Retailers Discuss Shopping Trends of Newcomers Versus ‘Hardcore’ Fetishists

Genie Davis

What are the most effective ways to market and promote BDSM items? And just how popular are these products? Retail experts weigh in.

Edward Wheeler, president of The Love Store in Las Vegas, reports that the most effective way for him to market to fetish enthusiasts is to “give our store an inviting and non-threatening feel. We don’t carry hardcore fetish items, as they typically scare novices away from trying new things. Our marketing is geared for novice to intermediate fetish enthusiasts.”

We take the time to train our staff on all of our product lines so that they can make sure our customers see these items are popular and user-friendly. -Edward Wheeler, The Love Store

Wheeler promotes fetish and BDSM items in-store with inviting displays and a well-educated staff. “We take the time to train our staff on all of our product lines so that they can make sure our customers see these items are popular and user-friendly.”

At The Love Store, BDSM product popularity has steadily increased since the release of the “Fifty Shades” books.

“The category was a minimal part of our inventory before the books, and now it’s one of our largest.” Wheeler did not feel that the film had the same impact as the book. “The BDSM category still thrives for us however,” Wheeler notes. He also sees a larger number of “soft” BDSM products available since the book’s success. “These are the kinds of products novice users like, and it’s a great way to introduce them to the lifestyle in a non-threatening way.”

At Castle Megastore in Tempe, Ariz., CEO Mark Franks attests that the best form of marketing for fetish enthusiasts is to simply create a store that “people want to come to, a store that has a good selection of products targeted to this specific kind of consumer. And if you want to reach a more experienced consumer, then you have to carry more advanced products.” Franks says, “It’s all about the selection you stock for the customers in your demographic. Is your shop located where demographics would support that type of product and justify heavily investing in it?”

Franks uses in-store displays, web marketing, and other advertising to promote, and he feels there was a bump in customer interest in BDSM after the “Fifty Shades” books. But like Wheeler, he found the film did not have the same sales impact. Still, both the book and film created “more awareness and normalization for BDSM activities. It’s more mainstream now. The book was a starting point that created conversation about BDSM and that improves sales.” As far as the evolution of the BDSM category, Franks says, “It may have hit a plateau. It’s not ripping as it did when the ‘Fifty Shades’ books first came out. Of course we’ve been doing this type of business for years in a significant way; we have a mature business. The market may look different to others.”

Charles Craton, owner of adult boutiques in Athens and Rome, Ga., relates that in his stores, he’s had to distinguish between “amateur and seriously interested” BDSM enthusiasts. “There’s a difference in appeal for someone who just wants to do a little light play with handcuffs versus someone who is deeply involved in the fetish lifestyle. We’ve covered amateurs really well, but we’ve had to work to develop a hardcore fetish line. The products that a true BDSM lifestyle would embrace and buy can be an expensive inventory.”

Craton says there’s a substantial difference between customers drawn to BDSM because of the ‘Fifty Shades’ books, and the “real BDSM community.” To bridge the gap, Craton offered a seminar on BDSM and ‘Fifty Shades’ the Saturday before Valentine’s Day. “I let the community know we understood that they didn’t like the movie, but that we’d pack out the store with an event like this. So they became involved in the seminar, in order to give people who were interested some insight into what true BDSM is.”

For Craton’s stores, conducting seminars and other special events has been an extremely successful choice to promote and market BDSM items. “‘Fifty Shades’ has made the lifestyle more mainstream, broken some barriers,” he says. “I have an unused room on the second floor of my building that we are going to turn into a full-blown BDSM lounge. We’ll use it for seminars and as a rentable room for individuals to use or for community gatherings.”

Craton is looking at creating a true BDSM department that would stand out separately from softer BDSM-influenced items. “Right now we just keep like-items together, mostly milder items. But we’re making room for more hardcore pieces, like solid steel handcuffs rather than the break apart kind.” He remarks that there is a wider selection of soft BDSM products available than in the past. “What’s changed is that interest in the category has gone from mild to wild. Benwa balls, blindfolds, riding crops and nipple play items — these all sell for us. The high-end items that companies like Rapture and Masterpiece produce, those top-quality items are expensive to inventory, but they do sell, too. If there’s a market for it in your store, you just have to bring it in.” Craton sees a growing interest in another popular fetish niche, “electro shock items. Electrostim, for example, is a product that provides a mild shock and stimulation, creating a pleasurable sensation through pain.”

Craton’s customer service is very focused in the BDSM area in terms of knowledge. “We’ve even hired an employee on staff who is into the BDSM lifestyle. She’s very knowledgeable, she knows the rules and how it all works.” Overall, Craton says he finds it important to make sure his employees have superior product knowledge in order to assist in customer and staff interactions in the BDSM area.

At The Pleasure Chest in West Hollywood, Calif., director of business development Sarah Tomchesson says the store “started as a kink-focused retailer back in 1971, so we have always had a wide assortment of BDSM products.” The company also integrates kink-focused events and workshops, and both partners with and sponsors fetish events and organizations. “The fetish community is very tightly knit, so using the word ‘marketing’ is a little off base. If you’re not contributing to the community beyond offering products, it would be hard to gain serious sales.”

