Fairvilla Megastores

John Scura
To say Fairvilla Megastores takes an innovative approach to adult retail is a bit of an understatement. After all, how many adult stores allow customers to walk in and ride out on a Harley-Davidson? How many store owners make headlines for flying their private planes on mock strafing runs with the U.S. Coast Guard? And how many stores host after-hours parties for their local chambers of commerce?

It's all in a day's (or night's) work at the Florida-based Fairvilla chain. Owned and created by Bill Murphy, a maverick West Virginia native, Fairvilla now boasts three thriving outlets in Orlando, Cape Canaveral and Key West — all of which are 12,000- 16,000 square feet filled with an enormous variety of products that lend a department store feel to an adult retail and rental store.

"Creating a department store is nothing new," Fairvilla's CEO Tom Burger tells XBIZ. "It just had never been done in the adult business until Bill did it in 1991. The original idea was to put one of everything in a store and offer everyone a choice."

In creating Fairvilla, Murphy went way beyond the standard offerings of DVD/video rentals, toys and lingerie. At the urging of wife Shari, and with her help, he stocked his first store with items aimed at women.

"She wondered why it's always about single males," Burger says. "She thought the store should initially concentrate on women. Later on, we realized that couples spend more money than single women or single men, so we decided to be about couples."

Fairvilla's inventory is mammoth and ever-changing, with each store carrying about $500,000 worth of merchandise at any given moment. And it's not just about quantity. Fairvilla also strives to stray from the ordinary. For example, since lingerie is traditionally carried in adult stores, the Murphys opted to add a new twist by offering high-end lines like Claire Petitbon. Later, they added a bath-and-body shop.

Fairvilla stores also have moved away from the herd in other ways, such as stocking books or books on tape and employing a book buyer with a degree in anthropology. They offer an exclusive line of gag gifts, including chocolate handcuffs made especially for Fairvilla by local chocolatiers. There's even a rude parrot that insults customers and a battery-operated dog called Humping Humphrey.

"We're always looking for something different," Burger says. "We're not just looking for adult toys. We're looking for funny things."

The accent on fun stems from owner Murphy, who loves fast cars, planes and boats. It was Murphy's idea to display his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the middle of one of his stores. His employees thought it would be funny to put it in the vibrator section and slap a price tag on the chopper. A customer bought it and drove off that day on a 1500cc vibrator.

War Games
Murphy went into the business in 1971 as owner of the Fairvilla Twin Cinema in a small Florida town of that name (which, by the way, no longer exists). His movie house featured mainstream films, but business wasn't as crisp as he'd hoped, so he considered entering the adult business — only with a twist.

"He just had the ability to see beyond the curve," Burger explains. "One day he was at Ron-Jon's Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach and thought, 'Wouldn't I like to have a big adult store that looks like this?' He wondered why adult stores had to be 2,000 square feet with yellow windows and flashing light bulbs, so he converted his theater. He took a 12,000- foot space and departmentalized products inside of it."

The success of the Fairvilla outlet enabled Murphy to branch out. His store in Cape Canaveral is 16,000 square feet and, in keeping with his sense of fun, is located in a structure that was originally built by a defrocked priest as a replica of King Solomon's tomb.

Murphy's sense of fun also is evident in Fairvilla's involvement in community events. One of them is the Conch Republic Independence Celebration, which commemorates the time when Key West seceded from the Union (their motto is "We seceded where others failed") and created its own mock air force and navy, which dropped Cuban bread on DEA Agents in 1982. This is where Murphy's airborne strafing runs come into the picture.

"During the celebration, Bill flies his plane and makes mock attacks on the Coast Guard," Burger says. "He also captains a ship that attacks the Coast Guard, which throws linguini at him. It's the world's biggest food fight."

Fairvilla also manages to have fun while giving back to the community, as evidenced by its sponsorship of the Red Ribbon Bed Race to benefit AIDS Help.

