Despite the rise of the internet, online shopping and the explosion of social media galloping across phone screens at an unprecedented pace, the centuries-old brick-and-mortar method of retail maintains its relevance by offering unique in-store experiences. Boutique retailers in particular have established themselves as fixtures within their local communities — places where adults can feel comfortable shopping. These retailers know that it’s all about creating an ambience.
“We are seeing customers yearning for new experiences, whether it is the experience of pleasure or an immersive shopping experience,” shares Kit Richardson, buyer for New York City’s Museum of Sex. “That initiative that erupted during COVID, to fill every hole and stimulate every area possible, hasn’t died. People are still discovering the world of pleasure and are becoming more adventurous.
In the era of social media, word of mouth has become an even more powerful force in driving customer traffic to boutique retailers.
“That, coupled with the need to spend money not just on something materialistic and tangible, but on an experience that you feel and immerse yourself in, is a trend that has allowed us to surpass our goals and maintain the utmost in foot traffic,” she adds.
Elaborating on the appeal of an in-store shopping experience, Lisa Thibodeau of Toronto-based Come As You Are, which has been open since 1997, says that consumers are looking for alternatives to both traditional sex shops and online Amazon-style discount shops.
“So many of our customers are driven by a desire to live their lives more authentically and ethically, and we’re known to be a sex shop with an educational and community focus and solid feminist ethics,” she explains.
Those same driving forces continue to help Come As You Are and many other businesses attract a steady flow of foot traffic.
Spreading the Word
In the era of social media, word of mouth has become an even more powerful force in driving customer traffic to boutique retailers. The unique charm and personalized experiences offered by adult stores inspires customers to share their positive experiences with friends and acquaintances.
Thibodeau notes that Come As You Are almost never engages in traditional marketing or advertising.
“We rely exclusively on word of mouth, social media, our email newsletter and walk-by traffic,” she says. “We sponsor the occasional podcast or zine or event because we want to support folks who are doing good, aligned work. We’ve run a Google ad now and then, but usually find advertising dollars don’t result in great returns. Essentially, we just keep doing the good work of spreading the word of sexual health, education and pleasure, and our business keeps growing naturally.”
Dr. Melinda Myers, CEO and president of Eureka, California boutique Good Relations says word of mouth is how her store primarily draws new customers — and that keeping them coming back is where the company shines. “We ask a lot of questions to make sure our customers get what is best for them, and not necessarily what we might think is the next big thing,” she explains. “We’ve worked hard to be trustworthy, to focus on education and pleasure, and make sure there are compelling reasons for our customers to return to our store.”
Traditional advertising methods do help some boutique retailers. Holly Berejikian, manager and buyer of a three-store chain in Georgia, says the company’s Sexy Suz Couples Boutique has gotten the most response via its humorous radio ads.
“Folks mention our radio ads because they are quite funny,” she says.
South of the border, in Matamoros, Mexico, owner Polo Medina notes that Sex Shop Matamoros has previously tried advertising with the local newspaper, TV and radio stations, but that metrics have proved social media to be most effective over the past year.
“We can track a bit more because we get the insights on what a user does when they see an ad,” he adds.
Rose Kalasz, founder of Denver-based Awakening Boutique, says her business was built on word of mouth, but adds, “Instagram has also been a helpful way to find new customers, promote certain products and advertise events.”
Jenn Mason, of the woman-owned, Bellingham, Washington-based WinkWink Boutique, likewise sees social media benefiting retailers, seeing it as just another form of word of mouth.
“On social media, people can get an understanding of our shop, values and what we offer,” she says. “And when one person has a good experience, they often tell another; those recommendations are huge!”
According to Richardson, Museum of Sex’s Instagrammable location has both contributed to its popularity and helped it sidestep social media censorship.
“Social media has been our greatest ally in driving the public to our location,” she explains. “Not necessarily posts by us, but by those who visit us. Integrate photo and social media engagement into your stores and your customers end up doing the marketing for you — without the consequences of social media companies trying to ban you.”
As popular pleasure products make their way onto the social media pages of influencers and celebrities, boutique retailers benefit as consumers turn to them to find the latest trendy toy.
“Some of our supplements, including Royal Honey as well as Pink Pussycat, are being sought after because they are both viral on TikTok,” says Jessica DellaMonica, corporate buyer for Playtime Boutiques, which has stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Medina feels the same way about how social media impacts consumer buying trends, which in turn impact Sex Shop Matamoros.
