Good Vibrations has a tradition — part of its brand, by now — that I’m quite delighted to uphold when I go out on the speechifying trail to talk about the biz. I’m in the Universal City Hilton as I write this, here to attend the ANE (Adult Novelty Expo) convention: that is, the place sex toys businesses go to find out what new toys will be on the market for us to carry this year. What happens in this part of LA is literally Xmas in July, since what GV’s fine and feisty toy buyer sees and likes right now may well be what you see and like when it’s time to buy your sweetie (or yourself) something sexy. And I’m here to make sure this is true whether or not you shop Good Vibes, because I’m presenting on a panel called Why Smarter Customers are Better Customers and Educating Them Will Make You Money.
This was cooked up by my friend and colleague Cory Silverberg of Toronto’s dandy sex co-op, Come As You Are (which also gets my vote for best-titled sex biz ever). I joined the smart and lovely Candida Royalle of Femme Productions video and Natural Contours toys and the smart and lovely Shay Martin of Vibratex (whom I get to see not nearly enough of, even though she lives not too far from San Francisco). Candida brought us porn from an unabashedly female perspective (Femme) and, later, vibrators shaped like female curves, not phallic or rocket-y as so many vibes had been before they came along (now their innovation is one of the biggest, largest-growing segments of the toy marketplace, proving that imitation is very much the sincerest form of flattery). And Vibratex brought us high-quality Japanese-made vibes, most notably the Sex-and-the-City-endorsed Rabbit Pearl, toys which (sensibly enough) married the phallic-shaped vaginal penetrators we all knew and either loved or didn’t with simultaneous clitoral stimulation. Two heads *are* better than one, and Vibratex’s toys have been top-of-the-line for over twenty years.
I started by talking about GV’s commitment to informing and educating its customer population, first in the store and then the call center, and later as it’s branched out into wholesale. In both cases, original founder Joani Blank and subsequent owners have learned the basics of customer needs just by listening to them: asking about their product preferences, yes, but more importantly, listening for what they didn’t seem to know. When a customer comes in and wants to know what’s most popular, we know they believe they are likely to respond similarly to everybody else, but that may or may not be true. Sometimes we have to start with the basics of clitoral anatomy and the sexual response cycle to help someone understand what our society does not value enough to teach. When it came to serving retail customers, this insight developed into an entire educational program, complete with staff sex ed trainings and After Hours workshops with experts. In the case of the wholesale folks, the people whose small and larger sex shops serve customer base in regions we don’t yet call home, we realized education was also key, and have developed GVU, a business-to-business education program.
Would this be important if the US took sex ed seriously? Maybe not, but as we all know, it doesn’t — and so adults, young and old, turn to people like us for information, and it behooves us to learn how to give it, and give it comfortably and correctly. That was the first point I made about information-provision as a business strategy: When we can talk to people about sex comfortably, we make them more comfortable, we become more trustworthy, we earn their repeat business, they recommend us to others, and — most importantly of all, from a sex-positive perspective — we help erode any remaining shame in that person over wanting a vibrator, wanting an orgasm, wanting sexual satisfaction. We also erode that ignorance which the larger society seems to want to inculcate. We stay true to our mission of sexual health and information, and we help move the society in that direction — maybe incrementally, but every shift in every individual person has its importance.
Sure, this makes it easier to upsell. But “Do you need lube with that?” is not just a question designed to make a sex shop a buck. It matters to our customers’ experience of pleasure. Hey, lube changed MY life… didn’t it change yours? And it’s easier to talk about the superiority of certain materials and designs when people can understand why toy cleanliness is important and why the clit plays a role in a woman’s erotic life. (Does that seem like a no-brainer? Come work on the floor of a 2006 sex toy store and see how many people in a month you need to show a diagram to get them to understand just where it is. Yes, that’s right: We have to *show them a map*.)
Let me give you two specific examples of how toy knowledge doesn’t grow on trees, nor is it “natural” to know what you want. When I sell double dildos, usually the people who buy them have never used one — but they think the idea is sexy. Penetration for each partner simultaneously! The same thing inside both of them at once! Hot. But if each partner inserts one end of the dildo and starts moving, the result is likely to be that one end falls out of Lover #1, then the other slips out of Lover #2, and then the dildo rolls off the bed while they try to figure out where it went. It winds up on the floor, with cat hair all over it. Then the couple thinks we sold them a lousy toy. I have to explain that until the couple gets the hang of it, one of them should just hold on to the dang thing and move it.
Then there’s the example of Shay’s excellent Vibratex toys. There are several “Twice as Nice” vibrators on the market, each with a shaft and a clitoral stimulator (usually shaped like a critter of some kind) attached so that the shaft can penetrate while the clit stimulator does its thing. Very good design — just ask the girls from “Sex and the City.” Look, you have all those different nerve endings, so why not invite them all to the party? But each shaft is a bit different in terms of length, and if a woman doesn’t consider how deep she likes her penetration to be — and how deep *she* is, anatomy-wise — she may find the shaft is too long, and the clit stimulator won’t reach her clit. Why, that’s a waste of half a good toy! And worse, if all her girlfriends have raved about the toy, the woman whom it doesn’t quite fit might feel there’s something wrong with *her*. There’s way too much of that in American sex lives, with and without gizmos.
All this education, taking seriously the experience of the customer — GV has been doing it for just short of 30 years. And a few other companies have joined us in the fight. It adds up, as I have come to understand though my years at Good Vibrations, to a kind of mainstreaming of erotic product, and maybe even erotic variation. That’s good for the toy industry: the more acceptable it is, the less conservatives can dent it. But this expansion into the light of day has to be backed up by information and good quality product for this still-new social agreement to prevail… at least until US culture decides to invest in good sex education.