Tomchesson promotes her fetish and BDSM items by offering diverse products and has dedicated a great deal of featured space to the area in-store. “We also highlight the more unique or handmade products. We find they get even the shyest customers asking questions, taking pictures and engaging in a really dynamic way.” Colorful displays are also helpful. “ In our Los Angeles store, for example, we feature a puppy cage in front of a bondage bed.” The display is so compelling that Tomchesson notes “we have a number of customers daily who ask to get into the sling or be locked in the cage and take photos.”

In regard to the “Fifty Shades” juggernaut, Tomchesson says, “The popularity of introductory kink products has certainly increased dramatically. Items like crops and Sportsheets’ line of bondage sets have performed really well during the ‘Fifty Shades’ peak times. What we have seen over the years since the book was released are more temporary spikes in the kink category. But kink was a strong category for us prior to the release of ‘Fifty Shades’ and will continue to do well long after the franchise has died down.” While the release of the film caused a significant spike in Tomchesson’s kink department initially, she anticipates its impact will continue to fade. As to other popular types of play, she cites fetishes such as CBT, electro, and medical. Tomchesson’s customer service in all BDSM and fetish categories is based on providing her customers with a specialized experience. “We train extensively on products, and make sure everyone has a strong base knowledge. We also prioritize hiring fetish enthusiasts with hands-on and in-depth product and community experience.”

For online retailer Dave Levine of SexToy.com and MyFreeWebsite.com, the best way to market to fetish enthusiast beginners is through bondage kits, and for experts, ordering from the Stockroom line is recommended. He notes that his company has also written a guide about bondage that’s available online. “To promote online, the key is information. People want to know what items are made of, the exact size, sturdiness, etc. Pictures and videos help, too.” As to “Fifty Shades”, Levine feels it has changed the image of BDSM from an extreme niche to a more mainstream audience. “And while our BDSM sales have increased, there’s also an increased interest in sex toys across the board, not just in bondage.” The category itself has evolved in that the audience for it has expanded. “We can now sell in stores and websites that would not have touched this category a year or two ago.” And 15 years ago the only BDSM items were very serious, and often scary. Now there are BDSM items that are cute and pink, as well as being secure and sturdy. Sportsheets in particular has done a great job making their products friendly to a mainstream audience.” Levine sees other growing fetish trends as “anal, and pegging.”

In Los Angeles, at Hustler Hollywood, buyer David Ballow says his stores partner with bloggers and online resources to sponsor different kink events in-house or off-site. Hustler Hollywood recently did a tie-in and signing for Ernest Greene’s new book, “Master of O.”

“For first-timers, we put together common knowledge notes, things like ‘what is your safe word,’ that plays off ‘Fifty Shades.’ It’s easy to relate to and enticing.” His in-store merchandising is “mostly product grouping, but now that BDSM has become more common, we’ll cross-merchandise too, for example, like putting a blindfold in with the lingerie department.”

“Fifty Shades” itself increased Hustler Hollywood sales dramatically in areas such as kegel balls, Ballow said. “It was always a fairly prominent category for us, we have a built-in kink crowd. But the book and films did the adult industry a good turn, raising consciousness and curiosity.” Overall, he notes “‘Fifty Shades’ made the BDSM fetish area brighter, and increased customer interest in soft merchandise and the hard merchandise areas. Both did higher sales. People are more adventurous, less afraid and more playful.” A growing fetish category? For Ballow, two areas stand out. “Pegging has been up every year for five years. And prostate discovery is also growing. Charlie Glickman’s ‘Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure’ got a lot of people interested.” Hustler Hollywood staff is trained to be comfortable with customers, listen to what they are asking, and guide them to what they are into or want to do. He gets additional support from product vendors. “Our vendors have really been there for us in terms of getting our staff up to speed. It’s an ever-changing retail market, so a relationship with vendors is important.”

Linda Koch, owner of Treasures for Lovers in Hattiesburg, Miss., markets to experienced and novice fetish enthusiasts in-store by utilizing careful display techniques.

“We have softer items at eye level, and keep hard-core items lower on the walls or in areas where they aren’t immediately in the customer’s face. Most of our items would be considered soft or beginner.” Her store is organized by category, and her staff will often give customers a tour, and answer any questions they may have. As to ‘Fifty Shades,’ while noting the book was far from a literary classic, it generated “an incredible amount of open-mindedness in regard to BDSM in general. After the books came out, it was suddenly okay to explore and communicate. The movie was a disappointment, as it showed very little of the toys described in the book.”

Overall, Koch notes a wider selection of soft products is now available and sells well in her store. “We’ve found that the harder market tends to shop online, or prefers a quality product that goes beyond the average buyer’s interest.” She focuses on communication with customers about all BDSM products. “When our customers feel like this is our number one priority versus just making a sale, then they’ll feel comfortable asking questions, returning to make purchases, and promoting our store to their friends. Returning customers are key to a store’s success.”

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