Customers needed shops that men and women felt comfortable venturing into together, and that's when the visionaries took over.
Stores such as Good Vibrations and Fairvilla took the adult retail reigns and steered themselves in a direction that would ultimately become a trend for sex shops around the country. They revamped their storefronts, making their environments inviting, fun and most importantly, pretty to look at.
But there was more to it than just image. They incorporated sex education, an air of exclusivity and layout design borrowed from popular non-adult stores. Add a knowledgeable staff and a prescient eye, and they had created a group of adult retail outlets that attracted everyone — especially customers who never otherwise would have stepped foot in an adult store.
Judge a Store by its Cover
And as most of these adult retailers will agree, creating a welcoming environment starts in the parking lot. Penthouse Boutique owner Dan Quinn, Hustler Vice President of Licensing Theresa Flynt and Fairvilla CEO Tom Berger put as much effort into the outside of their stores as they did the inside, realizing that even the slightest bit of seediness could turn away potential customers.
Quinn's boutique in Fairfield County in Connecticut has a brand new parking lot and, like malls around the country, has staff sweep and clean it every day. His smaller store, the Luv Boutique, located in Hartford, Conn., is designed with the same philosophy that the Penthouse store was, but attracts a younger, hipper clientele with its marble floors and pink-toned lighting.
The Hustler store's West Hollywood, Calif., location has bright open windows — something not allowed in all states — and telltale signage that is recognizable around the world. One of Berger's stores is shaped like King Solomon's tomb and from the moment they park their cars, customers know they're going to have a good time inside.
But the feelings of comfort, curiosity and excitement must be maintained as soon as customers walk through the door with selected colors, sounds, lights and displays.
Jeff of L.A., the latex department manager and designer for fetish retailers Stockroom, Syren Latex and Stormy Leather, recently helmed a massive revamping of the Syren store in Los Angeles. Once a dark burgundy color, Jeff said his team painted the walls a light butter cream color and expanded its storefront to give customers more space to walk around.
"We were really trying to go for a boutique feel," Jeff said. "We didn't want it to look scary and dungeony; we wanted it to be really clean and contemporary."
Jeff next stripped the old store's ugly light fixtures, which he said cast harsh and unflattering light on both the products and the customers, and installed track lighting positioned to bounce off the walls for soft light.
Flynt, who was in charge of the Hustler retail stores from their inception until 2005, said she hired a design team — who happened also to be a married couple — to develop the stores' interiors. They created a color palette with hues that were associated with certain products.
She used purple in the lingerie section and red in the toy section — "Because red is hot and toys are hot," she said. — and made a point to avoid blues and greens after her father said he didn't want them anywhere in the store.
Front to Back
As for the stores' actual layout, most couples-friendly boutiques use a front-to-back design technique. Flynt said Hustler's softer items, such as candles and massage oils, are intentionally at the front of the store.
"The stores are designed to seduce you," Flynt said. "You walk in, see sexy things like candles, lotions, lubes, lip gloss, and as you progress you get to the clothes and the lingerie."
Flynt said the goal is to have the customer completely seduced by the store and its offerings by the time he or she makes it to the back of the store where the harder products are displayed.
"You don't want to walk in the door and see a butt plug [right away]," Flynt said. "Some people will turn around and walk back out."
Syren's set-up is similar. Jeff said that he saves the wearables — the fashionable latex clothing — for the front of the store so that customers who are into latex primarily for fashion purposes can shop without being overwhelmed by the more S&M bondage products Syren carries. Those products are located in the back of the store.
"It's not hidden or anything," Jeff said. "As you go further back into the store, it gets kinkier and kinkier. We wanted to start with wearables because they're easier for most people to handle. They're not as threatening as a riding crop or something like that."
Quinn also designed his Penthouse Boutique to feature the softer lingerie and novelties close to the entrance and the insertables, sex swings and hardcore toys at the back — one of the ways, he said, of attracting more couples, so a guy can feel comfortable bringing his girlfriend or wife into the store with him.
"We're enabling mainstream people to go into a place they normally wouldn't shop," Quinn said. "Women have the money in America. They run the checkbook. You want women in your stores if you want to grow."
Flynt believes that women were a neglected market before Hustler and Fairvilla opened their doors. Stores were always targeted toward men, she said, and she thought it was weird that women couldn't go out and buy their own porn.
"I always felt [the old stores] were dirty," she said. "I didn't want to touch anything. There was old product on the shelves, not much to choose from, only stripper lingerie — it just wasn't right."
Flynt said her father played the most prominent role in the development of the Hustler stores, saying, "I want a store that even a schoolteacher would feel comfortable shopping in."
Flynt also enlisted the help of Fairvilla President Bill Murphy and his wife, whom she said took Flynt and her father under their wing and taught them the ropes of developing and running a successful adult boutique.
