Since 1995, André Bogaerts‘ retail store SEPRO has been providing consumers in the Belgian town of Sint-Truiden with a varied selection of erotic products – and with passionate service. But next year, there will be a major change as André has decided that, after 25 years in this business, it’s time for him to step back and finally enjoy retirement. In our EAN interview, we look back at his time in the erotic retail trade.
When did you open your SEPRO Erotic Shop? Also, what got you into the erotic retail trade in the first place? And what did you do before, professionally? André Bogaerts: In 1995, we decided to start a business that we thought offered the opportunity to explore a very difficult sector for that time and create a profitable business out of something difficult in a short time. You know, we are not far from the Dutch city of Maastricht, where regular sex shops were already more established, and prudish Belgians secretly went there to buy magazines, videos or Super 8 films. Also, they bought sexy lingerie, mostly for their girlfriends, and they didn’t say no to vibrators, either.
So, our ‘good’ Belgians took their Belgian Francs to our friends and neighbors – the Dutch. We wanted to put a stop to that and try to get the Francs into our own cash register. We have nothing against the Dutch, on the contrary, SEPRO has learned a lot from them and thanks to their wholesale dealers, we have made a lot of great Dutch friends. So SEPRO became my new project and that is how I became André Bogaerts, the General Store Manager. Through publicity, we gained the necessary brand recognition very quickly.
The tricks of the trade I learned during my four years in Brussels, where I worked for a famous Dutch chain for interior design; I was a purchaser for sun protection items. After those four years, I started as an independent interior designer, that was in 1972. It was decided to set up a company under the name Bogaerts BVBA. I was a business manager from the beginning, and together with my three partners we expanded our business into a well-known company with three stores and a large workshop with 15 employees.
What is the guiding philosophy for your brick and mortar store? What makes SEPRO unique?
With the experience and knowledge I had gained from my previous three stores, I was able to adapt to the new challenges and open my first erotic store. It was a small cozy store, located next to the large market in Sint-Truiden. We had our permit from the city council, with only one limitation: We could not promote any explicit products in the display windows of our store.
I was not discouraged by this limitation, instead, I decorated the windows with bright red foil, and in large yellow letters it read: ‘SEPRO – THE ONLY SEX SHOP IN YOUR REGION. Come in and browse and get a free gift – NO BUYING OBLIGATION .’ That was quite unique, and it still is. At SEPRO, you never leave empty-handed. Even if you don’t buy anything, your gift is ready! After 24 years, that is still the case.
How would you describe your store? What type of atmosphere awaits the customers?
After the first five years, we moved into new premises – where you can still find us today. It was no longer in the centre of the city, but in line with the ‘Chaussee ‘d Amour’ known throughout Europe as ‘the’ red light district or the so-called ‘Tenderloin of Belgium’, with 42 bars and eighty prostitution windows, where the most beautiful girls from all over Europe offer their services.
SEPRO is not situation in between these bars, but approx. 1 km. away. Our store is a gem, it is a cozy store, and customers immediately feel at home, especially with the reception they get. Our clientele is 85% couples or females who come alone, the remaining 15% are men. This is because we promoted our store on TV and in other media as being women-friendly. And most importantly, the customers are served by women. These are stylishly dressed in ‘city clothes’ and not in sexy outfits. Our customers also appreciate greatly appreciate that. Behind the store, we have a discreet parking space for 20 cars, adding an extra sense of discretion – not every customer wants to be linked to sex.
Your store is situated in Sint-Truiden, a Belgian town with roughly 40.000 people. Is there competition in town or in the greater area?
In a radius of approx. 55 km, we don’t have any colleagues, Whenever we encounter our colleagues, at trade shows for example, we always have a nice chat about our business. Every store/business has its own charm and for us, our other colleagues are not competitors.
Over the course of the years, there have been many changes in the erotic market which have also affected the retail trade. What were the biggest developments in your opinion? The downfall of DVD? The e-commerce boom and the powerful competition from the internet?
The collapse of the DVD market, definitely, and that the internet is nibbling away at our income. The youth just steals porn movies online, and who is going to do something about it? People are gradually beginning to understand that brick & mortar stores are guarantors of quality, hygienic toys. The way things are going now, online shops will take some serious blows within the next few years, mark my words. No one can keep their business afloat while working at a loss.
Many people say that sex toys have reached the mainstream and are widely accepted in society. Has your store benefited from this increasing popularity, as more and more consumers get interested in sex toys?
I find that the taboo around sex toys is gradually disappearing. We see this from the stories that people spontaneously confess to our saleswomen. Even clients, both men and women, in a ripe old age of over eighty years are still coming back to buy a sex toy. What we also see is that the severely disabled and handicapped are visiting our store a lot more or their caregiver comes over and asks for suitable toys for their patients.
People with physical or mental disabilities also need sex. The hesitation that used to accompany everything to do with sex is disappearing now. SM, bondage, anal sex – everything has become negotiable. Our range is also highly customised. Customers may ask us the most extreme questions, and if we cannot help them, we will have answers to their questions within a few days, thanks to the great support from our suppliers.
