AVN.COM RETAILING PROFILE - A Woman's Touch: A Focus on the Softer Side Pays

Located in a quiet indoor mall alongside a daycare center, The Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the local gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community center, A Woman’s Touch has happily sold sex toys, romance enhancement items and adult titles for the last nine years.

Self-described “sex positive activist” Ellen Barnard, who holds a Master’s Degree in social work, co-founded the store with Myrtle Wilhite, a physician.

Barnard told AVN she decided to open A Woman’s Touch because, “the Midwest had nothing that was woman’s friendly. I had been shopping at Good Vibrations and had known of Eve’s Garden and was feeling like, OK, there’s a whole lot of land between New York and California, and no place to shop, and not everybody wants to do mail order.”

The store is all done up in blues and purples with a lovely stained-glass chandelier at the entrance, and has the feel of a New Age book store circa the early ’90’s, until that is, you hit the strap-ons on the far wall.

“We’re completely bland in terms of how we look,” Barnard said. “We don’t have any signage that gives you any indication that you’re going to find sex toys in our store. We do advertise with the word ‘sex’ in our ads, but it’s still played down …

“We just want to be nice, classy ladies. We’re really not ladies, OK. The store, however, is this peaceful, tasteful, classy place that you could take your grandmother, and that was the point.”

That stocking layout with the harder-edged merchandise — such as that row of Tantus silicone vibrators and that copy of Wicked’s Fluff and Fold — pretty far past the Primal Elements shower gels is a definitive part of how A Woman’s Touch does business.

“They may never get past the cards, and that’s OK,” Barnard said. “The first couple of years, I’d watch people come in and buy a card and leave. Come in, buy a pair of earrings, and leave. I was like, ‘Oh my god, maybe I’m doing the wrong thing.’ And then the third or fourth of fifth time that they came in, they would finally head over to the books or the videos or the toys, but it took that long for them to feel OK about it.

“And I thought, ‘OK, we’re doing something right then.’ We’re giving them the opportunity to do this at their own speed, and that’s what this is about. We choose not to tell our customers how to feel about sex or think about sex. We just want them in their own way at their own pace to say, ‘this is what I’m curious about.’ And to be able to do that. That’s why the store is the way it is.”

“Not to mention, you know, most women don’t buy 10 or 15 vibrators in a year. Some do, but most don’t. Many women do buy 10 or 15 pairs of earrings in a year,” she added with a smile.

With a customer base that is, according to Barnard, 40 percent male, what A Woman’s Touch does definitely works. The store’s DVD/VHS stock has a clear emphasis on Vivid and Wicked productions with a notable Golden Age section. The store puts a solid emphasis on rental. Bernard's feeling is that “most people don’t watch a DVD more than once or twice, but we probably sell in dollars more than we rent.”

The store’s jewel is definitely its novelty section, which features Tantus, Vixen Creations, D.A.V.E. and a select inventory of California Exotic Novelties vibrators, along with many other items. Innerspace’s Lucite dildos are a favorite, Barnard noted.

“I know a lot of people pick up the cheap acrylic stuff, but we’ve chosen not to, because Lucite is much heavier and much higher quality. We’re not going to the $200, $300 vibrator end, because we are Midwesterners at heart. We laugh about this, but it’s really true,” Barnard said.

Barnard’s plans for the store include opening a second location in Milwaukee in September and another in Minneapolis in the next couple of years.

“We believe that people, women and men, deserve this kind of experience in their own communities,” she said. “The Website’s fine, but you can’t touch and turn them on, and that’s a critical thing that people keep telling us that they like about the store, so we’re going to open more stores, definitely.”

A Woman’s Touch is located at 600 Williamson Street in the Gateway Mall in Madison, Wisc. The store can be reached by phone at 608.250.1928 or through its Website, a-womans-touch.com.