ANME/XBIZ: Adult Retailers Recap Year of COVID Impact, Offer Positive Outlook

ANME/XBIZ: Adult Retailers Recap Year of COVID Impact, Offer Positive Outlook

LOS ANGELES — Amid the trying times of COVID, adult retailers rose up to the challenge, changed their business practices and stepped up their normal routines around safety and hygiene in their stores. Last week, an esteemed panel of retail execs gathered virtually during the ANME/XBIZ show to discuss how they adapted, as well as other trends that are currently shaping the industry.

Panelists included Coyote Amrich, who has been with Good Vibrations/Babeland/Camouflage for 16 years; Isabelle Marcotte and Jacques Provost from Montreal-based Eros and Co., who has been in business for 13 years; Chad Jenny, national business consultant for Adam & Eve for 13 years (88 stores and counting); and Loretta Goodling, who has 11 years with Pennsylvania-based Excitement Adult Stores, and is the buyer for all five of its stores. The panel was kept informative and lively with Kit Richardson from the Museum of Sex in New York City moderating the conversation. 

March 14 seems to be the date of infamy for these retailers — it was when strict COVID restrictions began galloping across the nation. Excitement stores all closed on March 18, Goodling said, and remained shuttered throughout April and most of May.

“It was surreal,” she shared. “We couldn’t do curbside and given all of our different locations, townships had been picky about how we could do business, whether it's reopening, doing curbside, and so on.” 

Goodling felt the loss of not being at her stores, interacting with staff and doing the daily requirements of her buying and managing jobs. Making lemonade out of COVID lemons, she reached out to the stores’ owners to see if there was anything she could do during the closures. Goodling then gathered a team of four coworkers and went to work while the stores were closed. “We did everything in three of our stores: painting, hammering and adding new carpeting and tile," she said. "I needed that interaction with people.”

One smart move the company enacted was to hire an executive coach, who was at the disposal of the staff, in order to remain focused on their jobs, even when the stores were closed. “We didn’t want the staff to think it was summer vacation and wanted to keep them up on what was going on. It kept them active and often, the coach turned into therapist. It was a really good move and I’m grateful we had that coach for us.” June 1 is when all of their stores were finally opened again.

Chad Jenny added it was a challenge because they have so many stores across the country and “it was a mixed bag,” he said.

"When COVID hit, we had 70 stores open, 15 stores closed for some of the time, some for five days, some more, depending on where in the country they were. They were restricted by local lockdown rules and regulations so that set us up to have several different response levels. We came through it flying high and all of our stores are now open.”

The successful formula for the Adam & Eve stores didn’t let COVID stop their growth.

Jenny added, “From March through the end of year, we opened seven new stores for a year-end total of nine. It wasn’t the best year — but still, a lot of stores are doing great.”

Stores with multiple locations were especially challenged, similar to what Goodling had experienced.

According to Amrich, 15 Good Vibration stores around the country were “super-affected” by COVID. “We closed all of them because our staff was mostly afraid and not because the closures were mandated.” She continued, “We are in metropolitan areas so we have commuters, on public transportation, and are very much part of a living, breathing city, so because of that, when stay-at-home orders took place on March 16 in California, we closed all of our stores. Our staff needed to make sure no one got sick on our watch and they felt supported by our company’s management infrastructure. We began opening up in late May, early June, and some stores remained closed until September. We even re-closed another one of our stores and may not re-open it, depending on how the world recovers.”

Citing safety for staff as well as customers, Amrich added, “Some stores are open three days, some five days, some staffed by one person. We have some stores with capacity limits (including staff), and some with staff working one shift a day. Following company-mandated sanitizing protocol, which is based on CDC guidelines, a customer visiting the stores has to wear a mask over the mouth and nose, stop at a sanitizing station at the entrance, and whenever a product gets touched, the customer has to put it in a basket to be sanitized. Not all toys are created equally and some don’t take well to disinfectant. Same goes for boxes and we give them this info when they come in.”

