1991 marked the first year after the German reunification, and as far as the German retail trade was concerned, the rise of more specialised stores, which had begun in the mid-1980s, continued in the new decade, reaching the electronics industry as electronics stores popped up in all cities and towns. If you are wondering what that has to do with Lothar Schwier and his company, read on, we’ll get to that in a minute as we look back at 25 years of Novum Märkte GmbH. Novum is Latin for “new”, by the way – a perfect name for a company with new and fresh concepts that set out a quarter of a century ago to make it socially acceptable to buy adult products.
25 years ago, Lothar Schwier worked in the electronics industry, so he experienced first-hand how the concept of specialised stores changed the market. At the same time, he also had an eye on the adult market, seeing that there was tremendous potential in this area, but he was also aware of the risks. Understanding the eternal truth that sex is a basic human need and that, consequently, sex sells, Lothar knew there was demand for erotic products. But of course, the adult retail market, circa 1991, was in no way comparable to the market we all know and appreciate nowadays. What is often described as “traditional sex shops” today represented the backbone of the market back then, the products were clearly geared towards a male audience, and pornography in all its shapes and forms filled the shelves.
No wonder: Porn offered great margins and turnover, and VHS tapes with hardcore content were booming. However, there was no larger audience for the adult industry back then, it was a successful, but clearly defined niche, shunned by the mainstream at large. Many consumers gave wide berth to sex shops, and there was basically zero incentive for women to ever set foot in such a store. So Lothar Schwier put two and two together and started developing an idea: He wanted to adapt the concept of specialised electronics stores in the world of adult products.
The beginnings of Novum
He opened his first store in his home town, running it on the side while still keeping his job in the electronics industry. That was a bold step, not only from an economic point of view, but also in terms of how the people around him responded to that decision: “There were quite a few who wondered if I had lost my mind when they first heard of my new shop”, Lothar remembers, thinking back to those early days 25 years ago. “And yes, some people also became very hostile, but as a matter of fact, the majority seemed to be curious more than anything.”
Lothar’s business philosophy and his mainstream-influenced take on store design – large, bright sales spaces that still respected the customers’ need for discretion, an inviting atmosphere, a large selection of products, and motivated and, most importantly, well-trained sales staff – won over many consumers, including younger people, couples, and even women. Therefore, it was not really surprising that regional and national newspapers dedicated articles to the rise of Novum Märkte GmbH and its business philosophy. A term that can be found in many of those articles is “socially acceptable”. The company, which still has its headquarters in Bielefeld, North-Rhine Westphalia, did away with the sleazy image of the adult retail trade and got new customer groups interested in erotic products – people who would not be seen dead in a regular sex shop.
“Are we pioneers? That is for others to decide, not us, not me. But I dare say that we did our part to change this market,” Schwier says. The aforementioned business philosophy is still one of the pillars of the company and its 23 retail stores but, as Lothar continues, nothing is ever set in stone at Novum. “We work very hard, we constantly question our decisions, we keep our eyes and ears open, and we do our best to adapt to the developments and the trends in the market and also to the needs and expectations of the consumers.” The words of someone who has seen more than once how quickly the market can change.
Changes and challenges
When the internet became a new channel of distribution for adult content, that set off an avalanche of changes, DVD sales plummeted, and the adult trade was faced with a radically new marketplace. Many shops were forced to close down because the customers of yore got their fix on the web; others managed to adapt, switching to different product groups and new target audiences. Also, new companies entered the market. “We had offered a wide range of products from day one, and we had catered to a different audience, so that development didn’t pull the rug out from under our feet”, Schwier explains. “Of course, being a brick-and-mortar man, I am less than thrilled about many of the things I see going on the internet – to name but two: pirated, free pornography and silly price wars that destroy the margins for the trade. In light of this situation, it is all the more important to emphasise the advantages of the brick-and-mortar trade.” But as he adds, the adult market has also changed in another way.
