Williams Trading article

(Note: This story appears in the February 2021 issue of SE Magazine)

*Stories by Larry Kaplan

It’s been a serendipitous journey for the Starship chain, which was originally founded as record stores and has grown into more than 20 adult retail venues. 

When the topic of adult retail in Georgia comes up, one name invariably comes to mind as the premier chain: Starship. Founded in 1978 as record stores by the late entrepreneur Lamar Huff, the chain soon added smoking paraphernalia. Then in the ‘80s, they gravitated toward adult products, while still selling — depending on the location and the allowable legal ratio of adult versus other products — 20-50% smoking goods.

After four years of computer and security work for the chain, former law enforcement professional and computer consultant Kelly Rogers partnered with Starship founder Huff in 1996 and has almost quadrupled the chain’s size since then. There are 21 stores in the chain, the majority in the greater Atlanta area (one in Tennessee), and they are branded as Starship, Galaxy or Elations. Starship employs about 240 people, including corporate staff.

STOREROTICA Legal Correspondent Larry Kaplan spoke with Starship CEO Kelly Rogers, as well as vice presidents Tiffany Rogers and Audrey Hooper. These three are crucial to making the Starship chain tick, and in this section, they’ll explain why Starship remains the leading adult retailer in Georgia, what it’s taken them to navigate through COVID-19, and what’s on the horizon for the chain.

Laying down the law

Starship CEO Kelly Rogers’ law enforcement past has played a pivotal role
in his adult toy store present.

Kelly Rogers

Starship CEO Kelly Rogers doesn’t have the pedigree one might expect of someone in his position. After a nine-year career in law enforcement as a deputy sheriff and then a DEA agent, Rogers started a successful computer consulting business. Starship hired him to redo their computer network.

With Rogers’s law enforcement background, Starship soon added security responsibilities to his networking position. Rogers discovered Starship was suffering significant losses due to theft. One thing led to another, and Rogers was soon running the company, which at the time operated six stores. To further grow the chain, in 1996, four years after coming on board Starship, Rogers bought in as a partner with the founder, the late Lamar Huff. Today Starship operates 21 brick-and-mortar stores and an online store.

SE’s Larry Kaplan spoke with Rogers about how his career in law enforcement has primed him for his role as CEO in an industry that often finds itself in the legal system’s crosshairs.

SE: City and county ordinances are the bane of adult businesses seeking new locations. Has your law enforcement background been of help in finding viable localities?
ROGERS: Yes, just my understanding of ordinances and knowing how you read them to understand whether you have a fight or a constitutional challenge or if you should walk away has helped.

SE: Know when to hold them and know when to fold them?
ROGERS: Exactly. It took over five years to get a store open in my home town. But I was so confident we would prevail, I renewed the first five-year lease before we were even able to open. They kept messing with us, adding things we needed to do before we could open. It was a battle, but one I knew I would win in the end. When I know I’m right; I won’t go away.

I think some smaller cities and counties will spend more than they need to fight you, hoping you’ll go away and not spend your money to keep fighting.

“It took over five years to get a store open in my home town. But I was so confident we would prevail, I renewed the first five-year lease before we were even able to open. (Law enforcement) kept messing with us, adding things we needed to do before we could open. It was a battle, but one I knew I would win in the end.” — Kelly Rogers

SE: What percentage of your sales do you make online?
ROGERS: It was extremely low, perhaps 5%. But during COVID-19, we’ve experienced an increase to 15-20% now.

SE: Do you see Starship increasing that percentage, or is your future more in brick-and-mortar?
ROGERS: I still think we will be brick-and-mortar. I don’t see it going away in our industry. Because people want to see and touch products and they require immediate gratification, they want it now.

SE: What buying trends have you noticed since COVID-19?
ROGERS: We’ve been experiencing supply chain issues, as has every industry. And manufacturers are dealing with unprecedented demand. Customers are literally buying anything. Because we’ve been out of best- sellers, items that never sold before have been selling. People had been stuck at home and were happy to buy anything.

SE: What about further expansion? Are you looking to start new stores or buy existing locations?
ROGERS: I’m always open to both chains that might become available and new locations.

SE: What do you look for in a new location or a chain to acquire?
ROGERS: I consider many things, but it mainly comes down to location, traffic counts, and demographics.

Starship enterprise

While it may not have been her plan coming up, Tiffany Rogers’ academic career prepared her for her current role as VP of operations at Starship.

