Secret Place in Warsaw is not your regular adult shop. Everything has a unique flavour, from the exterior of the boutique-style store to the interior design, the product range, and the way these products are presented to the customers. And the sales staff aren’t your usual cash register jockeys, either. EAN talked with Magda Kamińska and Łukasz Ociepa about their daily work at Secret Place. The resulting interview demonstrates how diverse and demanding work in the adult retail trade actually is and which challenges the staff of these stores are facing nowadays.
Is the distinction between adult store and sex shop necessary? And how does Secret Place differ from other places of this sort? Łukasz Ociepa: Erotic stores and sex shops are two completely different things. Well, at least this is my view. The term sex shop evokes negative associations; I associate it with the 1990s, with a lady who has no knowledge of the products which in turn do not meet the customers’ intimate needs. As for the product quality, a sex shop stands for some sort of marketplace or bazaar atmosphere, real sexuality is mocked rather than enjoyed in good taste.
Magda Kamińska: Erotic stores and sex shops are two different stories, the same way that a designer clothing boutique is different from a casual clothing store. An ordinary sex shop is just a store that offers various products of various quality and of various aesthetics (not necessarily positive). Our store’s offer only includes top-quality products and is devoid of products which ridicule sex instead of celebrating it and improving its quality.
Which types of customers frequent your store? Magda: The boutique’s offer is in fact intended for anyone: women and men, singles and people in relationships, persons of any age –from early adulthood to old age. Everyone will find something suitable. There is no person who would not find a product that can improve the quality of their sex or health. Generally speaking, our customers are people who look for diversity and sometimes solutions to particular problems such as erectile dysfunction, inability to have an orgasm, or just boredom in sex. There are also people who simply like to have fun and visit us for that reason.
Łukasz: All adults are potential customers, there are no limits or restrictions. Therefore, we cannot provide a detailed profile of the customers who come to our store. Certainly, women account for the majority. In a relationship, they often do the shopping and they are also more willing to explore their sexuality than men, in particular heterosexual men. When couples visit us, the man usually pays and the woman makes the shopping decisions. Funnily enough, if a couple wishes to buy lingerie, it is either a joint decision or it is the guy who makes the final decision. It is really hard to define the boutique’s customers. All kinds of people come to Secret Place.
Are the sexual interests of the Polish consumers changing? Did Fifty Shades of Grey have an impact on their preferences? Łukasz: There’s increasing interest in sexuality and an awareness of its complexity. Did this film have an impact? Media promotion definitely put sexuality in the centre of attention in the eyes of many people, and some practices have stopped being a taboo. Frankly speaking, when I talk to our customers in the store, I get a different feeling. What really broadens their awareness is a professional talk in the store – about how to use products, how to mix and match. These are intelligent adults but sometimes it is necessary to explain some things in a simple, clear, and transparent way.
Magda: The film definitely opened many people’s eyes when it comes to BDSM. It encouraged our society to consider the use of sex toys, weakened taboos and, generally speaking, it made ‘doing it’ differently acceptable. Many customers are afraid of being stigmatised if they choose to use adult toys, irrespective of whether it is a vibrator, handcuffs, or trowel; they will be classified as people who cannot handle sex on their own, who are perverts. The film has helped people overcome some of these barriers. It is difficult to say if the the story of Grey encouraged people to try these particular practices, but they surely helped them open up in a way and show them that toys can be cool and acceptable.
Are you also offering Fifty Shades-related products at Secret Place? Magda: Products marked with a logo of Fifty Shades of Grey arouse interest because customers know the books and the movie, and therefore, the logo gets them curious about the products and the entire brand. They expect that the products are used in, or inspired by the film in a way. This definitely facilitates the sale.
How important is specialist knowledge if you want to sell adult products? What requirements do you have to meet in this job? Magda: Knowledge is very important. Firstly, there is an anatomical knowledge, you need to know the arrangements on the inside, then there’s a knowledge of materials, safe use, and a general knowledge of the adult market. All of this is crucial because we want to do our best to help our customers. Our goal is to make sure the customers get what they need and buy the most suitable products.