It is a development that most newcomers in this industry won’t really understand, but for people like Lothar, who have been in the adult business for decades, it couldn’t be more profound: The adult industry has become professional, moving closer to the structures and practice of other big markets. The days of the “Old West” attitude are over – a development for which Lothar has nothing but praise: “I am more than happy that we now have this high level of professionalism in our market, although I have to admit that, looking back, the turnover we generated in the old days is kind of mind-boggling”, he says with a smirk.
But he quickly turns serious again when remembering the other things that happened in those days; things that reflect the wild west mentality present in the market back then: threats, harassment, property damage – the list is long and shocking. “I believe everyone will understand that I don’t miss those times”, he says. But neither unscrupulous competitors, nor changes in the trade landscape could stop Novum Märkte GmbH on its way to the top.
How to find the right location
The number of Novum stores kept growing and growing, eventually reaching the current number of 23. The company has long since expanded outside its native territory in Eastern North-Rhine Westphalia, and there are stores in Northern Germany and in Southern Germany now. The latest store was opened in Herford, and Lothar and his team are confident that it will set the template for future stores because, apart from being a perfect representation of the Novum corporate philosophy and its modern interior design, this latest store is also situated in a prime location with lots of foot traffic – the perfect spot for a Novum store.
“We won’t settle for any location”, Schwier explains. “We have certain expectations, and we invest a lot of time doing location analyses and gauging the customer volume in those areas. We don’t open new stores just so we can brag about it.” But of course, opening a store is just the beginning. Making sure it runs at a profit, that is the real challenge, as Lothar well knows. “If a location simply doesn’t work, we sit down and try to figure out what is going wrong. If a location is going well, we sit down and try to figure out what we can do to make it do even better.”
Optimising stores has become a basic prerequisite for anyone hoping to be successful in the retail trade, all the more since customer traffic has decreased. “We are in the favourable position that most people who enter our stores also end up buying something. Given our wide range of products, there is something for every taste, and our sales personnel is more than happy to provide suggestions and advice. I am very proud of our sales staff and how much motivation and personal initiative they show.”
Schwier and his team wouldn’t mind having a few more locations under their belt, and alas, the fact that there aren’t more stores has less to do with Lothar’s refusal to open a store in a bad location, but more with opposition from local politicians and lessors, property owners, etc. You definitely need a lot of patience to get some locations, as Lothar tells us: “It often took several years of hard work before we could open a store in a new location.”
“…there are still a few authorities who like to put obstacles in our way…”
But luckily, things aren’t always that bad, and one can hear justified pride in Lothar’s voice when he talks about his close and often highly fruitful cooperation with local politicians and authorities. “We have achieved many successes, and even though there are still a few authorities who like to put obstacles in our way, that has become the exception rather than the rule. Of course, there are instances when you don’t get the authorisation you had been counting on, or development plans are changed, or decisions are delayed or thrown out the window altogether, or there is a steep increase in the entertainment tax – but on the whole, people are very cooperative when we approach them.”
Part of this development is owned to Novum’s great reputation that is known well beyond the borders of North-Rhine Westphalia. The relationship with the store lessors has evolved along the same lines, and often, things go very smoothly on this front. However, there are still people who suddenly change their mind or demand outrageous rates, basically as compensation because Novum will sully their property with sex toys and other products for adult customers. “And as if that weren’t enough, we are occasionally attacked by other institutions, for instance the church.”
Listening to Lothar Schwier talk about such problems, one can’t help but wonder what year it is. The church taking offence and trying to prevent Novum from taking over an empty store, which would bring new customers, new business, and a few new jobs to a town? Sounds like the dark ages! The fact that adult stores contribute to the local economy and also put people in gainful employment seems to be deliberately ignored. “Unfortunately, you hit a brick wall sometimes, and every time that happens I see that the new acceptance of sex and erotic products that people are talking about has not reached all corners of society yet.” As Schwier explains, such resistance against stores like his has actually increased throughout the past years. To avoid problems with lessors and property owners, Novum buys the stores whenever possible. And what do they do about incorrigibly backwards politicians? “All we can do is try to convince them,” says Lothar. “We talk to them, openly and honestly. Communication is key.”
