainstream.”

Porter said by keeping up with online blogs and independent video reviews, he can see what areas people are interested in. For example, he attributes the growing acceptance of prostate play among heterosexual men to an increase in mainstream press about its health benefits, and most importantly, the fact that a P-spot orgasm is often touted as the most powerful a man can have.

“Anal toys have gotten a big push in the last six to nine months,” Porter said, “and now we’re trying to find the next big thing. It started with the Aneros on the men’s side for P-spot toys and now everyone has created a new section in their stores. If you read about the Aneros and Nexus phenomenon enough, you [may] eventually break down and give it a try.”

Cindy Belcher, general manager and buyer for boutique chain Pleasure Place, alters her stores’ DVD racks to match her customers’ changing tastes. The flagship store, which opened in Washington D.C. 30 years ago, didn’t initially stock DVDs, but they were added to the inventory following customer requests.

“We get all the new releases,” Belcher said. “Catalog titles sell the best for us, and we carry straight, lesbian and bisexual films. Certain series may sell well but only certain types of movies that our clients seem to appreciate.”

Belcher said the Pleasure Place’s client base, which tends to be comprised of couples and those looking for a boutique shopping experience, gravitates toward storyline-based titles, softer box covers and edgier content. For example, she said Michael Ninn’s releases, which blend edginess with class well, are top sellers.

“It’s timely,” Belcher said. “It can change in a month. [Our DVD selection] keeps up with how the trends change.”

Contrary to what Fascinations and most other retail chains have experienced, the DVD section at sex-positive adult boutique Good Vibrations has expanded in the last several years. Buyer Coyote Days said the store used to carry certain titles, but not complete series or sets, and the inventory often was comprised of content that the employees themselves found appealing.

“There’s more focus on bringing in a range of educational titles and more of what customers are liking,” Days said. “We give a lot of thought to the titles we have in the stores and what fits the mission and values of Good Vibrations. Some content that is hot and people want to watch doesn’t necessarily fit what we want to see in the stores and offer to the consumer.”

Days said she and the company’s staff review all titles for consideration, and that she follows a loose checklist to determine whether or not the DVD would make sense in the store’s inventory.

“Is it hot, is it sex-positive, how is it shot, is it low-fi, is the camera shaky with blownout lighting? — if it fits, we absolutely seek it out,” Days said.

When it comes to stocking new sex toys, however, the process of determining whether or not they fit the store’s mission is much more involved. In the past years, new manufacturers have popped up left and right, many of whom moved into the toy biz looking for a new revenue stream. It’s up to store buyers to determine what’s special and worth picking up, and what’s just another vibe in a fancy package.

“Lately it seems quality is a bigger piece than price,” Fascinations’ Porter said. “People are more willing to buy one good product than one that’s less expensive but doesn’t last.”

While scouring blogs, customer comments online, reading industry trade publications and meeting with store employees, Porter has noticed a major increase in the use of hypoallergenic materials and higher-end motors made to withstand years of use.

“It started with the phthalate buzz, and quickly, toy manufacturers moved away from it, using elastomers instead of jellies, for example,”Porter said. “More companies are using medical-grade silicone, better motors, better controls.”

Porter said Fascinations sells the $150-$200 vibes “all day long” and that items priced at $100 and more aren’t “scary” to stock. The majority of rabbit-style vibes these days often average $100, and luxury brands such as LELO offer items starting at $79.99 and work their way up.

“I think with education and knowledge, the end customer is willing to spend more on something that will last,” Porter said.

This is why stores including Pleasure Place, Good Vibrations and Fascinations put a major emphasis on employee education and training, for they are responsible for conveying the information to the consumers looking to learn.

“We hold seminars for customers on a regular basis, and our employees go through a rigorous training process,” Porter said. “It’s something we’ve been pushing harder and harder. Product knowledge has changed consistently in the last 10 years.”

Good Vibrations boasts some of the most educated staff in the adult retail industry, and Days said the company relies on its employees and their interactions with customers.

Though it’s important to stock these higher-end — and higher-priced — items it’s important to keep up with customer demand, Porter and Belcher both stress the important of stocking products at a variety of price points to appeal to the widest range of customers as possible.

Fascinations’ 13 stores, located in Arizona, Colorado and Oregon, offer a “good, better, best” toy promotion and DVDs starting at $6.99 all the way up to $79.99. Porter says the company hits all price points and charges what the products are worth, which customers notice and appreciate.

“It’s like the difference between a Chevy and a Mercedes,” Porter said.

When selecting new additions to the DVD stock, Porter said he looks for two key elements: price and star power. He looks for titles featuring performers that customers recognize. “When a person walks in, he knows who Jesse Jane or Jenna Haze is,” Porter said. And because 70 percent of Fascinations’ customer base is female (a statistic the company found through segmentation studies), the company puts an emphasis on couples-friendly content.

“When you walk into the DVD section [of our stores] everything more mainstream couples-friendly is at the front, and as you go further back into the area, you get into the gonzo, the hardcore stuff and the ‘cheapies’ at $6.99 and $9.99,” Porter said.

Porters said the parodies are doing quite well still, though the market soon may become “parodied out,” and the bigger brand titles that feature couples- friendly storylines, such as Wicked Pictures and Digital Playground, always sell. Titles with strong packaging, including gonzo content produced by studios such as Evil Angel, Elegant Angel and Digital Sin, also are on his radar.

When it comes to toy selection, Days said she always keeps an eye out for unique products that offer something new and special, but makes a point not to swap out for new product just for the sake of adding something new.

“We bring it in if it makes sense, and bring in new vendors if it makes sense for the store’s selection,” Days said.

Though it’s important to be aware of trends, Days makes many of her decisions based on the companies themselves and their work independently of the product trend they may be fulfilling. For example, Good Vibrations was the first store to stock woodworker Knob Essence, and Days said she had no idea wood as a product material was going to blow up the way it did.

“Wood is such an artisan material, and Knob Essence are artists and woodworkers,” Days said. “It wasn’t just the fact that it was wood, but also the manner of the way the toys are shaped, they’re body specific and made for sex and pleasure. One of the reasons we love working with industry artists is bringing in unique items [like these].”

Looking at the quality of material and manufacturing, as well as accuracy in packaging and item descriptions, is a major part of new product investigation for buyers like Days and Belcher, and because many stores have to be more selective with what they stock — due to the glut of productson the market and limited shelf space in “non-superstore” adult shops — they must pay close attention to detail.

“Within each mini-genre of product, you pick the best and keep it in stock,” Belcher said. “You have to have the standbys — the bullets, vibrating cock rings, rabbits — as well as focus on the ones that are neat and cool, different and interesting.”

Belcher looks at packaging design, the shape and design of the items themselves, and makes sure their functionality matches what their packaging touts.

The best way for her to closely inspect and investigate new products is attending the various trade shows throughout the year, and she, Porter and Days all agree that attending is the best way to build relationships with the manufacturers and see their full product ranges.

“Trade shows are the only opportunity to see before you buy or request samples,” Belcher said. “You get an opportunity to see how they work, test the vibration on your hand, and to see new technology firsthand,” rather than relying on catalog descriptions or promo materials that often can make a new product look better on paper than in person.