Amrich says she was especially proud that the stores get compliments from customers about how safe it is to shop and they know their concerns are being taken seriously. “We are treating the sanitizing info with the customer the same way we talk about such sensitive topics as sexual health and wellbeing.”

Amrich sighed, “We’re doing everything we can and there has been no COVID in the entire company. Because we didn’t choose profit over health of our staff, we can rest our head on the pillow and sleep well. Sure, it will take a second for our business to recover as there are no students, no conferences, and no commuters, but we’ll be fine.”

Goodling added similar information about the Excitement chain of stores.

“Staff got nervous again before Christmas because of rising cases, so the owner bought freestanding hand sanitizers, and we continue to have employees and customers use hand sanitizer. We take their temperature, and we have to wear masks in the stores and in our warehouse as well.” She added that it’s important to be more mindful of how everyone is feeling and try to work around that. “It’s tough. I’m working the next three Saturdays with staff in the stores. It’s not that anyone has had COVID but they have to quarantine because they’ve been exposed,” she said.

To our northern border, Isabelle Marcotte closed all 18 of her stores, Eros and Company, in March because, as Amrich shared, her employees were not comfortable and scared. Marcotte expressed, “We want the customers to have fun so we closed a week before. We stayed closed until June, then reopened and we closed again. We’ve been closed since Christmas and will stay closed until February 8 for Valentine’s Day. After that, we’re not sure and we will see.”

Also, in Quebec, businesses have a maximum capacity and they posted it on the door.

Marcotte shared, “Everyone has to wear a mask and if someone is not wearing a mask, the company has to pay a fine if they are caught! It is serious! The stores have to ask the customer to wear a mask, [they] have a sanitizer at the entrance, and no more testers on the floor as they are now behind the counter, so if a customer really wants to see a toy, an employee can show it and then clean it. The testers are not everywhere like it was before. In Montreal and the rest of the province, there are few cases, but they are stricter about COVID in Montreal.”

Relying on other ways to keep the company open and the brand alive, their website helped a lot.

“We are strong on the web in Quebec and at the time when we were closed, all the sales came from there,” Marcotte continued. Their home party division went down significantly but the reps found a new way to regain their presence, by being more present on social media. “The reps changed the way they do business and are still active. The top reps are hot.”

Customer buying has also been impacted by COVID and not necessarily negatively.

Jenny noticed that customers are feeling safer and there has been an increase in store traffic, translating into higher transactions. “Customer interaction has been very positive as we’re taking safety precautions, and since we are in so many different areas, we issued a company-wide protocol for their safety,” he said. “This keeps everyone safe while being respectful on what’s happening.”

Jenny shared an observation that was seconded by several on the panel. “In the early days of the shutdown, just after we reopened, we were selling anything on the shelf! Things that haven’t sold in six or seven years!” As people were starting to get back to a more stable ground, he realized the stores were appealing to a much larger demographic. Jenny continued, “Our stores are borderline entertainment and fun because you can’t get a butt plug at the grocery store! Our stores have been seeing more of a bounce-back with people that maybe have never been in the store.”

Goodling and Amrich echoed those observations. Both shared that customers are buying bigger ticket items, more rabbits and more couples’ toys. “It’s probably because people are stuck at home and want to do something different,” they all decided, adding, “stripper poles have been flying out, too!”

The topic of social media marketing came up during the panel, as well.

“Instagram is the new era of word-of-mouth advertising and if you can create something organic and get people speaking about an item, that’s how you get people into the stores and create that positive and fun image,” said Jenny.

The virility of adult retail was discussed with all of the participants sharing their wisdom about the strength and viability of brick-and-mortar stores. Citing impeccable customer service as well as sharing more knowledge than a clerk in a general department store such as Target or Walmart, all agreed that customers are more aware of what they are putting on or in their bodies. The sexual health and wellness awareness “is what makes us different from buying from Amazon or ebay. You can trust our businesses,” Amrich shared.

Richardson summed it up with the statement: “We had to adapt. We had to evolve. It made our businesses stronger and safer. Brick-and-mortar is here to stay and that’s a fucking fabulous thing to say!”

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