"People came to us and said this event was about to die and they thought we'd tie into it perfectly," says Debra Peterson, Fairvilla's marketing director. "Who would think that a retail store would host this huge event to raise money for AIDS Help? But we do, and this is our third year of doing it. It's community relations. It's outreach. It's advertising and it's team-building for us. All those things are important to being a good retailer."

In fact, community relations may be where Fairvilla has an edge over many other adult retailers, owing to its participation in an almost unending series of events. There's the International Beer Festival, the Salt Water Classic Fishing Contest, Gay Days and Price Fest Days, to name just a few.

"We're always trying to find something different," Peterson says. "The fishing contest was at Port Canaveral, which is directly across from our store, and we vended on-site, offering a $500 gas card giveaway. That brought people into the store, and we fed them chocolate from a chocolate fountain, showed them products and had prizes for them. They went fishing for prizes outside our store. It was just a lot of fun."

Ladies Night
Fun also is on the menu at Ladies Night, perhaps Fairvilla's most successful community event. The ladies-only crowd is treated to chocolate-covered strawberries, champagne, gift giveaways, the obligatory male exotic dancers … oh, and the wide array of Fairvilla products for sale on a vendor row.

"It got to where 2,000 women would show up, so we actually had to try to reduce the number," Burger says. "We moved it to Wednesday nights to reduce the crowds, and when that didn't work, we started charging $20 to get in. We gave that money to the city so they could use it for a park. So it's been a traditionally great event for us and a lot of fun for the community."

Some of the best customers on Ladies Night are members of the Orlando City Chamber of Commerce, which is taking community relations to a brand-new level. Giving something back, Fairvilla will host Orlando's Chamber After Hours program (called Wednesday Friends Day) in September. In Key West, Fairvilla hosted the local symphony orchestra at a huge event, during which the orchestra backers raised money by holding an auction inside the store. The retailer also sponsors local softball teams, volleyball and bicycle teams and works with a number of charities.

"While it was a little sketchy at first in getting started," Peterson reveals, "the Chamber members have really embraced us after 10 years."

"Anybody that sells adult product is going to have encounters with the community where they live," adds Burger. "We've certainly had our share of that in every community. That's why we don't use the word adult in anything we do, and our stores are not advertised that way."

That doesn't mean the company has made no mistakes along the way.

Halloween Horror
Fairvilla's biggest gaffe, opening seasonal Halloween stores with kids' items, resulted from the tremendous success it enjoyed with Halloween sales.

"A few years ago," Burger explains, "we decided that since we sold so many costumes — the French maids and that kind of stuff — we should expand into the Halloween market. That's probably been the biggest change in our stores over the last few years because we went from offering about $75,000 worth of merchandise the first year to half a million dollars in costumes now. Halloween is now the biggest holiday of the year — not just for us, but for the U.S. at large. It took October, which was usually a slower month for us, and made it our most profitable month of the year."

So successful were Halloween sales that Fairvilla decided last year to put up temporary Halloween stores at new sites — and sold kids' items there, too.

"We found out that we don't know that market," Burger admits. "We're not used to people dropping off their kids in our stores to play for an hour. So we learned that we should stick to sheer, sleek and sexy and stay away from kids." But there is still one holiday that owner Murphy loves more than Halloween — the Key West Fantasy Fest.

"Mardi Gras is nothing compared to Fantasy Fest," Murphy says. "It's just crazy."

And Murphy makes sure his entire Fairvilla staff is fully involved in this rollicking street party. Last year, he purchased 120 oversized tutus intended for overweight men and decided the best way to sell them was to model a tutu at the Festival — on the waist of CEO Burger.

His face painted lizard green, sporting a set of fake fangs and a T-shirt (known as a Key West tuxedo), Burger wandered all day through the crowds in his tutu, reluctantly posing for tourists' and revelers' photos. Finally, exhaustion caused him to lean against a lamppost and light up a cigarette, at which time a drunken party animal flashed his picture.

Three weeks later, when Burger returned from Key West to his Orlando home, his wife showed him an online picture of himself against the lamppost in his tutu and makeup and demanded, "When did you start smoking again?"

Even spouses understand the often wacky world of a Fairvilla employee.

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