Novum and the media
When asked how he would sum up the past 25 year of Novum Märkte GmbH, Lothar Schwier doesn’t hesitate with his answer. “It has been a lot of fun!” His partners have given him the moniker “Erotica King of Westphalia”, and it seems appropriate. Lothar can definitely feel proud looking at the history of his company. He was also fortunate enough to always have the support of his family – there were definitely moments when he needed it. “We have achieved a lot, but we also had to take a lot of punches,” he says, pointing out that, at one time, even an organization such as the German Red Cross hit out at Novum.
Years ago, through an unfortunate accident, a German newspaper printed a Novum ad showing a nurse costume on the same page as an article about the Red Cross. “We didn’t invent the sexy nurse stereotype, it has been around for years without anybody caring, but then, for some reason, we were blamed for everything.” In the wake of the incident, the Red Cross prohibited the use of red crosses in German adult films. Today, Lothar can laugh about the whole affair. “Sometimes, there was an icy wind blowing in our faces. Unfortunately, I can’t say that everything has changed for the better in recent times.” 25 years are a long time – a quarter of a century -, and throughout this time, Novum has put its stamp on the German retail market for adult products. Lothar has enough anecdotes and stories to fill a book, and there’d be more than enough fascinating material for a movie. And we’d even have a title, courtesy of German magazine “Neue Revue” which, in the 1990s, had a big article titled “Sex King Lothar and his Hot Millions”.
The picture going along with this headline showed Schwier behind a desk, his feet up, with an erotic model sprawled lasciviously on the tabletop. “I remember that very vaguely … but what can I say: Those were different times,” Lothar says, laughing. However, even though this type of presentation in the media was rather heavy-handed, it helped create awareness for Novum, and in the long run, mainstream coverage helped alter the public perception of the adult market. By the way, even after searching the German media archives, we couldn’t find any negative articles about the store chain. “It was always important to us to be perceived as a serious, professional company, and to achieve that, we have always been very open and forthcoming when approached by the media. This approach has paid dividends – not just for us as a company, but also for the market in general.”
The media still approach Novum on a regular basis, whenever they want some expert opinion for a piece about erotic trends, about 50 Shades of Grey, about the adult market, or about intimate mishaps. Just recently, NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk, Northern German Broadcasting) aired a story about two men who had to be taken to the hospital because of a cock ring that turned out to be too tight. The editor’s conclusion: This probably wouldn’t have happened had the men sought the advice of an expert, and then Novum is mentioned as a source for expert advice on adult products.
Sometimes, Novum also create reasons for media coverage themselves, for instance when they open new stores. The local newspaper “Neue Westfälische” even argued jokingly that Novum’s booming Christmas business may be a reason why there is such a spike in the East Westphalian birth rate in September. The paper’s explanation: Since the stores sell so many products during the holiday season that are conducive to human intimacy, making for moments of sizzling sensuality under the mistletoe, it’s no wonder that the storks are pushing overtime when it comes to delivering babies nine months later! “We are happy for every opportunity to show that nothing dirty or sleazy happens in our stores. We offer an appealing shopping experience to adult customers that they won’t find anywhere else – in line with our motto ˈWo Einkaufen Lust Machtˈ (ˈWhere Shopping is Pleasureˈ).”
The next 25 years
And now, after 25 years, after Novum has grown into a company with more than a hundred employees – how will things continue from now? Sure, the team is working to secure locations for new stores, improve existing stores, optimise the shopping experience … but what plans does 59-year old Lothar Schwier have? “I have said it before, I am very happy with what I do, and we can all be very happy with the way this company has developed. But there is something that’s more important – and that’s good health. I want to keep doing what I do for as long as I can, but when the time comes for me to step back, the company will be well-prepared and ready to continue on its path without me.” Exactly what you would expect from Novum. One final question: What are the chances that at some point in the next 25 years, there will be a magazine article titled “Sex Methuselah Lothar and His Hot Millions”? Lothar laughs and shakes his head: “No, that will definitely not happen. I’d much rather be called the ˈmodern Oswalt Kolleˈ (a German sex educator who became famous for his books and films in the 1960s) because of educational work we have done and keep doing.”