"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore": Good Vibrations' company leaders on getting big
What will be the San Francisco-in-the-aughtteens equivalent of the creation of Good Vibrations in the Mission District in 1977? Let's hope some fresh new sexuality invention is fomenting that will be rocking our beds in three decades with the robustness that Good Vibes has shown. From that initial single location, the well-lit place for women to shop for vibrators has expanded to encompass not only six brick-and-mortar shops (five in the Bay Area, one in Massachusetts) -- but also a robust online business that has taken the original founders' dreams of teaching America how to have safer, better sex and made it a reality. In 2007, the one-time worker-owned co-op turned corporation was sold to GVA-TWN, a Cleveland, Ohio sex toy company.
But the engineers behind the Good Vibes brand say it hasn't stopped growing. Last week, on the occasion of the brand's new branch opening (on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland Jan. 28, details below) the Guardian conducted email interviews with the company's chief operating officer Jackie Strano and staff sexologist Carol Queen. The woman waxed pleasurably -- dammit, now everything is sounding dirty -- on the company's possible digital education programs of the future, Carol Queen shared her views on a future with a Good Vibes location in every American city, plus we reveal what the hell a SESA is, and how it can help improve your orgasms.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: Good Vibrations' store locations have been growing in leaps and bounds recently. Have online sales been burgeoning at an equal rate?
Jackie Strano, chief operating officer: We are up in double-digit percentages and are grateful for our loyal and fabulous customers. It’s a good place to be after some hard and lean years. We have been committed to keeping expenses down and making the company healthy again. We are still here 35 years later and have learned some hard lessons along the way. We're grateful for everyone who visits goodvibes.com and who writes and yelps about us. We have always relied on grass roots word of mouth and are proud that our stellar reputation is still intact.
Carol Queen, staff sexologist: We also have always known how significant it is to people to have access to a live experience in one of our brick-and-mortar stores. This is the context within which the Good Vibrations difference was developed, and it really does matter to people when they can see and touch the products, leaf through the books, and talk to a Sex Educator Sales Associate (SESA).
SFBG: What is the company's vision of success? How big does it want to get? Are there going to be Good Vibes in Kansas someday?
CQ: If we were in Kansas, would Dorothy have to stop saying "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore?" Actually, there has been a faction since co-op days that wanted Good Vibrations to be everywhere -- we devoted an entire annual planning meeting to this in about 1997! And we have certainly discussed the possibility of expanding into other regions. Success in that context would mean that people in a much wider range of the US would know about and have access to a Good Vibes store and that we would be able to influence other cities with our values about sex education and culture, as we have in the Bay Area.
JS: Success is paying all your bills, making payroll, opening new stores, introducing new products, being the go-to source for reliable and accurate information on sexual health, and pushing out campaigns like our Ecorotic rating system. But success is also being agents for social change for 35 years and success to me is hearing from someone or meeting someone who says we helped change their life for the better. The original company vision was to have a store in every city so people would have access to a safe and welcoming space to learn more about sex and sexual health. This was before the Internet exploded and companies like Amazon ever existed. We have similar goals still, but overall success is staying solvent and profitable while we reach the masses and keep changing people’s lives for the better.
SFBG: Are there plans to expand the educational opportunities the company's known for?
JS: Absolutely. We have been active in this arena over the last year, especially where we have sponsored college tours of certified sex educators and we are currently pursuing digital channels for our education department to be featured. We are the only company in our sector that employs two Ph.D.s on staff and we continue to train our staff with the program originated by us. We also partner with many bloggers, authors, and educators at large.
CQ: Wherever we expand, there will be educational programming; we will develop it hand-in-hand with the new area's existing resources, and take advantage of the fact that many sex educators today travel widely to teach and offer workshops. Charlie Glickman, my colleague in the education department of GV, already does SESA trainings (our in-house staff sex-ed trainings) via webconferencing, so who knows, there may also be more virtual opportunities for education that we can develop.
SFBG: Do you still consider it a San Francisco company?
JS: Yes of course. We are proud of our roots here. Mind you we have been part of the greater Bay Area, including Berkeley and Oakland for decades but our headquarters are here. Our website serves the world and we have stores in Berkeley, Oakland, and Brookline, Massachusetts. We have partnered with many national organizations throughout the years but we are always involved in local communities of all genders, races, and classes here in the Bay Area, including San Francisco where we have four stores.
CQ: At our core, absolutely. We could only have been founded and grown in San Francisco.
SFBG: How has the way Good Vibes markets itself changed over the years?
JS: It’s interesting to look at old catalogs and marketing collateral because the message and logo hasn’t changed much at all, but the collateral and graphics change as we morphed from proprietary illustrations to branded photos and other campaigns depending upon what event we were sponsoring or what season we were calling out. As I said before, we have always relied on grassroots word-of-mouth and customer loyalty, and I think that social media helps translate that perfectly in this day and age. We have always marketed ourselves as the clean, well-lit, women-focused vibrator store where people feel safe and welcomed. We will never change our mantra that "pleasure is your birthright." We may have an event called "Mommy's Playdate," as some of us get older and have kids (ha ha), and our newer stores have a more boutique imprint and overall feel -- but we still just want to have fun and hope that people get that when they think of us. We are extremely pleased that things have gotten more mainstream around sexuality, and that sexual health and education are more accepted in the daily dialogue, but we are spoiled by being in some coastal cities and progressive areas. There is still a lot of work to do for everyone to feel safe and welcomed and we are tireless in our efforts to change the world and not just our own backyard.
CQ: We're very much the same AND different when it comes to marketing. For the first 15 years or so of GV's existence we did little beyond guerilla marketing -- our fully-developed education program began as a way to get new people to enter the store. Then as now, our number one source of new customers is word-of-mouth, though we now have social networking to help boost that -- [it's not just] people bringing their Kansas cousin in to buy a Hitachi Magic Wand! That said, my own role at Good Vibrations developed to try to leverage editorial opportunities. We were the first company to offer a Ph.D. sexologist as a press commentator or expert, and by the end of the 1990s we were judiciously buying advertising in national publications, not just local ones. The other very-much-noticed change was when we began using photos, not just drawn graphics, in our ads and catalogs.
SFBG: Are there any product areas that the company would like to expand into? What about trans-oriented gear?
CQ: Well, we do have some trans-related products, especially for transmen -- in fact, our wholesale division distributes packers (along with lots of vibrators and other toys) to other stores around the world. This has been the biggest in-house change lately, in fact -- that we are taking charge of this part of the product line and marketing it to other companies, not just selling these items exclusively. I believe our next ideas for product development will involve the wealth of informational content we've developed over the years.
JS: Yes we are very keen on product development and bringing new offerings to market especially that are non-toxic and good for you. We carry a lot of products that are transgender-oriented and actually have a transgendered shopping guide on our web site. We were the first ones to do so, others have copied us now but we were the first. We also have a sex and gender policy we are very proud of that is built into the company handbook and culture.
Good Vibrations' Lakeshore store opening
Jan. 28 6-9 p.m., free
3219 Lakeshore, Oakl.