The Store Experience

Joanne Cachapero
In the good old days of traditional brick-and-mortar adult retail, any customer brave enough to walk into a shop probably already had in mind what products were going to be purchased. A large selection of VHS tapes, and later DVDs, combined with a limited selection of magazines, novelties, gag gifts, lube and low-end lingerie would generally suffice.

Track lighting, modern fixtures and organized displays didn't matter as much as a big stack of opaque shopping bags for customers to take their purchases. But now, in the Age of Broadband, the brown paper baggers have moved online, leaving many shop owners to openly talk about the death of traditional brick-and-mortar retail.

"For so long, we've been able to throw anything on the wall and it sells. We can't do that anymore. We're at a really, really interesting time in our history," Sportsheets' Director of Sales Todd Carter said. "You cannot just throw shit on the wall and think it's going to sell. You have to be creative in your marketing and merchandising."

The important thing to remember is the customers who visit an adult store today are there because they want to be there and, now more than ever, they want a satisfying shopping experience.

In a global marketplace where most people are so busy with day-to-day survival and working hard for the disposable income they will spend on any variety of consumables, the psychology of retail sales has become a delicate dance to get the customer to open up their wallet. Maybe more so in adult retail, where the consumer may be nervous and hesitant to spend on something that is a luxury and not a necessity. If your dance floor is cluttered, dusty and poorly lit, that customer is not going to stick around to do the tango.

Push and Pull
"As an industry we're pushing way too much product on the market. The distributors are getting overwhelmed. There's not enough wall space or floor space, and you talk to the retailers — they'll tell you that it's out of control," Carter said. "It's been: manufacture product, put it on the market and push, push, push. I believe you have to pull, pull, pull the consumer into the products, instead of pushing and just waiting for them to buy."

To prove the point, Carter and Sportsheets recently introduced a mainstream-merchandising concept to their distributors and retailers by developing a plan-o-gram program to sell Sportsheets product.

Plan-o-grams are schematics for precise product placement used by most retailers and visual merchandisers. With the Sportsheets program, the retailer is given a diagram for displaying product within a specified amount of space. The display is built around a flat-screen TV the retailer is required to purchase in order to show a promotional DVD, which educates the consumer on how to use various Sportsheets items in the display. The program comes at two price levels for distributors or retailers, depending on the amount of product purchased. Vendors that purchase the larger package can be reimbursed for the TV up to $250.

Because of the nature of Sportsheets product, Carter said the educational aspect of the program is the most important component of the consumer's overall experience with the plan-o-gram display. Consumers who may not be comfortable with the idea of light bondage or products used for positioning during intercourse need extra guidance.

"Some of the retailers have told me that for $250 they get a salesperson in their store for Sportsheets. They just put a TV on the wall and hit 'play.' And if they do get new sales reps or store clerks they can watch the video and learn how to sell the products," Carter said.

The system was beta-tested last October and Carter said sales for the products featured on the DVD went up a minimum of 25 percent, with a 150 percent increase in the sales of the Sportsheet — the company's flagship item which retails for $300.

Hot Plans
At the recent Adult Novelty Expo held in Los Angeles in July, plan-o-grams and bold merchandising concepts were a hot topic on the show floor.

Most manufacturers have updated their packaging to be more consumer-friendly and for broader market appeal. Now they're taking the shelf appearance of their product to another level by using branded packaging in grouped displays for bold visual impact.

"When branded packaging is created for a line, merchandising- wise, it looks ideal when it's all together," Pulse Distribution's Director of Novelty Sales Ted Levine said.

"It may include items that span different categories that most of the time are in separate sections of the store. But when they pull it together, the brand becomes very visually appealing, easy to browse and has eye attraction for the consumer when they come in the store. So visually, you want to create that draw to that section," Levine said.

In terms of maximizing display space Levine also suggests utilizing point-of-purchase displays for branded lines of merchandise.

"Plan-o-grams can also go beyond three feet of space that you have on a wall. It can include POP material, which would be spinner racks, floor dumps, counter displays," Levine said.

Customer Draw
Of course, for a lot of retailers, the real issue is getting customers into the store to look at the products on display.

Capitalizing on strong visual appeal is bait on the hook that will bring customers in and lead to increased revenue. Configuring your store layout to encourage maximum sales per square foot is an exercise in romancing the consumer into multiple purchases and impulsive buys.

"Isn't it funny? We have to seduce them so that they can seduce other people," Hustler Hollywood Stores' Director of Merchandising Moe Hettinger said.

Hettinger, who is responsible for merchandising and display at all 17 of the Hustler Hollywoods, has a background in psychology, interior design, fine art and 13 years in retail working for high-end boutiques like Guess and Gadzooks.

With the first Hustler Hollywood store established in 1998 on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, Calif., Theresa Flynt worked with her father, LFP founder Larry Flynt, and a team of architects to revolutionize the idea of what an adult store could be. Every following Hustler Hollywood store has been based on that original template.