“Thanks to many videos on platforms like TikTok and others, people are aware of many new products and are also learning of products that are already on the market,” he notes.
Kali Morgan of the Philadelphia-based Passionate Boutique adds, “The trends depend on the week sometimes. If there is a celebrity endorsement that’s hot, or a product is featured prominently in a film or video, or if there are lots of viral internet videos, all of those add to increased awareness and demand for a new product. We pay attention to these trends, either through customers’ inquiries or from our own staff.”
Mason also notes a couple of other shopping trends.
“We have a lot of folks coming in looking for toys that they can use with a partner,” she says. “And, of course, we still have a lot of folks looking for the rose vibrator!”
At this point, there is no brick-and-mortar store that does not carry the rose suction toy or any of its many variations, due to its wildly viral presence on TikTok and other social media platforms.
Breanna LeFevre, of Lake Charles, Louisiana’s Love Shack, emphatically cites “anything on TikTok” as the main trend driving business to that store.
“Social media overall has helped to drive new customers to us that might not have ever come in,” LeFevre says. “They’ll come in asking for honey supplements or the rose toy and end up shopping around for more things.”
To Berejikian, the Rose experience demonstrates how important it is to pay attention to what is trending on social media.
“We actually have a radio ad addressing this! It literally says, ‘The Rose is always trending, along with app-controlled toys.”
She adds, “I have an employee whose title is ‘Trending Product Specialist’ and he keeps me up to date by watching trends on TikTok, Instagram and various other platforms.”
Gina Rourke, owner of Nomia Boutique in Portland, Maine, shares her advice for combining the skills of a seasoned retailer with the constant demands of staying on top of social media trends,
“While TikTok reviews and ‘internet famous’ toys may lead some to come in and ask for specific things, we see it as an opportunity to engage with folks about what they saw and what they imagined that toy might be like,” she says. “From there, we can often point them to something that might be even better at meeting their needs.”
She adds, “There is one particular famous TikTok toy that we do not carry because we think it is rubbish. We keep one on hand to show folks if they ask, explain its pros and cons, offer to special-order it — and then hand them what we feel is a better option. It is amazing how fast people say, ‘Oh yeah, you are totally right’ and leave happy with a different, more appropriate item. This also helps build and maintain trust with new and existing clients.”
Of course, adult boutique owners face many of the same challenges as all brick-and-mortar retailers, such as offering customers everything they are looking for, and managing to stay afloat and ahead in the age of online buying.
One such challenge, which retail customers often overlook, is the never-ending expense of simply staying open. Monthly overhead expenses like rent, utilities, insurance, staffing, staying ahead of inventory, physical upkeep and countless other costs can make it hard to compete with internet competitors.
“Some customers will always want the cheapest toy or the lowest price,” Thibodeau says. “While our prices are competitive with online discount retailers, our profit margins are lower because of all of the costs associated with running a physical shop. Rent costs, merchandising and demo costs, finding/retaining great ideologically-aligned colleagues… However, as a worker-owned cooperative, our staff has the opportunity to co-own the shop democratically and that certainly gives us an advantage over other kinds of businesses.”
Kalasz thinks that Awakening Boutique’s experience illustrates how the most basic overhead expense of any retail store, rent/commercial leasing, can be a major hurdle.
“Part of that is because our stores are located in Colorado, where real estate is extremely expensive,” she says. “But I think that’s probably a challenge for stores all over the country. Our solution is basically to utilize our spaces for as much as possible — workshops, private events and very creative merchandising to fit as much product in there as possible.”
DellaMonica highlights another common challenge that many storeowners are experiencing at the moment.
“The economy for sure,” she says. “Things are expensive right now for everybody and that’s definitely hurting sales a bit. Recently I redesigned our inventory to include collections that are more affordable but still offer quality, and that helped a bit. We pay attention to trending toys and try to have them always in stock, while also paying attention to our highest-selling collections. We’re working on different promotions to try to engage our customers more, and hosting workshops to get people in the door.”
LeFevre says that Love Shack also aims to offer goods that are competitively priced — but for adult retailers, there is always the elephant in the room: Amazon, the internet behemoth that seems to threaten their very existence with its presence.
“I already know that we are not going to beat Amazon pricing,” LeFevre acknowledges. “However, when a customer comes in for an item they saw online and notices that our price is only a few dollars different, they will most likely purchase it from us anyway. I like to think a lot of our products are impulse buys. Of course, people will still purchase pleasure products online, but most people that come in the store looking for a vibrator or enhancement pill don’t want to leave empty-handed or wait a few days for that same product.”
