I made a trip to the local sex toy shop the other day. I hadn’t been for a long time, and actually, the one I used to occasionally visit has gone out of business, so I had to try an alternate location in a strip mall a few miles away. I’m afraid the experience did nothing to dissuade me from my opinion that shopping online is the way to go these days when it comes to BDSM equipment in particular, and sex toys in general.
Brick and mortar sex toy shops face three big disadvantages in competing with their online counterparts. To counterbalance that, they have one big advantage, though it only applies in certain cases. And that advantage is what drove me to visit this last time. But let’s look at the disadvantages first.
The first disadvantage is that one feels anonymous when shopping online. Now, the reality is that you give your credit card, name, address, etc. to the online retailer, so they really know who you are. But because you don’t have to look them in the eye, because nobody physically watches what you browse through or ultimately buy, because nobody’s standing by your computer watching you enter the store, the shopping experience feels far more discrete. Are you looking at a serious flogger? Or how about sex dolls? Nobody knows…or at least, nobody that you worry about. And as packages holding racy items ship in plain brown wrappers, nobody’s the wiser when they get delivered to your house, either.
Now, I’ve been buying sex toys long enough and have been in enough strip mall shops that I feel relatively immune to embarrassment. Frankly, it can sometimes be helpful to have a sales clerk in one of those shops answer questions and provide suggestions, at least if they’re knowledgeable (and surprisingly enough, most of them are). Even so, it wouldn’t be a particularly comfortable experience running into someone I know going in or out of the shop.
The second disadvantage is convenience. You can visit an online store simply by going to your computer! To get to a brick and mortar store, you have to first locate one, and second travel to it. This challenge faces all types of retailers that operate physical shops, but sex toy retailers have it harder than most. For one thing, sex toy shops aren’t common, especially in suburbia or small towns, so you may have to travel quite a distance to reach one. And for another, generally they don’t reside in the best parts of town, but rather in the seedier sections that tend to repel a good clientele.
The biggest disadvantage, however, is the size of the inventory they can carry. In a brick and mortar store, shelf-space and the need to appeal to a high proportion of your geographically-limited customer base limit the size of your inventory and the selection of items you stock. You cannot afford to stock 400 different vibrators, even though there are far more than 400 different models available, because it would eat up all your available shelf space. You can’t carry more than a couple types of cuffs, because doing so dedicates too much room on the shelf to items that appeal only to the BDSM subset of your customer base. An online store doesn’t face either of these problems—they have unlimited shelf space due to their virtuality, and they can afford to stock items that appeal to smaller niche markets because they can be shopped by the entire world, which means that even a small niche can contain a large number of potential customers.
The one great advantage that a brick and mortar shop has over an online, virtual store, however, is speed of delivery. If you live within reasonable driving distance of a sex toy shop, you can purchase something and have it home and ready for use same day. Even if you pay for overnight shipping, the best you’re going to do online is next day. And that’s what made me decide to visit the strip mall a few days ago—I needed something, and I needed it NOW!
My evaluation after having made my visit is as follows: If you need a relatively common type of item, are willing to be flexible with the specific model, and don’t feel embarrassed to walk in the door, you can still get something useful at your local sex toy shop. As mentioned above, the in-store help are usually pretty knowledgeable and friendly, and won’t flinch when you ask them to show you a nice butt plug. However, if you want something exotic or unusual, or you need a specific model, don’t bother. Selections are limited, and the chances they’ll have what you’re looking for are slim. BDSM offerings in particular are seriously sparse. If you own nothing and are looking for your first pair of cuffs, you might do okay. Beyond that, not so much. Note as well that the BDSM equipment they carry tends to be lower-end in my experience, probably so that they can offer it at lower prices and appeal to a larger audience.
The bottom line is that online shopping for sex toys and BDSM equipment is far superior to a trip to the local sex toy shop. I would only visit a physical store in an emergency. Of course, my experience is limited to shopping in the USA—other countries with other cultures may provide different shopping opportunities.