Tiffany Rogers

Like her father, Starship CEO Kelly Rogers, Tiffany Rogers didn’t take a traditional path to adult retail. After earning a Master’s degree in Social Work, with a specialization in community empowerment, Rogers discovered that funding for many social work programs was starting to drop off.

She also soon realized she wasn’t likely to get the kind of professional gratification she craved through social work jobs and began to look elsewhere.

Her timing was impeccable. Her father was in the process of putting a plan in place for Starship that would enable him to retire eventually, and Rogers fit right into that plan.

Through her college years, she had worked part-time, developing and maintaining Starship’s website, and knew the company. Rogers started as a district manager about two years ago. A year later, when health issues forced Kelly to step away from work temporarily, she assumed her current title VP of operations and moved into the corporate office. Rogers oversees all of the stores, the district managers, accounting, and video surveillance.

SE: What changes have you overseen as operations VP?
ROGERS: I’m trying to get things up-to-date and improve communication between corporate and stores and focus our branding and marketing message better. I’ve worked with the district managers to install new LED lighting, new carpet, coordinating work orders, and updating stores’ appearance. Since I started the position during COVID-19, it was sink-or-swim. I coordinated COVID-19 policy and implementation; getting PPE, tests for employees, and rapidly mandated store closures.

When I work in our stores, I’ll do whatever I can to get customers’ girlfriends to come in. A customer may say she’s shopping for her girlfriend, who’s out in the car. I’ll offer 15% off on the entire purchase if she can get her friend in. I’m trying to make sure women are comfortable coming to our stores; that they don’t have a misconception of our stores.
 — Tiffany Rogers

SE: What distinguishes a Starship store from another adult retailer? What is the Starship philosophy?
ROGERS: A lot of stores claim great customer service. With my social work background, it was amazing for me to see how much authentic empathy our employees had for our customers. I feel we do it better than others because it’s not about the product for us. It’s about making sure customers, not the products, are the center of the conversation. We don’t just sell things; we listen. We listen for their interests and disinterests, their sensitivities, and what they might be curious about. We care about people’s pleasure, their stories, and their relationships—not to be in their business, but to know enough to help them with products.

When I work in our stores, I’ll do whatever I can to get customers’ girlfriends to come in. A customer may say she’s shopping for her girlfriend, who’s out in the car. I’ll offer 15% off on the entire purchase if she can get her friend in. I’m trying to make sure women are comfortable coming to our stores; that they don’t have a misconception of our stores.

SE: What have you done to ensure the stores are inviting?
ROGERS: A few years ago, in response to customer demand, we updated all of our outside lighting to ensure it was super bright. Our stores share the same branding, but each one has a different feel that’s representative of the customers. They’re inviting because they’re not all cookie-cutter.

SE: How are you attempting to lure potential shoppers to your stores and your online store?
ROGERS: Though the majority of our sales are brick- and-mortar, we realize social media is essential to growth. We hired a marketing company during COVID-19 to help us get the educational piece out on social media to drive people to our website and online store. We try to address stigmas in a light-hearted, funny way in hopes customers will check us out. We’ve had social media, but nobody here had the time and knowledge base to use it effectively. We realize the more we can bring to our Facebook page and the more they like our stuff and share the page with friends, the better off we’ll be. We also stick by the old standby’s; billboards, radio, local newspapers—we staff booths at different events, like girls’ night out, which is very effective.

SE: Do you have a loyalty program?
ROGERS: Yes, once members have spent $200, they receive 20% off their next purchase. We’re updating our POS system to incorporate our loyalty program, which will make execution super easy.

SE: Are any of your stores considered non-adult by zoning, limiting the percentage of certain products you can stock?
ROGERS: Our business license requirements are really varied. Some are general stores; some require both a business license and an adult license. We have some merchandise percentage stores and other square footage percentage stores.

I was really frustrated during our shutdowns to walk into Walmart and see crappy lube and other product people were stuck buying while Starship and other adult stores selling the same categories of merchandise were forced to close.

SE: Is there much variance in your clientele between your stores? If so, what’s different?ROGERS: Yes, so much so that we don’t carry all product at all stores. All merchandise comes to our warehouse and is dispersed to stores. The stores have different order points for different products. You don’t want a lot of high-end products at stores where that would make pleasure unaffordable. You want to ensure those stores are stocked with attainable products, as opposed to other stores where high-technology and other best-of-the-best product lines are in demand.

Also, sections vary by store. Some have a huge fetish clientele, so fetish is prioritized in all of their merchandising, while in others where it doesn’t sell, you’ll just stock the essentials.