Eyes on the Market
Getting up-close and personal with customers also incurs other responsibilities. As any brick-and-mortar store owner will tell you, the most frequently asked question posed by regular customers is usually not “How do you charge this?” or “How do you use this?” but rather the age-old question, “What’s new?”
Staying on top of new releases and trends often requires quick pivoting and a strong relationship with distributors, if stores hope to bring in new products to keep the business moving in a positive direction.
“A lot of research and education helps,” LeFevre advises. “Especially now with many products becoming app-enabled, we will educate ourselves on the app and how to use it so we can relay that to our customers the best way possible. When deciding what products will do well for us, I go by certain items that have done well for us before. I always like to bring in a few new items from certain lines and see how our customers respond to them within the first few weeks. I can usually tell from this whether a line will do well or not.”
To stay on top of the latest trends, Thibodeau reads industry publications, attends trade shows regularly and pays attention to suggestions from customers, which she says are frequent. However, Come As You Are doesn’t just rely on secondhand reports. Being involved in the actual testing is important too.
“We actually try every product we stock, to ensure the toy does what it says it does and is safe for folks to use,” Thibodeau explains. “We truly love everything we stock and we never pick a particular product over another because of profit potential. There is a great freedom in being an anti-capitalist co-op sex shop — we never have to appease investors and we have no profit motive in anything we do. Truly, operating our shop like this keeps us honest and ethical and in service to our friends, fans and customers.”
According to Myers, Good Relations also takes pride in hands-on testing.
“I work with a small group of other like-minded store owners from across the U.S. to weigh new products’ place in our mix,” she says. “We are evaluating materials, and love third-party testing to verify claims. We also pay attention to social media trends, of course, but want to be a leader rather than a follower in this regard.”
Richardson attributes her ability to glean key insights into consumer trends in part to her ringside seat in Manhattan.
“What I love most is market research, and one of the best places to do it is New York City,” she says. “I pay close attention to everything from window displays and in-store merchandising to price points and store environment. I also pay close attention to companies that offer strong brand stories and high-quality product that I know my customers will want to support.”
Kalasz’s team at the highly curated Awakening Boutique also spends a lot of time researching new products.
“We have to be certain about something if it’s going to take up shelf space,” she says. “The things we are picky about are body safety, warranty guarantees, and inclusive packaging and marketing. After five years of being in business, we are very familiar with our customers and demographic, so it’s fairly easy to determine what will sell and what won’t. Our employees also have a lot of in-store conversations with shoppers about what they would want to see more of and what hasn’t worked.”
DellaMonica likes to research popular toys and talk one-on-one with customers about what they’re looking for, before hitting up her suppliers.
“I work with such amazing distributors and vendors that communicate the newest collections to me, so I can have the newest and best in our stores,” she says.
Just as shopping trends are evolving, so are consumers.
Love Shack Lake Charles started with a target demographic of women and couples, LeFevre notes. But while those groups are still a big part of its demographic, the retailer has also established a wider customer base over the past few years.
“I think people are becoming more open and knowledgeable when it comes to their sexuality, even compared with just five years ago,” she says. “Customers used to be nervous even asking for something simple like a silver bullet, and now that same customer will come and easily ask for a thrusting dildo down to the exact size and material.”
Richardson says that Museum of Sex’s customer demographic is as wide as it can get.
“If you are old enough to walk into a sex store, we want you to walk into ours,” she says. “Though the majority of our clientele are ages 18 to 35. We have hit that millennial and Gen Z crowd hard and it’s because of Super Funland.”
Museum of Sex’s Super Funland is described as an “erotic carnival” showcased throughout four floors.
“From the boob bounce house to Glory Stall — a new and revised whack-a-mole, where you yank dildos to see who’s the great yanker of all time — we have something for everyone,” Richardson says. “Especially anyone who craves a social media moment, and those tend to be millennials and Gen Z. That’s not to say we aren’t for anyone over 35! You are never too old to have fun. You are never too old to have sex. Customers want to have fun, so we give them fun with a dose of education, history and thought-provoking exhibits on the way. And a cocktail at the end, of course. There has always been a need for a safe space for exploration, and this is how we’ve made sure it exists for our customers.”
Since it opened, Awakening Boutique’s customers have primarily been women, and Kalasz describes the store’s aesthetic as feminine but inclusive.
