Mississippi does not really seem to be the ideal place to open an erotic store. This State is situated the south eastern part of the United States, and like many places in the South, it is deemed to be very conservative, with lots of rural communities where you go to church every Sunday. But of course, that isn’t the whole picture because you also have people like Tami Rose, who, in 2016, took over an erotic store called Romantic Adventures in the capital of Mississippi, Jackson.
Before we talk about your business, we obviously need to address the infectious elephant in the room. What is the situation in your neck of the woods at the moment? What are the current restrictions regarding coronavirus? Have you been fortunate enough to keep your business open?
Tami Rose: We shut down for two weeks at the beginning of the crisis and I sent all my staff home and paid them for the time off. After that, we did curbside service for about six weeks, which we really liked. It sharpened my staff’s skill set tremendously because they got good at presenting three good options per request and making sure they did an effective job at communicating about each item, so they didn’t have to run back and forth. Romantic Adventures is located in a solid Red State (traditionally Republican-leaning state), so for the most part, my customers think coronavirus is a hoax and they shouldn’t have to wear masks. I keep free masks on hand and just hand them out to people as they walk in, and we sanitise as much as possible (including a UV sanitizer for the cash at the end of each shift.). It has led to a confrontation here or there, which I hate because my store should be about fun, but I have to balance that with the public safety issue, and I have to protect the health of my staff. I had custom logo hemp masks made for the staff so when we approach people to help them, we are easy to identify. On the plus side, the masks have kept my staff and me pretty healthy and we have noticed it really helped our seasonal allergies when the pine pollen falls.
How important is it for you to have a second pillar with your online store in these times?
Tami: If it saved one person from exposure by being out in public, it is priceless.
Now, let’s talk about you: How did you get the idea to seek your fortune in adult retail and to buy Romantic Adventures in 2016? And what did you do for a living before that?
Tami: I’m entrepreneurial by nature, but kind of fell into the business thanks to my spa closing down during the great recession. Sex is a recession proof business, thankfully. Massages are a great background for this business because I was used to people telling me all their secrets and holding them in confidence and the background in human anatomy and the ability to explain things without using baby words for the sexual parts is a true gift.
If we look at a map of the US, where exactly would we find your store?
Tami: We are in Jackson, Mississippi. Also known as the buckle of the Bible Belt.
Do you have competitors at your location or are you a local hero?
Tami: We were grandfathered into the Rankin county map as the only adult approved site in our county. The fact that Mississippi resists me also helps me thrive because it protects me from competition moving in too close to my location.
Please, tell us more about your business. What can customers expect when they enter your store? What is your business philosophy?
Tami: Expectations probably vary as much as my very diverse customer base, but I do a fair bit of radio advertising and have a happy jingle we have used for years which most everyone in town can sing for you. My ads are voiced by me personally, and they are designed to feel like women chatting to each other at the kitchen table. I try to always emphasise to my customers that the relationships in their lives are the most precious things they have, and they should use all the tools at their disposal to create happiness for themselves and their loved ones. People age, bodies change, health gets affected by things beyond our control, but for each of these challenges there are solutions out there and at the end of the day, the person in your life matters the most. If you are enjoying intimacy with them, there is no shame in that.
What are the strengths of Romantic Adventures? Why should consumers who have a desire to purchase sex toys come to you? What special shopping experience do you offer them?
Tami: As convenient as online shopping is, there is nothing like the real thing. We offer people the ability to see something in 3D reality and get a sense of proportion and quality that often cannot be communicated via online descriptions. Plus, you get to walk out of the store with it immediately. It’s not quite instant gratification but it is close.
In addition to an exciting shopping experience and an appealing sales environment, professional advice is the big trump card of retail stores. How is Romantic Adventures positioned in this regard?
Tami: My staff go through a 150-hour online course written by our toy manufacturers. They also get an ever-increasing discount on merchandise as they work for me. I also hold sales competitions and giveaways now and again as new items come out. Nothing is perfect and everyone has a personal bias, but I try to keep a diverse staff so no matter who walks in the door, they have a chance of seeing someone they can relate to.
As mentioned before, you are also active in e-commerce. Is this type of multi-channel strategy a prerequisite for success in today’s market?
Tami: We have always considered the e com site as part of our advertising strategy. I wouldn’t consider entering business unless I was willing to spend 10-12 percent of the gross sales in advertising. I think that keeps me from putting too much pressure on it to perform. To me it is more of a communication device than an online replacement for my brick and mortar. So, traffic on it rises and falls and google does updates that affect it and some new book comes out and everyone wants that one hot item mentioned in it and the e-commerce site just takes it in stride because its part of an overall strategy for a product that never goes out of style.
