Packed Seminars, Rousing Keynote Highlight XBIZ 360 Retail Conference

Bob Johnson

LOS ANGELES — Adult retail professionals from every corner of the industry weighed in on the market segment’s hot buttons during an intensive line-up of seminars presented at this year’s XBIZ 360° Retail Conference that kicked off yesterday at the luxurious Sofitel Hotel.

Leaders from major retail companies including Good Vibrations, Adam & Eve, Peekay, Gamelink, Eldorado Trading, Castle Megastores, Pleasure Chest, IVD/ECN, Deluxe Distribution, PriveCo. Liberator and more addressed topics including Selling Sex Products Online, Next-GenSex Shops, The Future of Adult Retail and Direct-to-Consumer Marketing.

The event featured a rousing Visionary Keynote address delivered by Peekay founder Phyllis Heppenstall, who as always brought her seasoned insight, knowledge and expertise to a packed room of attendees. One highlight of Heppenstall’s talk was her model of success that mapped how retail pros must address the customer of the future, face competition and build a winning talent pool.

She said she couldn’t be “more excited” about the future, what with new technology and the increasing acceptance of adult products. “I believe the lessons and wisdom of the past, coupled with technology of today create a market advantage for retailers.  She cautioned however, that although there’s more access to information, without “action” it’s worthless.

Some key points discussed included the new look and face of adult stores, the importance of engaging the customer, the use of social media, and essential employee training. Although the seminars focused on how to success in adult retailing, the speakers all agreed that the market should no longer think of itself as an “adult” business but instead think of itself as mainstream.

Heppenstall also noted, “We are retailers who sell to adult — not adult retailers.” The executive said that when she first entered the retail arena she was told that only 20 percent of consumers bought adult products. Her plan then and now is to appeal to the remaining 80 percent, and she told attendees that should be there goal as well.

“Our business impacts and changes people’s lives. People buy an emotion and justify it with logic,” Heppenstall said.

And as Adam & Eve’s David J. Keegan put it, “We’re not your uncle’s porn store anymore.”

Part of the new strategy is the use of social media. Having a retail brand on Facebook and Twitter enhance a company’s image and Internet reach. Gamelink’s Jeff Dillon maintained that an adult star’s Twitter presence could help sell a company’s product by virtue of the stars’ connection level or “K” factor of popularity. He added that adding viral video and contests are also good methods of engaging consumers and also a method of opening a platform for other companies to spread the word.

IVD/ECN’s Ken H. recalled that some posts on old message boars are still yielding Google referrals to his sites from more than two years ago.

But PriveCo founder Tom Nardone was not so enthusiastic. Although he admitted that social networking is entertaining, it should be considered more of a way to extend the “personality” or company brand rather than a marketing tool. He pointed out that his company’s sites that include Vibrators.com and Bachelorette.com use photos in Pinterest fashion that are shared more widely than Facebook posts to help spread the word about his company’s products.

IVD”S Ken H. said retailers should take their cue from retail giants like Amazon. “Can the public post on Amazon’s Facebook account?  No,” he said.

Another way to engage the consumer according to Dillon, is to bolster mobile delivery. He said that last year tablet use dominated over smartphones two to one, and the savvy retailer must grasp these trends and be able to understand how the next generation will be purchasing products.

Concerning brick and mortar establishments, clean, well lit stores that appeal to couples. Castle Megastore’s Mark Franks said the release of “Fifty Shades of Grey” has “unleashed women” allowing them to buy adult products. These new stores must foster an inviting environment with creative displays. With that, customer service and the ability to field trained and knowledgeable staff are also key ingredients for a successful retail business according to the seminar pros.

Pleasure Chest’s Kristen Tribby’s “sex nerd” staff are trained to give customers 10-20 seconds of information and then walk away in an effort to establish a more welcoming environment. Other panelists pointed out that stores also need to be more community involved and offer workshops, date night events and provide a more personal touch that allow customers to feel comfortable. Eldorado’s Garland said that adult stores have an advantage over “big box” stores because of this special attention they can provide to customers, especially in the area of sexual wellness.

In her keynote address, Heppenstall also touched on this area and said that once people are comfortable with a store’s environment they will return and a company will have a customer for life.

What’s more, Good Vibrations’ Joel Kaminsky pointed out that the “feel” of a store could also make the difference to consumers. “I go to Whole Foods because of the extra things I find there like the ability to donate to a good cause. I identify with their brand. It works for adult too,” Kaminsky said.

And Adam & Eve’s Bob Christian noted that stores must now supply "instant gratification," explaining that products on the shelves must appeal to all of the senses — not just regular packaging.

Predictions for 2013 and beyond were also on the table at this year’s conference.

Having stores that are much more interactive where customers can experience the products through new technology are a must for the coming years. In-store iPads for customers to see demos and place orders, and mobile apps that interact with products are on the near horizon, according to Liberator’s Michael Kane.

Babeland’s Rachel Venning agreed and said her stores embrace more of an “Apple store model for purchases” that make buying less of event with no visible cash registers.

Kane also noted that this type of customer interaction is essential and that his company has designated play space areas “that look like Bloomingdales” where customers will spend hours trying products.” Kane also noted the need to reach out to the urban market that is increasing its spending power.

Liberator advertising campaigns and marketing will feature “less nudity,” according to Kane, in an effort to appeal to the broader mainstream buyer.

Perhaps one of the more progressive ideas for the future of retail was offered by Oakland-based Feelmore’s Neena Joiner who believes religion may play a role in marketing sex products.

Joiner, a Christian, said her store now holds prayer meetings and the trend could continue in the future. “Creating a dialogue of healthy sexual lifestyle that fits with religion and relationships for a store’s community has not yet been capitalized upon,” she said.

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