“Over the last few years, we have also had a growing base of queer and trans customers because I have tried to make sure that anyone who walks in can find something for themselves,” she says. “We are probably one of the only stores in a very large region that has carried packers, binders and gaffs since at least 2019.”
As a worker co-op, Come As You Are’s unique mode of operation effortlessly brings diversity to its business.
“One of the most magical things about Come As You Are is that everyone can see themselves in our shop,” Thibodeau says. “We often overhear folks walking by saying things like, ‘Oh, that’s the feminist sex shop for guys’ or ‘That’s the queer sex shop.’ I don’t know that we identify as any of those things, but we’re happy that everyone can see themselves in what we do.”
In a retail landscape dominated by large chains and ecommerce giants, boutique retailers have managed to carve a unique niche for themselves by offering distinctive and personalized experiences. These smaller, specialized establishments go the extra mile to create an ambience that differentiates them from competitors.
“One of our biggest things when it comes to setting ourselves apart is the environment we create for our shoppers,” LeFevre says. “Keeping our store clean and organized makes customers feel more comfortable and helps them have a better shopping experience. Our layout provides navigation throughout the store and allows customers who may be too intimidated to ask for help to find what they need with ease. We have also recently installed multiple TVs and small screens around the store that play videos and guides of the items in each area, to give customers as much information as possible on products before making their decision.
Thibodeau sees Come As You Are’s dedication reflected in every aspect of the store.
“As much as ‘traditional’ sex shops have largely co-opted sex-positive, feminist rhetoric in their marketing, people can tell that we’re the real deal,” she affirms. “We have a huge focus on independent artisans and makers, and we’ll always prioritize indie creators over the big brands. We have a huge book section and we truly focus on sex education as much as we do sexual pleasure. We run a sex toy recycling program; offer generous discounts to sex educators, sex workers and sex therapists; and our shop is beautiful, bright, clean and feels safe to explore.”
Museum of Sex’s multifaceted experience offers shoppers a “hybrid of the senses,” which Richardson says is “just like sex.”
“Sex isn’t just penetration or just an orgasm, it’s all about the in-between, the experience to get you to the big O,” she asserts. “Traveling throughout the museum is a pleasure odyssey where the grand finale is our customer making a purchase and going home to finish, quite literally. That sets us apart. We aren’t slat walls. We aren’t fluorescent lighting. We aren’t hundreds of products and compromised materials. And don’t get me wrong: that works for some people and there are stores that are highly successful where that is how they operate. But it’s not how we operate. We offer a different vibe, a vibe that isn’t easily replicated and ensures that from the moment an individual walks into the Museum of Sex, they feel safe, open to explore and ready to diminish the foundations of misinformation and shame that society has brainwashed us with for decades.”
At Sexy Suz Couples Boutique, Berejikian says, it’s customer service, product knowledge and well-stocked shelves that set the store apart.
“We also contribute to a number of charities and put on customer appreciation events all the time,” she notes. “We have won Athens’ Favorite Sex Positive Business every year for over a decade. People love us!”
With employees who are trauma-informed, knowledgeable about the products and use inclusive language, Awakening Boutique stands out as a retailer focused on being a safe and comfortable place for anyone who walks in the door.
“We try to stock extensive sizes ranges and products and apparel for all genders, including nonbinary people,” Kalasz says. “We also offer a selection of workshops that are unique amongst adult stores. Many are queer-focused, mental health-focused or are specifically for people with sexual trauma.”
DellaMonica credits the culture at Playtime Boutique to its staff, who have made it their mission not only to be educated on every product they sell, but to educate their customers.
“This leads to upselling and happy customers,” she says. “We offer a very female-friendly environment and make everybody feel very comfortable the second they walk in the door — and believe it or not, not all places do that. We get one-on-one with the customers and customize their whole experience.”
Medina likewise says it’s important to Sex Shop Matamoros to make shoppers feel comfortable.
“We listen to your needs and give you advice and recommendations, that personal experience you will not get online,” he says.
Product offerings also help boutiques stand out against their competition.
“As far as determining what pleasure products to bring in, I like to always keep our shelves filled with the latest products as well as a few staple items that our customers know and love,” LeFevre says. “Personally, I love going to my favorite stores and seeing new things each time, even if it’s just because they rearranged the layout. Keeping things fresh and updated constantly gives customers a new experience each time they come in. Product packaging also plays a big part in what we decide to bring in, along with displays. If a product has an eye-catching package and a tester that we can put in our customer’s hands, it is way easier to sell that item.”
