I’ve worked with three different adult retailers as an employee, affiliated or consulted with many more, and toured countless retailers both online and in person. I think about how adult retailers–and the adult industry at large–can do better with undeniable frequency. Just check out my twitter, the megathreads are there to prove it. So what do I think makes a good adult store? Here are some of the factors I consider when I decide whether or not to support or shop with an adult retailer, for the consumer or the retailer looking for some tips.
Centering Sex Education
I do not support a retailer online or off who doesn’t promote sex education in some way. There are so many different ways to promote sex education in an adult retail business, ranging from basic product knowledge on up to working to educate the local community.
Working in adult retail is how I became a sex educator, and I’m not the only one: many famous sexuality educators, sex bloggers, and even people who make sex toys began in retail environments. It’s hard not to start teaching on a retail floor: many people don’t have anywhere else they feel comfortable asking those questions. I ended up working in an adult store almost accidentally and with very little knowledge of the products or sexuality more broadly; it was questions from customers that made me realize how much there was to ask, and in being driven to help my customers, I ended up helping myself. That research process eventually lead to beginning this blog, teaching, consulting, and writing professionally.
There’s a reason I moderated a panel on the importance of sex education in adult retail, manufacturing, and sex blogging at Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit back in 2015: I truly believe the adult industry has a responsibility to educate. I have witnessed and heard stories of people's lives changing forever after spending half an hour in an adult store. People who thought they couldn't do certain kinds of sex due to disability finding tools to accomplish that, middle-aged soccer moms learning about their anatomy's pleasurable spots and structure for the first time, an elderly couple that had been trying to figure out how to make her orgasm and none of the professionals they spoke to explained where the clitoris was. You never forget the impact these things can have.
It comes down to this: most medical professionals, teachers, and parents aren’t equipped to answer questions about sexual pleasure–let alone gender, queerness, and kink. Many people are left without much to work with and often don’t know where to turn for more information. Whether a customer walks into a store or clicks onto a site looking for answers or just looking to grab a box of condoms, many people don’t know what to ask or that they should ask in the first place. The potential for teaching through customer service, helping people find the right product for them, is huge and incredibly important.
Some retailers have even taken it upon themselves to go further, creating connections with medical professionals and putting money into finding answers to questions we simply don’t have in the adult industry due to a dearth of research. I don’t expect all retailers to go that far, but I expect some consideration of education. Not only is it something I view as a responsibility to the greater good (and pleasure), it’s also a sound business choice. It’s a value to the customer if they can rely on your business to be well-informed and provide that kind of support, making customers more likely to return to your store and even promote it.
When I’m looking at an adult retailer’s online and in-person marketing, I consider who they’re including and who they’re excluding.
One important part of inclusivity is not assuming someone’s gender, sexuality, or relationship structure based on their interests. Sure, you can tell me that marketing things as women’s or men’s toys, gay or lesbian, is valuable to your SEO–but it’s also preventing people from buying products they’d otherwise be interested in, either because they can't find it or because many people feel weird buying something labeled for a gender or sexuality they don't align with. Someone should be able to buy a dildo because it’s a dildo, not because it’s marketed to their gender or sexuality. This is especially relevant for online retailers: I will keep on reminding you all that it will actually be much easier to navigate your site and find what I want if you organize things by type rather than gender or sexuality, and the same is true for most people.
I also consider the kind of marketing and social media presence retailers have. When the company uses images of people in their decor or social media, what do those people look like? If your store is covered in images of cisgender, heterosexual, skinny, able-bodied white people exclusively, maybe you should consider… changing that. Retailer marketing can perpetuate ideas of who’s sexually desirable. Even if you’re not directly and actively shaming specific kinds of people or bodies, the people who aren't represented will notice.
It’s also (partially) that many companies hire contractors who aren't familiar with sex education, sex positivity, or the adult industry to helm their online presence. Many companies have ended up finding this out the hard way when their contractor posted something offensive or degrading and only realized when customers and community members come to knock down their door. A lot of people are uncomfortable about sex, and that often translates to making uncomfortable jokes, making fun of things–and often in ways that show our insecurities, since sexuality is so connected to everything. Hiring people who don't know how to craft a sex positive but still fun and engaging online presence is a disservice to customers and often drives people away. You can argue first amendment rights and "it was just a joke", that’s cool–but you’re also driving away customers.
If your business is pleasure, you should always be asking how your marketing is making people feel good!
Fair Compensation and Treatment of Employees
As a former adult retail worker who was underpaid, overworked, and exploited by ⅔ of the stores I’ve worked for, I have no patience for companies that mistreat their employees. Though it’s personal for me, it has broader connotations: if the employees are being treated well, they’re generally going to be better able to help the customer. Happier, well-supported employees who are actively shown the value of their work will stay with a company longer, have more energy and enthusiasm for their work, it will benefit them personally, and it will make them more capable of helping customers.
It’s not just a fair living wage (and I’ve seen some retailers who also throw in benefits, money for education, vacation time, sick days, and more–which sounds like an alternate dimension I’d like to visit), it’s also the way they support their employees. How do retailers handle the harassment that their employees are going to experience at the hands of customers? It can’t be avoided outright, so safety measures need to be put in place. What sort of training is provided to employees–not just sex education for customers, but dealing with the extensive emotional labor they’ll have to give or de-escalation when a customer is acting out or harassing employees or other patrons? Adult retail workers (and this includes those who work for online retailers, who answer calls and emails!) deal with incredibly unique circumstances and their employers should put everything they can into supporting them. It benefits everyone and helps prevent the people working on the front lines from burning out.
Promoting Informed Consumerism
Are you giving your customers all the information they need to make the best and most informed decisions they can when they’re buying products from you? Do you explain things like sex toy materials, lubricant ingredients, safety considerations? If you have an online store, do you include this sort of information clearly in product descriptions?
It’s not realistic to assume that customers know everything they need to know about a product–they usually don’t. When I worked on retail floors, I found ways to gauge what a customer knew so I could give them the information they needed. Beyond just being good for the customer, it also benefits the business; most stores won’t take returns, and making sure customers know what they’re getting makes them more likely to be satisfied with their purchase.
This is really only scratching the surface, but these are the most important things I look for when I’m sizing up a retailer I’m unfamiliar with, whether I want to shop with them or promote them through the site. What do you look for in a retailer? Let me know over on twitter!