"We have COLT Corners going into more than 15 stores across the U.S.," COLT President and Creative Director John Rutherford told XBIZ at the time, noting that the displays were going only into "blue states" — those that tend to vote Democrat and are politically less conservative than the opposing "red states."
Such front-and-center treatment by a mainstream retail chain was a coup for the San Francisco-based gay adult company. While Virgin has a history of being socially progressive, the bottom line is that the company's executives know that gay consumers are among the most affluent and that there is huge demand for gay adult products. In other words, carrying COLT products makes good business sense.
Yet, Rutherford says, many retailers are missing out on opportunities to profit from gay products because, for a variety of reasons, they are reluctant to break into the gay market. XBIZ asked Rutherford to shed some light on misunderstandings some retailers have regarding gay-themed products and what his company is doing to help enlighten them.
XBIZ: Have you found that many retailers, especially the mom-and-pop video stores, are cautious about carrying products for the gay market?
John Rutherford: Well, I think that most mom-and-pop retailers are generally cautious in regard to carrying any sort of adult products in their stores, but more specifically I think gay products have an even more "taboo" cogitation. It doesn't just stop with the retailers but also the customers. We find that most men who purchase our products in rural America don't necessarily identify as "gay" — they can be gay-curious and just happen to stumble upon gay product that intrigues them. This is why it's so important for all stores to place their gay products out in the open with all their other adult products. Don't hide it, and people will buy.
XBIZ: As far as a reluctance on the part of retailers is concerned, do you find that it's based on fear of what their straight customers will think? Or their own confusion over how to merchandise gay product?
JR: I think it's a little of both. There's a stigma that it's a niche market and doesn't sell, but no other segment of the population has more disposable income than gay men. Gay men also want high-quality merchandise. It also depends on the geography — in rural Oklahoma, [the reluctance] might be based on fear, but in the suburbs of Southern California, it might be based on not being familiar with the merchandise.
XBIZ: Are any of their fears legitimate?
JR: Absolutely. Just like in the straight adult world, there are plenty of questionable [gay adult] products being produced. The best thing to do is do your research, contact your nearest gay friends or employees to see what producers they like or have heard of. Also, researching the Internet helps with finding out who's who.
XBIZ: What have you at COLT done to help overcome that trepidation?
JR: First, we produce clean, safe products that deliver what the customer has grown accustomed to expect from us. When a customer looks at our packaging, they know that what's on the outside is exactly what's on the inside. This is extremely important to gay consumers. We work closely with our distributors and retailers worldwide to not only supply all the collateral they need for their very own COLT Corner, but we also help promote their stores with live COLT Men signings and our twice-per-week email promotional mailings. And we have a sales staff here at our office to answer any questions that our retailers have.
XBIZ: Is there a difference in the way a retailer should merchandise DVDs as opposed to novelties?
JR: Well, we believe that it's very important to design and package all our products with the retailer in mind. For instance, on our DVDs, we never put hard images or nude images that may possibly be seen by minors, just in case a video store or shop has their adult section behind a curtain and only a sign keeps the minors out. We don't want anyone underage seeing and being exposed to our content. The COLT Gear and Buckshot novelty items are a different story. We need to package these items openly, so that the customer can see what's inside. Like most novelty items, the customer wants to know the details of the object itself before purchasing. I would recommend, depending on the retailer, having these items in one area — somewhere altogether separate from the DVDs.
XBIZ: What kind of feedback have you gotten from some of the retailers you work with?
JR: Everyone has been very pleased with the COLT Corner concept and our new products. Our reputation speaks for itself, and everyone knows the name COLT. We sell T-shirts, underwear, baseball caps and the like with the COLT name all over them. Gay men wear our items proudly in public to say, "I'm gay and proud." I think most successful retailers have realized the income potential by carrying our full range of products.
XBIZ: You've actually had incredible success breaking into even mainstream retail stores with your COLT corners. What is it about the COLT brand that's enabled you to go where few adult companies have gone?
JR: I've always believed that our product is good, healthy fun. Our packaging, our COLT and Buckshot Men are all clean, wholesome, safe and, most of all, hot. Our packaging is not threatening, so for those retailers like Virgin and Amazon online, our products don't offend anyone. And since [retailers can be put off by] gay products, we bridge the gap between the gay adult merchandise and the mainstream. This has not happened overnight. We're lucky to be celebrating our 40th year next year, and it's been a lot of hard work to build a brand and deliver consistently what the consumer desires.
XBIZ: Does that kind of exposure in large mass merchants have a positive trickledown effect to adult retailers also carrying your products?
JR: Absolutely. With our retailers' success comes our success and vice versa. It's a partnership — and we're in the direct retail business, too. We mail to thousands of people worldwide who come to us to buy various COLT Studio Group products or join our monthly membership website. We know how it is to get the word out and make another sale.
XBIZ: What kind of support do you offer retailers in terms of displays, signage, etc.?
JR: We supply artwork for retailers, but if they buy large enough volumes, we will also negotiate the various collateral needed for a fully stocked COLT Corner. We also have a special COLT Studio promotional website [COLTPromo.com] where retailers can go and download various COLT images.
XBIZ: What role do the COLT Men play, particularly concerning your toy and novelty lines?
JR: A large role. It's very important for the gay consumer to identify with any COLT or Buckshot Man, and by having specially molded or endorsed products with their faces on the packaging, it gives the consumers the chance to bring their fantasies home with them. This is very different from the straight consumer on a whole. The gay consumer follows the gay porn stars' careers and is very savvy to which movies or products they are involved with.
XBIZ: What's next for COLT?
JR: We're working on doing some partnerships in the bar and club industry to create COLT Bars worldwide. These bars will be branded with posters and stores by COLT. Our COLT Men will appear live and do performances and meet-and-greets with their fans.