Speaking of requirements… Experience is definitely another one. We are required to have a comprehensive knowledge of the products. A superficial knowledge of toy functions and modes cannot guarantee that we provide the customer with suitable advice. Having experience with various types of toys often helps dispel doubts when a customer asks ‘Did you use it?’, ‘Which is the best one’?, ‘Which would you choose if you were me?’, ‘What do you recommend?’ I cannot say which product is the best choice for a customer without them giving me some information to work with. The best product is the one which guarantees the greatest pleasure but it is the customer who knows what he/she likes or what his/her partner enjoys.
So you need to know each product inside out to be able to answer all questions and help the customer choose a suitable product? Magda: Many people do not even realise how wide the range of products in the market really is. Many people think that a vibrator is a vibrator, and that’s all. They think that they can come in and say ‘a vibrator, please’, and then they leave with the perfect vibrator in their bag. The reality is different, however.
Łukasz: Knowledge is undoubtedly the single-most important thing for a salesperson. We simply need to have expertise with regard to the products we sell. What is essential is a) safe use and b) intended use. Additional knowledge also comes in handy. If we have a strong theoretical background and experience, and the chat with a customer is going well, we can present or discuss a product in detail. If we state that we use a product ourselves, or when we present statistics or similar data, more people choose this solution, because if consumers have such points of reference, they are more willing to purchase a product.
What does a typical conversation with a customer look like? Łukasz: First of all – every customer, no matter who they are, is an important customer. This is a person who visits you to achieve a specific goal, who wants to make a purchase. Every customer requires a different approach. There are reserved people and open-minded people. Some have a shopping list and just tell you what they want. For example, they want to buy an anal vibrator to share it with their partner. OK, when they tell me this, I know that I have to inform them about safety and hygiene. When a customer is reserved and does not look like sharing everything with the salesperson, we need to be patient and spend more time on helping. Every customer has to allowed to take their time. Some need less, others more, but all of them require care and attention. After all, talking about sex and about what they are going to do on their own is a very intimate matter. People are made to uncover their intimate world and show it to a stranger. This is why we have to be calm and professional.
A person who sells toys for adults must be patient and well-trained then? Magda: Yes, the salesperson must be intelligent and open-minded. If you sell adult products, you cannot have any prejudices about sexual minorities or majorities. Every person must be approached on a case-by-case basis. In this line of work, you cannot be prude or ashamed. You cannot judge people based on your own preferences. Nobody likes to be judged.
Łukasz: As far as personality is concerned, impeccable manners are always the priority. This is the only way we can establish contact with a customer, no matter if this person is kind or rude, or if we can establish this contact easily or not. Knowledge and good manners are the most important qualities a salesperson in an adult store must possess.
Is your education somehow related to the job you now work in? Łukasz: Yes, by all means. My field of study was general sociology. Between my first year and the suspension of my doctoral studies I focussed on the field of sociology of the body. The academic literature concerning corporeality, sexuality, and body modification provides a solid theoretical base for seeing how complex a human body is. Translating this knowledge into my work, I can use it for deliberate image building, flexible body language, and at the same time for a professional approach and self-control.
Magda: My field of study was painting in scenography and film techniques. I am a make-up person, aesthete by education, and I can honestly say that I am an artist. At the university, I worked with the human body, which helped me shape my attitude towards physical nature. My sense of aesthetics often helps me choose a product but of course, that only goes so far. I need to encourage customers to specify what they want from a product. After all, I am not the one who will use it.
What challenges does a salesperson in an adult store face in their daily work? Łukasz: Aside from sales-related challenges – meaning we want to increase sales – I think the biggest challenge is the moment when a customer is ready to openly talk about his/her sexual needs. We need to be understanding. Even if we think something is really weird, we are not to judge it. The last thing this person wants is to be ridiculed. Judging others is the worst thing we can do. Dealing with difficult customers is also a serious challenge.
Magda: Keeping everything in order is challenging. To make sure our store is classy, we must avoid situations in which a display cabinet is open or a tester shows signs of fingerprints or is covered in dust.
“Basically, there are two types of customers: the ones who know what they want to buy and the ones who ask for help.” – Magda
How would you define a difficult customer? Is it the type who is impolite or the type who won’t share their feelings and needs? Łukasz: A difficult customer is the one who makes it difficult to establish contact; this sort of customer often requires much attention and ignores you at the same time. Also, customers who want strange combinations of product features or feel that nothing will satisfy their expectations.