Thibodeau says that the inventory at Come As You Are ranges from big brands to independent manufacturers.
“We have a great selection of educational books and zines, some games and decks, lubricants and sensual products, as well as vibes, dildos, harnesses, sleeves, rings and power-play gear,” Thibodeau says. “We also have a ‘gender corner’ in the shop where we stock a range of gender-affirming gear too.”
Richardson proudly touts Museum of Sex’s array of varied offerings, ranging from pleasure products and lube to smoke paraphernalia, art, and now emergency contraceptives.
“At the same time, I have no more than 500 SKUs and keep the selection well-curated,” she adds. “I will only offer my customers the best because that’s what they deserve. Companies that are eco-friendly, use body-safe materials, are inclusive and progressive in both their hiring and their operations … those are the companies I strive to carry. Companies that have proven to be otherwise do not have a home on our shelves. I cannot with good conscience fund companies that have a history of homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism or xenophobia. Buying is a mixture of pleasing the customer by having what the customer desires — but also having the power to change the industry for the better through buying practices and those you work with.”
Berejikian notes that Sexy Suz Couples Boutique’s product assortment also covers a wide range. Her motto is: Stock everything at least once.
“If it’s trending, I’ll bring it in,” she says. “If a customer wants it, I’ll bring it in. I also like to keep new products in stock so my regular customers have something new to see. We don’t really keep ‘bestsellers’ in stock because that can be a little boring for our regulars, but we’ll keep variations on bestsellers.”
One thing Awakening Boutique does differently than many adult stores is stocking a big variety of non-adult products.
“We sell a lot of pins, stickers, prints from local artists and a huge selection of books,” Kalasz says. “We want to normalize buying a vibrator right alongside a birthday gift for a friend or a book for your niece. The selection of things, besides adult products, are honestly mostly just chosen based on things that we or our employees like! I’ll see something on Etsy, or an employee will send me something on Instagram, and I’ll reach out to the maker to see if we can set up a wholesale agreement.”
With the retail landscape in a constant state of transformation, retailers are embracing future-focused goals to stay ahead in the game. In this ever-evolving industry, success lies in adaptability, innovation and customer-centric approaches.
“Learning to embrace technology and ecommerce and the benefits of it, I think, will benefit many businesses in the coming years,” LeFevre speculates. “Most people look at their phone constantly throughout the day and shop from their phone. Finding ways to reach that customer through their phone and bring business to us is something I’ve been looking into lately. I’m hoping in the near future to get our store on a delivery service app to bring ease of shopping and convenience to our customers and increase our sales.”
Thibodeau says that Come As You Are will remain dedicated to incremental growth.
“So many businesses take on debt or finance growth with big external investments, which puts pressure on the business to generate extra profit to pay dividends to those investors,” she says. “The need for profit requires those businesses to cut corners or act in less-than-ethical ways in the end. We’re not interested in business — we’re interested in creating a sustainable livelihood, community building and long-term ongoing relationships with our customers.”
Sexy Suz Couples Boutique’s future will include more events at the shop plus remote sales at festivals, Berejikian says.
“We are also opening up a website that will reflect our brick-and-mortar inventory with the ability to ship straight from the store; I’m pretty excited about all that,” she adds.
This year, Good Relations will celebrate its 40th anniversary, which Myers says will be marked by a new, much larger storefront in the same Old Town Eureka shopping district.
“We can’t wait!” she enthuses.
Museum of Sex also is poised for growth in the near future.
“We are opening stores in heavily populated cities with large amounts of tourism while teaming up with mainstream industries outside of our own to tap into new markets — so much goodness coming,” Richardson says.
Sex Shop Matamoros also has its sights set on expansion.
“I plan to have one more store open in the next couple of years, for a total of four, and also will start partnerships with people in nearby towns to start something like a franchise,” Medina notes.
DellaMonica says Playtime Boutiques aims to keep rolling with the punches of the changing economy.
“I feel like the most important thing we can do is accommodate the needs of our customers,” she says. “We have a lot of amazing ideas on how to bring people in the doors and get people to feel more comfortable shopping with us, and I can’t wait to put those plans into motion. The more people we can reach, the more people will want to shop with us.”
Staying on top of trends, addressing the needs of customers and always staying focused on growth will continue to keep the doors open for brick-and-mortar stores. Take it from today’s boutique storeowners who don’t let any obstacle, virtual or otherwise, sway them from their mission: keeping customers happy and sexually satisfied.