When I first started Spectrum Boutique back in 2015, I was ordering products from a single wholesale distributor, and directly ordering products from a handful of companies. Back when it was only me managing inventory and selecting products, I quickly learned how much knowledge I was missing — knowledge I needed in order to run an online retail business smoothly. I was over-ordering products that didn’t sell, not ordering enough of something that would fly off the shelves, and wanted to avoid drop-shipping at all costs — I wanted my shop’s packages to be custom-made with love.
Back then, I even hand-wrote thank you notes for each order. Times were different! I quickly stopped having the time for all the cute personal touches I’d had the energy for in the early days. In the first space I shipped out of, incoming packages were stolen. In the second space, incoming packages were locked away in a mailroom that I could only access via a building manager who was very hard to reach. In my third space, and the last space I personally managed, we often had to call the mail carriers to remind them to pick up our outgoing mail. A lot of energy was spent on logistics, order fulfillment, and all the mundane annoyances that come with running an online retail store that no one thinks about when they’re starting a business.
When I look back at the success of the business, I know we wouldn’t have been able to achieve this without a solid distribution partner.
Given my skill set, I was not meant to be a warehouse manager. When I began Spectrum, I wanted to have a business I could really be proud of — but my love of sex toys, sex education and interacting with customers completely eclipsed my ability to realize how many logistical skills I lacked. Still, I refused to rely on drop-shipping; I had too many special requests and customizable aspects of my orders to ever envision someone else helping me fulfill orders.
As I began working with more wholesale distributors, and many more product brands directly, I realized that a lot of what I needed lay a mere five miles from my space in Detroit. I’d been working with a local distributor for just under a year, carting product from their warehouse to mine in my CR-V. It was convenient, yet I had to do this run multiple times a week, still spending my energy on logistics, not education and sex toys.
Speaking with the distributor’s team, I quickly realized that we had shared values when it comes to the pleasure products industry. I decided to go for it, and have them start handling order fulfillment. At first, it felt like I was dropping my firstborn off with a new babysitter for the first time. There was certainly a learning curve in the first few months as I worked with the distributor to have their team fulfill orders in the specific fashion we had established. It took a lot of communication and physical time at the warehouse to get everything set up, but two years later, I can’t imagine how it would be possible for me to scale up without larger systems in place for my inventory and order fulfillment.
All of this is to say, I think more small businesses would massively benefit from working with a wholesaler to create a shipping fulfillment partnership that isn’t simply “drop-shipping.” I have found it has been a very mutually beneficial partnership, and as a result, I never run out of staple products like lube or Magic Wands.
There is a fear that having a wholesaler as a go-between takes away from our margins and prevents us from getting better deals that might be available if we purchase directly from a brand. While that may be true in dollars and cents per unit, it is all made up for in the time and money I am not managing warehouse staff, or receiving a massive amount of inventory by hand, or needing to calculate inbound shipping as an additional cost. I value the time it has freed up so my team and I can do what we do best: talk about sex and sex toys!
Ultimately, every retailer is going to want something different, but I think this collaging together of practices helps small business owners avoid having to reinvent the wheel, as I did while trying to wear the hat of warehouse manager among my many other hats. It is natural to resist entrusting your customer-facing final product, the order, to someone who isn’t you or working for you directly, but there are so many ways to strike a balance where the retailer and wholesaler can support each other through a partnership like this. While I am an online-only retailer, I can only imagine how helpful this model could be for physical brick-and-mortar stores whose priority is in-person sales and who don’t have the time or staff for a full-fledged shipping operation on top of that.
Despite giving up a bit of our margin, the value of working with a wholesaler has been instrumental to our success. When I look back at the success of the business, I know we wouldn’t have been able to achieve this without a solid distribution partner.
Zoë Ligon is a Detroit-based sex edutainer, journalist and artist who is also the proprietor of progressive online sex toy emporium, Spectrum Boutique, where she has made it her life's work to blast away the stigmas and misinformation.