Fairvilla's first adult stores were the classic male-targeted DVD shops, and when Murphy realized the need to expand his customer base, they knew how important it was to appeal to the female consumer.
"Eighty-five percent of every family income in a heterosexual relationship is controlled by the CFOs of households: women," Berger said. "They know how to shop, they want quality, they want choice. Women are capable of making decisions and make more decisions economically and financially than even I make."
Berger also said that selection is key when targeting female customers. One of the ways mainstream high-end boutiques such as Anthropologie, Agent Provocateur and Pottery Barn attract and keep customers is through trust. Customers know that these stores will continue to offer the best of the best that they can't find anywhere else.
"The more exclusive the shop — the key word being 'excluding' — the less product, but the tighter the selection," Berger said. "I'll show you the best of what this industry has to offer within various price ranges. The trust we build with customers is that we will preselect the best from each product range."
Good Vibrations is one of the only adult toy retailers that offers sex toys made of unconventional materials. The store recently launched a line of lightweight cock rings and dildos made from exotic hardwood, and its other unique products include Australian vibrator manufacturer Goldfrau's practically indestructible ceramic vibe. It's selection like this that attracts customers to the company's four retail locations.
"Some believe it's the brand name that sells the product, but we feel it's the product that sells the product," Good Vibes Head Buyer Coyote Days said.
The most successful couples- oriented, female-friendly adult shops sell more than just toys — they offer as many, if not more, lifestyle products in their storefronts as they do vibrators and handcuffs.
"If you're going to get something for someone," Berger said, "it might involve candles or incense. There's more to it than just a toy. It's about exploration."
To aid in the exploration process, these stores have hired more than just sales staff to push product off the floor. Good Vibrations prefers to call its staffers sex educators/sales associates, requiring them to undergo hours of sex education and product training. Hustler, Penthouse and Fairvilla train their employees for hours before letting them loose in the store, making sure that every person on staff knows every product's function and purpose.
"There's an open dialogue among the staff," Berger said. "Knowledge is important to understand the product, and with a selective selection it's easier for them to understand every product and know all about the different materials, engines and other parts."
Flynt said her staff is trained to be available and knowledgeable, but also be aware of the fine line between helpful and irritating.
"We want the staff to approach customers but also don't want to bother them like crazy salespeople," Flynt said. "We want to let them know we're there, but know that they're shopping for private things so you don't want to stalk them. The staff breaks the ice so the customer can come to them later."
Days said Good Vibes' sales staffers are invaluable resources who can answer any question a customer might throw their way. The staff almost plays the role of sex therapist and personal friend, she said, listening to customers chat about their sex lives to try to figure out what product will help them the most.
"We very much want customers to know we are actually really there for them with education and also making sure they're happy," Days said. "Some people just want to get what they want and leave, but they appreciate us because at some point they're going to have a question. Nine times out of 10, the person ends up opening up."
Running stores in an open, comfortable manner is just another way to sell a sexual lifestyle, rather then just a dildo or a pocket rocket. Many of the products in these retail outlets can be used together to help build a sexual atmosphere and a better sexual experience overall.
Flynt acknowledged the importance of stocking products that enhance a sexual lifestyle, such as cosmetics, lingerie, apparel and bedroom accessories.
"There's a big future in adult retailing for the personal items," Flynt said. "Sex is an experience with someone. We want to sell everything that's sexy, that makes people feel sexy; things to create a night or weekend getaway that adds to the overall experience."
Items like candles, bubble bath, wax and sexy lace underwear all act as supplements to the vibrators, harnesses and butt plugs that these stores carry — and store-owners realize the need to focus on lifestyle if they want their outlets to last. And with declining DVD sales, stocking more of these novelty goods and focusing more on selection of sex toys is the best way to stay afloat in the evolving adult market.
"DVD sales are plummeting," Flynt said. "Women's toys, lingerie — there are always going to be stores. A vibrator is an impulse buy. You want to run out, want to see it, battery test it, feel it before you buy it. You want it now; you're not going to get on the Internet and two-day ship it."
Quinn agreed, adding that many people still are apprehensive about giving credit card information over the Internet and feel more comfortable walking into a store and buying a product after seeing it in person.
Berger said Fairvilla is preparing to expand its line of products to keep up with the changing adult market, something he said is most important if you want to stand out from competitors.
"It's hardest to change when you're already successful," Berger said, "but that's exactly what you need to do. You can't keep up with yesterday and with who you're expected to be — you have to move forward and anticipate where the company is going, where the economy is going."
And it appears that the future of adult retail is in shops like Hustler, Penthouse, Good Vibes and Fairvilla, scrubbing the stigma that "adult" has held for years and replacing it with a new image, one that is acceptable to both seasoned adult consumers and newbies looking for an adult store they feel comfortable venturing into for the first time.