opinion

Sexual Products, Sexual Shame

Charlie Glickman

One of the amazing things about the sex retail industry is that you’re on the front lines of dealing with sexual shame. You have allies among therapists, counselors, coaches, educators, writers and plenty of other professions. But selling pleasure products puts you in a unique position that nobody else covers.

While that gives sex retailers valuable opportunities, it also presents some challenges. On the one hand, people come to your stores and websites looking for information, support and products to help them have better sex. They know that toy stores are often a safe place to get their questions answered in a comfortable environment. On the other hand, anxiety, embarrassment and fear can lead to customers acting differently than they would at the grocery store. It’s important for retailers to understand how these emotions can affect customer service.

When customers walk through the retail doors it can come from a place of courage. It is not something that they are use to and may not be comfortable asking questions. By allowing them space and reading your customers quos, you can help them feel at ease.

It’s easy for front-line staff to forget that for some people, walking through the door is an act of courage. After all, when the store is simply where you work, you probably take it for granted. But even though it might feel “normal” to you, it feels like a much bigger deal to plenty of customers. If you forget that, you risk alienating them and losing the sale.

Helping people feel more comfortable while they’re shopping is tricky because different folks have different needs. Sometimes, they want to be approached and have a salesperson offer information or suggestions. At other times, they want to be left alone to explore the products. Some people are really quiet and need to be given permission to ask questions. Others are loud or demanding, and need to be given clear and gentle boundaries. And of course, some people are simply like that in lots of settings, while others are acting a bit out of character because of their embarrassment or shame. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to find your way.

First, remember to let the customers guide their own experience. If someone wants to ask questions, give them room to do that. If they want some time to wander through the store and familiarize themselves with your selection, let them. The best way to help someone overcome sexual shame is to let them take the lead on deciding how that looks. Your support is important, but it’ll work better when the customer is empowered. You can approach them, make yourself available, and let them know you can answer their questions. But follow their signals and step back when that’s what they need. It’s easy to overwhelm customers by being too helpful.

It’s also crucial for sexuality retailers to give customers validation when they ask for help. Simple phrases like “a lot of people have questions about that” or “I’m glad you asked me about that” or “we hear similar concerns from plenty of folks” will let them know that other people have the same worries and that you’re ready to give them the answers they need. This is another place where it’s important to remember that “business as usual” for you can be a much bigger deal for them. Plus, a lot of people don’t know very much about sex and they might be surprised to discover that they aren’t the only people with those questions or concerns. When you validate their experience, you’ll reduce their embarrassment or shame, especially when you make it clear that their worries are much more common than they realize.

While many customers will express their embarrassment by being quiet or avoiding eye contact with staff, others might try to cover it up by making loud comments about products, paddling themselves or their friends with a crop, or picking up the largest dildo on the shelf and swinging it around their heads. This sort of thing is especially common when groups of friends go shopping together or when alcohol is involved (or both). The trick is to find ways to contain their enthusiasm without squashing it. You want to keep loud people from disturbing other customers, some of whom might really like the toy that someone is commenting about. And you also don’t want to embarrass them into leaving the store.

One way to do that is to say, “I’m glad you’re having fun in the store. I need to ask you to keep the volume down/not spank your friend/etc. so other people can enjoy their shopping experience.” This approach makes it clear that you’re setting a limit without shunning or shaming them. Enthusiasm is awesome, as long as it’s not inconveniencing other customers.

A similar technique works when people are making loud comments like “why would anyone do that?” or that’s sick/freaky/strange/etc.” That’s a good moment to tell them, “A lot of people enjoy using those toys. If that’s not something you’re interested in, I’d be glad to show you some other items we have.” This does two things. It redirects that person towards something they’re more likely to buy. And it gets them to stop saying things that can bother other customers. As an added bonus, sometimes, those folks come back another day to purchase the very thing they were shouting about. Especially if they come back without their friends.

There aren’t any other industries that deal with customer’s sexual shame like the sex retail world. It’s there for lots of your customers, even when it’s invisible. It’s important to pay attention to it so you can keep it from getting in the way of making the sale. And the more you find ways to help your customers overcome it, the more you’ll help them have better sex lives.

Charlie Glickman PhD is a sexuality speaker, trainer, writer, blogger, and coach. He’s an AASECT-certified sex educator and has been working in this field for over 20 years. Charlie is the co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure: Erotic Exploration for Men and Their Partners. Find out more about him at www.charlieglickman.com or on Twitter and Facebook.

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