(Note: This story appears in the June 2022 issue of SE Magazine)
*Story by Larry Kaplan
Laura Rafferty’s first memorable experience at Good Vibrations made a lasting impression, leading to a career change that has lasted nearly 30 years.
ood Vibrations’ Retail Director Laura Rafferty, in her mid-20s, was super excited. She had just left a retail management position and perhaps left retail forever. She was taking six months off to consider her future.
Then, the first week, while having a coffee at home in Oakland and reading the newspaper want ads, Rafferty saw Good Vibrations was opening a second store in nearby Berkeley and looking for a store manager.
“I spit coffee out of my mouth,” recalls Rafferty. “I thought, ‘Screw vacation; I want this job!’ So my goal became to apply and get hired. I knew about GV; I bought my first vibrator there when I was 22. I could barely look the sales associate in the face, I was so embarrassed. I was shocked at how calm and at ease the salesperson was. I practically burst into tears because it was just so difficult for me to go in, to begin with, because I didn’t know much about it.
“A friend of a friend who worked there said there were rarely openings,” she continues. “I was pretty fascinated. I had management experience, but I was anxious about opening a store from scratch. Eventually, I did, and, with lots of help, I’ve been at Good Vibrations for over 27 years — half of my life.”
SE Magazine spoke with Rafferty about how the industry has changed and her role at Good Vibrations.
SE: Were there many old-school stores nearby when you had your first few stores?
RAFFERTY: When I opened the Berkeley location, we had a couple of typical adult stores in our immediate area. But one thing that I did notice early in my career is that I could see other stores being influenced by us, becoming more welcoming to women, to everybody. Before we opened the Berkley location, I visited one nearby store to see what the experience was like. I started checking out other stores because I thought I’d never apply to that store but let me see what they’re about. I was amazed when I went back there three months after our opening, and it had been totally overhauled. They were redoing the walls and trying to replicate our store. It was very flattering. Our mission was to spread sex positivity, so that’s great. They’re trying to appeal to more people and be more accessible. And there was another place where I had noticed an employee who was the one person in the store that was Good Vibrations material: trying to educate a customer. They ended up applying at my store, and I hired them.
Our industry is different now than 27 years ago because everyone tries to welcome their customers. Some might do better than others, but we all have the same goals.
“While ensuring our customer experience is always considered, the best part of my position is being able to work with our people. I have the most amazing team.” — Laura Rafferty
SE: What exactly does your job as retail director consist of?
RAFFERTY: My job is to support our store teams and ensure that our staff has an excellent employment experience and our customers have a great shopping experience. I work closely with store management to ensure consistency between our locations, that’s always challenging. We want to make sure their experience is the same at every store. In addition, I interface with all other departments on behalf of the retail division, so my hands are on many things. While ensuring our customer experience is always considered, the best part of my position is being able to work with our people. I have the most amazing team; I’ve worked with many for years and decades. I’ve been based in the office for the last five years. But I visit the stores every week to get to know our new people coming in. Being geographically so close to our Bay Area stores gives me a great opportunity to be more present and get to know our people, and that’s important.
SE: How has the business and your role changed in the 27 years you’ve been there?
RAFFERTY: I went from managing one store to mentoring and helping other managers. Working together with them was fun; we created a hiring committee and collaborated on more things, creating a stronger team. Instead of doing everything myself, I made an effort to help train others. My philosophy is always to train people on everything possible; you never know when that person can step up. Even though we’re selling things, our job is very education-focused. We’ve always tried to meet customers where they’re at. We want to match your body language, whatever it is, to put you at ease. And I also feel it’s essential to meet our employees where they’re at; there’s so much to know here, in addition to the basics of working in retail.
SE: What are the keys to profitability in 2022, especially with online retailing eating into brick-and-mortar sales? How do you counteract showrooming?
RAFFERTY: It all comes back to customer service. Online will continue to eat away at brick-and-mortar sales. We’ll continue focusing on what we do best. There’ll always be showrooming. But ultimately, customers will decide if they want that in-store experience, if they want to support your business, or if they’ll take their chances on Amazon. I hope that once a customer experiences our customer service and understands what it takes to offer this, they’ll continue to support our stores. I live in a city, but one of my hobbies is having an urban farm with chickens in my backyard. I can save $10 a bag on chicken feed at this larger pet store. And that’s probably about 25% off. But I choose to go elsewhere and pay that extra $10 because I want to support the store that’s always helped me with problems since I got my chickens. After all, the other place doesn’t do anything but sell me that food at a $10 discount. I won’t go to her for the information, then buy the food elsewhere.
I have no control over other people doing that with our stores; all we can do is the best we can, and I believe people will see that.
SE: COVID put a damper on the many live events Good Vibrations has always held. In bringing the events back now, what issues must you consider?
RAFFERTY: The first issue is staffing. I want to make sure our staff is comfortable, confident, and trained and that we have enough staff to hold an event properly. The other thing that’s changed with COVID is, though restrictions have eased, we’re still very conscientious about capacity in our stores. Years ago, we’d have events with so many people packed in it was hard to monitor, but a fun party. Today, most people don’t want to be packed in like sardines. I tried to look at the positives that have come out of COVID. One of them is realizing that if you’re so busy that you don’t have enough associates to serve your customers properly, you can’t help them the way you want to. You can’t answer all their questions and necessarily go through different products. Some people require more help than others. And what I felt was happening before, when we would have moments like that, is we were missing one, the opportunity for a sale, but two, missing opportunities to connect with our customers.
Due to the capacity limit, we started noticing transactions would be somewhat higher, and people were buying more. That was that direct service because we had limited customers, based on our square footage. We were noticing we could dedicate more time to customers and better help them. So now, one of the things we always want to keep in mind for just general store operations, but especially for events, is to make sure there’s enough space for customers to be comfortable and enough staff to help them.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from customers, “Wow, this looks so different in person,” or, “Oh, I saw this a lot, but it’s hard to judge something through your computer screen.” So there’ll always be your brick-and-mortar loyalists. And then because of the pandemic, you know, some people might stick online. But many people couldn’t wait to get back in the store. So I don’t know what the trend is. People are just going to do what works best for them ultimately.
Larry Kaplan has been the Legal Correspondent for ED Publications for 21 years. Mr. Kaplan is a broker in the sale and purchase of adult retail stores and adult nightclubs and the Executive Director of the ACE of Michigan adult nightclub state trade association. Contact Larry Kaplan at 313-815-3311 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.