Magda: A shy customer is not the most difficult customer, but not an easy one either. There are unkind customers and we have to deal with them as well. Probably one of the most difficult things is helping customers who do not know what they want and, despite our help, are unable to specify what could bring pleasure to them. These customers are not really ready for this type of a fun and talking them into the purchase would be unfair and unbeneficial.
How do you get customers to open up about their intimate life? Magda: First of all, we need to make sure this customer feels safe and is aware that his/her intention is normal, natural, and healthy and that we really support it. This customer must trust us, must trust in what we say and believe that we want to help.
Łukasz: Secret Place customers are rarely ashamed but often surprised that Secret Place is a place where sex is not aggressive. We have products on display, we can talk, they can take a look at novelties in the erotic market. When a customer feels ashamed, we must somehow break the ice. When so doing, it is advisable to show an alternative way of using the product. Regardless of the topic of our conversation, it is necessary to break the ice somehow. For example: We can carry a vibrator in our hand and talk about oral sex variations (I move it close to the neck, and smile widely). The tension eases, our customers smile, and they get more interested.
Do customers who visit your store know what they want to buy or do they rely on your expertise to find the right thing? How would you assess the average customer’s knowledge of adult toys? Łukasz: Of course they know some things. They learn from the internet or their own experiences. Even people who buy their first toy have already done some internet research. People often do not realise that purchasing a toy is a very complex issue. Toys differ, are made of various materials, and have different functions. What we need to do in this situation is ask a customer about his/her expectations rather than asking about a specific toy.
Magda: It is quite normal that customers visit us because they found something interesting online. They get an idea of the product and the price on the internet, they make a decision, and then they visit us to buy the toy. This is the moment when I have to ask: What is the motive behind your choice? If you have read internet reviews, maybe I should mention the weak points of this product? Maybe you can find something else, something better, which you have not paid attention to. In this case, I guarantee that we can find something suitable together. Pictures on the internet only tell you so much about a product, but when you can touch the product and get a piece of advice, that is a different matter.
Does this mean that the internet is the main source of information about erotic toys? Magda: First and foremost, it is the source of information about a product’s advantages. A customer who chooses to buy a vibrator online can rarely compare it to other toys. In fact, we do not know what their motives are. Maybe it is the price or maybe it’s the way the toy looks. No description on the internet, no matter how detailed, can show us how hard the material is or how the motor works. These things are obviously very important, but they are frequently ignored. On the internet, everything is presented as THE BEST, HIGH-QUALITY, SUPER STRONG and absolutely fantastic product.
What are the most popular products at Secret Place? Lingerie or toys? Do customers only buy one item at a time, or do they have a long shopping list? Magda: It is hard to say. I reckon that customers rarely buy one product only. If they happen to visit our boutique, they make use of our diverse offer – if they choose a toy, we suggest that they buy condoms or a lubricant to supplement their purchase.
Łukasz: Vibrators and lingerie are the most frequent choices. When a customer purchases lingerie, they often buy a number of items rather than just one slip. If a vibrator is what they are shopping for, we always remind them that they must use a lubricant and make sure their toys are hygienic. We also sell sets such as a toy plus lubricant and disinfection spray.
“Erotic stores and sex shops are two completely different things.” – Łukasz
So, generally speaking, customers usually buy more than one thing at a time? Łukasz: If our talk is fruitful and pleasurable, if customers are open, they buy many things. If a customer is ashamed and clearly rejects our help, he/she is likely to buy one item only. It is important that we make sure this customer remembers a pleasurable and friendly atmosphere and comes back.
What about prices? How much does the price matter to the consumers when they make a purchase? Magda: Some people want to buy a high-quality product at a low price. If a customer has more disposable income, then the price does not matter that much and the quality is the priority. In this case, we do not even talk about low prices because we know that it’s quality they are after. Sometimes, if the price is too high, customers choose to wait and do not buy anything but come back after some time.
If a customer is just trying a vibrator, not knowing if this is really for them, it is advisable not to invest too much money, particularly if their economic situation limits them. In this case, we advise them to choose something cheaper in order to find out if they like it and possibly buy a better-quality product at a higher price the next time around.