In e-commerce, competition is fierce and global. How do you deal with this challenge?
Tami: I stay away from sites that would turn my products into mere commodities and try to always remember that these are personal solutions to individual needs. My job is to communicate about how each product can solve a problem. There is an old business maxim about ‘Find a need and fill it.’ My store is full of products that do that. I’ll never run out of things to talk about and e com and the rise of the internet traffic has just increased the number places I have to reach new potential customers.
Let’s talk about your product range: What can your customers find in your store?
Tami: I have both the big names in toy manufacturers and smaller more locally crafted things. I do try to support local craftsmen where possible. I have an amazing leather source and a local glassblower who does some of the pieces for my smoke shop. I always try to stock a full planogram designed by a manufacturer because everyone has a natural bias but they see industry overall trends so they may include things I haven’t thought of.
What are the qualities you look for when adding new products or brands to your assortment?
Tami: My buying brief has always been ‘Will this give someone an orgasm?’ It doesn’t have to be exciting to me, it just has to serve a need to someone in the marketplace. That has stood me in good stead for many near misses.
What are your current bestsellers?
Tami: Bullets are always a top seller because they are discrete and can be used in so many ways. Lockdown initially led to a boom on stripper poles as all the local clubs shut down and now, we do a strong business in dance outfits and lingerie. I’m not sure if the dancers found a way to work remotely, but business has definitely been brisk. Games and dice have also been a hot seller during the pandemic as people spend more time at home and are looking for creative ways to mix things up.
Mississippi is considered conservative politically as well as socially, so … who are your customers?
Tami: Everyone. We get an amazing cross-section of people. I have bumped into pastors and pop stars and neighbours and old friends. You never know who you will run into at Romantic Adventures. I joke a bit about the fact that if you know someone who doesn’t like sex, be careful they are probably a serial killer. (Dexter was Asexual.) It is normal and healthy to like sex and be curious about our items so everyone who is old enough should definitely check it out.
What are your customers looking for and what factors drive their purchasing decisions? The brand? The functionality? The material? The design? And what role does the advice of your team play in the purchasing process?
Tami: Advice plays a huge role in the process and I have formally taught my staff to always pull three similar items and show the customer a good better best scenario. It is so powerful because it assumes a sale but gives the customer the feeling of power when they choose. Social media is influencing things more and more, but people are not cued into brands. We sell more by category than by brand or item. It sucks that we are not able to provide testers right now because of Covid contamination so it makes professional advice more important, and I have been very generous with my staff, so they have some experience with different things.
Have your customers’ shopping habits changed as a result of the corona pandemic?
Tami: Website sales have doubled but in-store sales are up 25%. Year over year. So, I think sales of devices that make you feel good are up in general.
Communication with customers is essential today. What channels do you use to stay on your customers’ radar? Can Romantic Adventures be found on social networks, for example?
Tami: We have a website, and we are on Facebook and Instagram. I really don’t chase social media though because you can spend an inordinate amount of time building a following you don’t own and at the update of an algorithm or the stroke of a key, they are all gone. It seems like a bad investment to me. Especially when a lot of them try to discourage adult themes, and you never know who is looking at this stuff, social media skews to a younger audience and I don’t totally disagree that some of my products are not for wider public consumption. I do monitor the social space to see what people are talking about and make sure to buy accordingly.
How would you describe the general situation in the US retail market? What challenges are adult retailers in USA faced with apart from corona?
Tami: The most stressful part of the last year has definitely been logistics. Shipping from China has been crazy. Lube companies have had trouble with bottling because hand sanitizer sucked up all the packaging. Fill rates have diminished, and shipping times have increased. Our poor UPS guy is killing himself as everyone wants more things delivered. It has been a super stressful year to run a business and there is really no option to take a vacation and get away from it at all. I haven’t done an in-person show in 18 months and I used to travel for business every six weeks.
Does bricks & mortar retailing still have a future? Many predict its imminent demise and point to the exploding growth of e-commerce – especially now in corona times. What should retailers do to remain fit for the future?
Tami: Brick and mortar adult stores are thriving in this climate. Humans will always crave immediate gratification. Online sales are a tiny fraction of my overall cash flow. I think brick and mortar is here to stay but some business models have to re-examine the needs of their customer base. Find a need and fill it is still a solid business maxim. The great reset that Corona Virus has taught us is that we don’t need all the things we were told we did. Clothes and shoes and fancy purses aren’t the priority when you are home all the time. Suddenly faster internet and bigger screens and things that make my home comfy are far more important. Consumers are still going to consume but this time of nesting may have changed our tastes a bit. I’m not worried, sex will never go out of style and people will always want to feel good.