When Chicago businesses saw citywide shutdowns as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, Eric Kugelman says that he “went into shock.”
Kugelman, one of the owners of adult entertainment store Leather 64Ten, says that the store quickly adapted their in-person business model to a curbside pickup and home delivery service. The store still includes these services, in addition to new regulations for in-person shopping.
“We allow up to seven people at a time in the store, and that doesn’t include the employee,” he says. “We’ve already had one incident where we’ve had a line out front; that was when the bars first reopened on a Saturday night. There was a line to get into the bar and there was a line to get into the store.”
While businesses throughout the city have had to make various concessions in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, sex shops are faced with the unique challenge of providing an intimate service from a distance.
Searah Deysach, owner of Early to Bed in Andersonville, remarks that the usual personalized customer service of the store has suffered as a result of social distancing.
“Pre-COVID, our staff had this ability to help multiple people at a time and to really get up close and personal and talk to people about the specific product,” she says. “It’s so much easier to show somebody the features of a vibrator when you feel more comfortable standing close to them. There’s a lot that this kind of barrier puts between us that just makes it harder to really make that connection and help somebody figure out what they want.”
Retailers have also remarked that masks—while mandatory in stores—can lead to further challenges with communication.
“Because of the delicate conversations, it’s not ideal to be [six] feet away from people and masked up and asking them to repeat what they said, but we’ve definitely worked around it,” says Natalie Figueroa, store manager at HUSTLER Hollywood.
Deysach says that the reduced customer capacity ultimately prioritizes patrons explicitly looking to purchase. This can reduce the more “casual” shopping experiences of those looking to educate themselves on sexual response and gender identity, among other topics.
“We’re still providing education, obviously, but it’s a little different in that we don’t have that group of people who are using us as a place to learn solely, as opposed to just, you know, coming in and buying stuff,” she says. “So I miss that. I think that it’s what has to happen right now; we have to really focus on people who are coming in to buy something.”
In spite of the challenges associated with adapting store operations, Deysach says that Early to Bed has seen an increase in customer engagement since the start of the pandemic.
“I would say that people staying home has led them to spend more time with their bodies or their partners, and they are definitely trying new things,” she says. “I think people are bored, and they’re masturbating more than they were before. People are still having relationships with their bodies and their partners and they’re looking for ways to make it more fun, more interesting, more satisfying. So we have had an OK time surviving this.”
While Kugelman says that Leather 64Ten is currently “running 30 percent down,” he also notes the store has recently seen a more diverse client base, namely couples looking to experiment sexually.
“We’re finding people to be more interested and curious than normal. It’s something that’s happened since this has all started,” he says. “They have so much time on their hands so a lot of people are having sex. We’re getting a different type of customer. It’s not just the kids, the club kids, and the gay people. It’s the heterosexual coming in and exploring.”
While adult retailers are still finding their footing in regard to adapting to the pandemic, Figueroa says that access to exploring one’s sexuality is crucial during an ever-tumultuous time.
“In this moment, we deserve the pleasure and as much pleasure and joy as we can get. And it’s so difficult for us to access those things right now because of the stress that everyone is under,” she says. “And so we get to offer people pleasure and joy and then also a sort of escape, like a little bit of a fantasy, where they can go into a different world and they don’t have to really deal with everything that is bombarding them all.” v