Many retailers in the erotic market rely on a combination of brick and mortar store and online shop. You decided against launching an online shop. Why so?
That is quickly explained, I am 72 years old. Why would I go and incur that headache when our sex boutique is doing very well? All that crap about selling five products through the web and then having to take back four products for free… God knows where these toys have been? I might be a silly Belgian, but not a foolish one!
“All that crap about selling five products through the web and then having to take back four products for free…”
In order to stand their ground against the competition from the internet, many retailers focus on a unique shopping experience, but also on service and sales advice. How important are the sales staff and the service they provide? How strongly do they contribute to the success of your store?
The success of my store is mainly due to my saleswomen and their eagerness to learn. They know all toys by name and by brand , they give professional advice to my customers, they learn how everything works, and it is very rarely that the customer leaves without buying something.
They are extremely friendly to the girls who work in the bars and treat them with respect. They know what dress or lingerie men like. Our wide range of lingerie and fashion is purchased from reputable suppliers. Three times a year, we visit the clothing and lingerie fairs in Paris.
Who are your customers? Which groups are drawn to your store?
Given the elegant appearance of our boutique and the exclusive product range we offer, we have won over a lot of customers. Generally speaking, everyone is welcome and always will be welcomed in a friendly way .
Please, give us an overview of your product range. And how do you choose the products you sell in your store?
If you can think of it, we have it. Toys (almost all types), SM articles, bondage, lifelike sex dolls, electro sex, masturbation devices for men, anal sex toys, sexy board games, clothing, lingerie – also for men – leather and latex products, sexy funny gifts, costumes, condoms, etc., etc.
Our wide product range is purchased from wholesalers or importers via the internet or their sales representatives. Exclusive items and fashion and lingerie products are also bought at trade fairs.
What are your current top-sellers? What are the consumers in Sint-Truiden into?
Hard to say, but what generates very strong sales are the anal toys. Usually, the newest items are the easiest to sell. Thanks to the girls who work in the bars, we have a huge turnover in condoms and lubricant.
Which factor has the biggest impact on the customers’ purchasing decision? Price? Material? Features and functionality? Or do most people base their purchases on your recommendations?
Most customers buy what our staff recommend. Of course, we only suggest certain articles after a conversation with the customer. A good saleswoman knows which direction customers want to go. Quality comes first, the price sometimes makes people reconsider, but a good argument made by the saleswoman makes all the difference. For example, articles that are rechargeable are more expensive, but what do batteries cost? What is the impact on the environment? These arguments are also important to many customers nowadays.
“A good saleswoman knows which direction customers want to go.”
Would you say that your customers have become more well-informed and discerning throughout the years?
Customers always think they know better, that will never change. However, when they get a proper and acceptable explanation from the clerk, they listen, and they show respect for the friendly welcome. If people thank you when leaving the store, that is a great incentive for our saleswoman.
Often, you hear people say that everything was better in the old days? Would you agree to this statement, or is it just that everything was a bit easier before?
Well, why was it easier in 1995 than it is in 2019? Simple. Because in the past, there were much fewer products. Nowadays, we throw tons of toys at the consumers. It’s not easy to make a decision anymore. And why were woman easier to tempt back then? Do you know the answer? I do!
Do the producers and distributors/wholesalers provide you with all the tools you need? Or would you like to get more support from the industry members?
Most wholesalers offer us great support and our Dutch, French, and German business partners are very correct, but sometimes they forget that here in Belgium we speak Dutch… even though there is one person who is trying it. POS materials are everywhere!
We heard that you intend to retire next year? Is that correct? And if so, what will happen with the store?
Indeed, I have decided to retire in May of next year. I will then be 73 years old, and I want someone else to enjoy what I have built up. We would like our store in St. Truiden to be continued and would want to give it to a person with an interest in our industry. Belgium is a great country to do business in, not only for Belgians but for every European who wants to invest in an extra business in Belgium. Interested? Let us hear from you. Bogaerts BVBA dept. SEPRO, Sint- Truiden, Belgium, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking back at the history of the store, what are the things that have left lasting memories? What are the high points? And are there also things you’d like to forget?
We have enjoyed every single day of the past 24 years! We have made so many close friends, then there’s everything that came along with this beautiful business: all my cool customers whom I’ve gotten to know and whom I would like to thank. For me, these are highlights that I still enjoy. Of course, there were a few negatives that I would like to forget forever.
In 2002, the day before Saint Nicholas (early December), in the middle of the night, my store was robbed empty by six masked thieves. The surveillance cameras captured the whole thing but none of these thieves ever got caught. The store was completely robbed and only a small string remained on the floor in the middle of the store. I think that was left behind just to make fun of us. At that moment I was close to losing hop. But the help of numerous suppliers and our Christmas and New Year sales gave us back the courage we had deemed lost. The following year, our annual turnover was obviously in the red because we had to buy everything back and our insurance would not pay out for theft if no perpetrators were found.
From 2016 until early 2018, the street in front of our store was completely opened up, right up to our doorstep because of sewer construction and because they added bicycle and pedestrian paths. These construction work reduced my turnover by 80% simply because you couldn’t reach the store. Those were the two negatives I would like to forget.