"It was a major thought process we went through to develop the stores," said Flynt, now Director of Licensing for LFP/Hustler. "What would pull people through the stores? The stores were designed to seduce you in with subtle products and as you go farther into the stores, the products get harder the farther you get."

It's Hettinger's job to keep the Hustler store concept on the cutting edge, with everything from product selection to presentation and display, as well as controlling organization and uniformity within each of the stores.

"We have to make it comfortable for them to come in, because if they don't come in then we don't have a store," Hettinger said.

One thing Hettinger emphasizes is use of window displays as the primary lure to interest walk-in traffic. Though many adult retailers ignore use of storefront displays, presuming that adult products cannot be showcased or that windows must be shaded for the clientele's privacy, effective solutions can be found in using attractive backdrops behind displays that feature softer products like lingerie or apparel.

Hustler Hollywood carries high-end, trendy clothing lines like Affliction and the UFC's Extreme Couture line, as well as Hustler-branded fashions.

"We have people coming in for our street clothes and maybe they'll pick up some toys while they're there. Or maybe somebody comes in looking for a movie or toys and they didn't even know the extent of our clothing," Hettinger said.

Another trick that she uses is creating displays that have an all-inclusive appeal so the customer can buy individual pieces from the display or the complete ensemble.

"I think that one of the things that people don't do enough of, or that they don't execute properly is cross-merchandising," Hettinger said. "The customer wants you to do the work. If you can create that display that makes them see that they have to have this toy with this lube, with this lingerie outfit, with this bath and body, they'll buy the display because they can't live without it."

In terms of practical merchandising, Hettinger believes in the basics:

  • Uniform fixtures in presentable condition; even if you have to build some of the fixtures yourself in order to maximize the space and look of the store.

  • Track lighting that showcases popular, best-selling items and is flattering to the products and the customer.

  • Displays that allow a visual break, especially when displaying multiple products on a wall. In Hustler's new St. Louis store, Hettinger used three-to four-foot sections of slat wall divided by two-foot sections of crimson-colored fabric wall covering to minimize visual clutter.

  • Consistency and uniformity down to the angles of display hooks, the direction of hangers on clothes racks and stickering on all products.

  • Limiting your suppliers so the product you carry emphasizes quality, not quantity.

"We also are very particular about a concept that we call 'simple to complex.' Because if you think about the psychology of how the eye works, when that customer walks in the door, you want the toys to go from the most simple to the complex," she said. "You want to ease them into it. You want to make it as easy as possible. The easier it is and the more fun it is, the more they're going to spend."

DVD Display
With what often takes up a large amount of space in an adult store, Hustler Hollywood's Emmanuel Dorsey is in charge of DVD displays and has brought some innovative merchandising ideas to his section of the stores.

"I still use genre as a major feature within a section. So you still have your categories such as gonzo or feature, but within those categories I separate everything by production companies," Dorsey said. "The reason behind that is it gives a better visual appeal. Most production companies use a standard form print and letter and the edges of the boxes are similar in design.

"You know, Digital Playground has a gold strip on the top of their box-covers. Other companies use bold lettering or Gothic lettering. As much as you can, if you group those together, it stands out a little bit better and then you can alphabetize them within by company," he said.

The new St. Louis store is the first store where Dorsey formatted the DVD section from top to bottom. He used custom shelving units that accommodate approximately 200 DVDs with 24 face-outs so customers can see the box covers.

"As far as our DVD sections, they're all faced out," Dorsey said "On our end caps, I mix it so that it's a face out then some spines, then a face out and some spines — giving a 3-D effect and it makes it an easy grab for the customer. My whole aim is a bold visual statement with the cover themselves, based on each company's logo."

Dorsey also is experimenting with a system that allows customers to scan the DVD's barcode and see a sample trailer on a computer monitor display. But he also is considering a database-type system similar to the type used at Borders Books or Barnes & Noble for the consumer to browse their DVD inventory.

Test Drive
Hettinger believes an important part of the adult shopping experience is enabling the customer to test products before purchase. To that end, toy products carried in the Hustler Hollywood Stores will have a demo model available in their tester section and when the customer makes a purchase, each item is tested at the counter to make sure that it works.

Freelance visual merchandiser Sharon Lee agrees with Hettinger. Lee is based in the Bay Area and has worked with adult retailer Good Vibrations on their in-store displays.

"Everything has to be approachable. If you make a display that's too constructed, people will be afraid to touch. It's about making the product inviting and approachable, so the customer will touch it," Lee said. "They won't buy something without at least touching it."

Also, Lee points out the importance of cleanliness, especially for the adult retailer. If even tester items are dingy and shopworn that's an immediate no-sale signal to the consumer.

But, once you have them in the store there's one thing that can dismantle even the most amazing floor display — and it has nothing to do with presentation.

"Customer service is probably more important than visual merchandising. With merchandising, you have to provide an inviting, clean, pleasant environment," Lee said. "But for me personally, if I experience a sales staff that is not knowledgeable or friendly, or is rude, that will drive me out of a store."