SE: What do you see as the keys to being profitable in 2021, especially regarding dealing with and rebounding from COVID-19 and affiliated restrictions?
ROGERS: COVID-19 has been extremely challenging, but it hasn’t inhibited our profitability. I stay on top of the CDC and all COVID-19 laws and regulations and understand what we can and can’t do at each store. We provide masks and sanitizers, limit the number of customers in stores and offer curbside pickup. We’ve even had training on working with customers resistant to masking. Knowing where to find legislation and being flexible to quickly change your policies as needed, while maintaining a robust online store will be vital to remaining profitable.

We’ve seen a lot more couples trying to figure out their sex lives after 20 years, as well as lonely, single people. We’ve helped them find the right product and re-frame intimacy to work with COVID-19. There’s so much tension, polarization, and fear. It’s required us to have even more grace for difficult customers.

An additional priority for me has been making Starship an even better place to work. The happier your employees are, the more sales and less turnover you’ll have. Even with all the stress of COVID-19, I believe our relationships with our employees got better. We’re even more like a family than before. We must be over-the-top with showing them our appreciation. While we’re sitting in an office, they’re our front-line workers, taking a bigger risk.

Managing the “bridge” on the Starship

Starship VP Audrey Hooper has made the transition from the photo booth at Sears to pleasure toy guru.

Audrey Hooper has a lot of responsibilities. As the vice president of administration of Starship, she oversees buyers, stays on top of orders,

coordinates inventory control, employee control, makes sure the stores have everything they need, and much more.

The workload is hardly overwhelming for Hooper, who was a district manager for Sears Portrait Studio before moving to Starship after coming across their help-wanted ad for a district manager.

The rest is history.

SE’s Larry Kaplan spoke with Hooper about the chain’s maturation under her tenure.

SE: How many buyers do you employ, and do you divide up the buying by product lines?HOOPER: We have three buyers. One buys the toys, one buys everything for the smoke shop, and the third one buys all of the lubes and the like.

SE: What percentage of your sales are still smoking related? And how much has that changed since you came on board?
HOOPER: It’s roughly 20-30%. When I first started, we sold a lot more. Once the e-cigarettes and similar products came out, people were still getting the vapes and such, but you could tell they weren’t buying as many smoke items. Now that vapes have dropped off some, you see pipe and other smoke sales going back up.

SE: How much has your adult retail product mix changed since you came on board in 2004?

HOOPER: It’s changed a lot. When I first started, we carried many cheap, cheesy items people used once or twice then threw away. We ended up marking them down for lack of sales. Toys have evolved a lot. We’ve tried to get the better, higher-end toys that people will have and enjoy for a while. I take a great deal of pride in the items we carry. You can walk into any of our stores and never see anything that appears to have been sitting on the shelf for 10 years.

“When the pandemic first started, we had to shut down half of our stores within a couple of days. So we were refusing merchandise orders that came in. A month later, we regretted that because business was like Valentine’s Day on steroids!”
— Audrey hooper

SE: What are your top products today?
HOOPER: We sell a lot of sexual aids for men and women. As far as toys go, women still love the rabbits.

Our sales of new sucking toys are going through the roof.

SE: What are your two or three top-selling toy/novelty brands?
HOOPER: Evolved Novelties sells very, very well. And we sell a lot of CalExotics and Doc Johnson.

SE: Do you sell a lot of lubricants?
HOOPER: System Jo is probably the most popular, followed by Wicked.

SE: You’ve said that you’re selling higher-end products now. How would you describe your average customer today, compared to when you started?
HOOPER: The goal for ticket average was $12 when I started. We now have stores that run $40-50 averages. We have a wide spread of customers; women, couples, and single men. It’s a good mix throughout all of our 21 locations. It’s so diverse; each location sees a different clientele.

SE: How has COVID-19 affected your ability to maintain inventory?
HOOPER: When the pandemic first started, we had to shut down half of our stores within a couple of days. So we were refusing merchandise orders that came in. A month later, we regretted that because business was like Valentine’s Day on steroids!

SE: I believe you private-brand manufacture some of your products. Has this helped maintain inventory in some areas?
HOOPER: Not really. We went through a four-month stretch where we were having more problems getting smoke items than toys. We still have a few manufacturers who are having a hard time getting toys to us, but nothing like smoke shop. With toys and lubes, we have so many more vendors, we’ve been able to keep well-stocked.

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 e-mail larry@kaplanstoresales.com. 

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