Łukasz: The price always matters. When customers visit our store, they already know how much they plan to spend. When they think the price of a product does not correspond with its quality, they will always pick another good instead.
Does the product design have any impact on the customers’ decisions? Łukasz: Let me put it this way: Men are visual types. Women are not, and even if they like a product at first sight, they still want to pick it up and feel the vibrations or the hardness of the material. Then, if they find it unsuitable, the give up. The design itself is definitely important but is not as important as the functions of the product. Sometimes, customers must choose between design and functions.
Magda: Everyone has a different sense of aesthetics and of course, the design is very important. If a person does not like a vibrator, he/she will not use it, it will remain in the drawing and never be taken out. There are people who prioritise the design element – for example, a vibrator must be blue, period. We always ask how important that is. Sometimes, customers just want something different, they want their toy to have a cool design, without it being realistic.
Please, take us through an average conversation with a customer? What are the first words you say when a customer enters your store? Łukasz: If it is the first time a customer visits us, we ask if we can help somehow, or give a piece of advice. If it is a regular customer, that’s different. I have a few regular customers whom I know by name. We exchange pleasantries like ‘How are you?’, ‘How was your weekend’, etc.
Magda: Basically, there are two types of customers: the ones who know what they want to buy and the ones who ask for help. The latter can be easily served because they rely on me. I do not have to ask them for attention, I can show them everything and I know that I do not impose myself because it is they who initiated the conversation, and that is really great. I am curious what they think, if they want to have a toy, lingerie, or if they are perhaps looking for something else entirely. We gradually explore their wishes, step by step. But in the end, it is not about what they want to buy but about what they want to do. I really appreciate it if a customer tells me what he/she likes, even if it is a non-standard preference. Then I can easily find an item he/she will be satisfied with.
Finding our general bearings is the most important thing, after that we move on to the details. If a vibrator is what the customer wants, I need to know if it is going to be their first vibrator or if it just another toy for them. Perhaps they have some experience and know that a particular shape is more suitable for them. I always show them many products, not just one, so that the customers can choose, knowing that there are alternative options. If a product feature is unsuitable for a customer, I show them other products.
To what extent do your suggestions influence the customers’ decisions? Do customers follow your advice or do they stick with their own instincts? Łukasz: Well, I would say that 80% of customers choose the products I recommend.
Magda: Our suggestions have considerable impact. In my opinion, it may be even bigger than Łukasz thinks. I believe that 95% of customers choose products on the basis of our recommendations. Most customers choose products I recommended, and not the ones which they had found on the internet before. These are rare situations but I always ask customers about the motives behind their decision. If they have already made up their mind when they enter the store, well – we have to accept that.
Are the Polish people attached to brands? Łukasz: I guess so. We have a lot of LELO, Fun Factory, and We-Vibe fans. Quality seems to be the crucial aspect. And quality translates to satisfaction. Besides, people seem to be switching from battery-powered toys to rechargeable toys.
Magda: Yes, they get attached to brands and it is conspicuous. People often pick an item because they already own some products of that same brand and expect any product with that logo to offer the same – or better – quality. This applies mostly to toys; when it comes to fast-wearable items, that is lubricants or condoms, customers are willing to experiment.
Do you think that your conversations with the customers play a big part in them coming back to the store again and again? Do customers return to Secret Place for your advice? Łukasz: I think our talks have a substantial impact on sales. A salesperson, or advisor, must be knowledgeable and experienced. If the customer service is unprofessional, the customer will not feel like coming back. If someone seems uncomfortable, we start talking about something unrelated to erotica – oh, wow, nice tattoos! – but the sales process is under way.
Magda: Oh, man, yes – they do! Customers sometimes meet me on the bus and thank me for my advice. I mean it! Once, when I was in the underground, a woman came up to me and asked: ‘You work in the boutique, don’t you?’. I said yes, and she told me the name of the vibrator she had bought and said ‘it’s great, I will recommend your store’. Our customers are very loyal and return to our store again and again. We even know some customers by name and we treat one another like friends. Sometimes, we even happen upon customers at parties, it is really nice.
I think we make a truly amazing duo. When I observe other sellers in erotic stores, they rarely have this kind of knowledge and they certainly don’t use the same approach. I often feel judged when I enter some store. At Secret Place, that is unacceptable. Perhaps this is why customers like us.