Not everybody is into the same thing, a fact that the owners of Fantasy Gifts are well aware of. So the Minnesota and New Jersey-based adult retailer carries products for everyone. “We don’t just market to men, or to just straight people or gay people,” COO Colleen Bertino explains. “We are all-encompassing.”
It has been that way from the beginning. Bertino’s father began the company in 1980, following closely on the heels of the 1970s adult-store revolution that brought the industry out of its dark-corner store reputation and into the light. After watching a segment of The Phil Donahue Show where women were interested in and not shy about the boudoir products on display, he opened a small gift shop at downtown Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall. Three years later, his wife joined the company, followed by his son Bob Bertino and daughters Colleen Bertino and Stephanie DeGuilio, who joined after they finished college, which makes this, yes, a family-owned adult retailer.
Colleen Bertino admits the choice of family business has made mother-daughter conversations very interesting at times, but all jokes aside, the formula is something that works well with their base. Fantasy Gifts may not be a big-box national player or based in more sexually progressive markets such as San Francisco, but the owners share many of the same values and backgrounds as their customers.
“We are a local business and family owned and that has been a very positive aspect for us,” Bertino says. “In being local, we know what folks are looking for as opposed to being from out of state and just throwing things in a store that we think people will want. I live here – I’m not just looking at store statistics through a computer.”
Bertino and DeGuilio alongside their mother Marlene Bertino, manage the Minnesota operations, which include 10 stores, while their brother and his wife, Dee Bertino, oversee the two stores in New Jersey, their father’s home state. Being familiar with the areas’ cultures gives them a keen sense of what their consumers want, both in product and the stores themselves.
“One of the things we try very hard at, and something my dad figured out a long time ago, is that you don’t have to have that backroom mentality,” she says. “Our stores are very open, well lit with modern fixtures. We are in Minneapolis where the Mall of America is based, so even our grocery stores have chandeliers. People expect that in Beverly Hills, but here in the Midwest, you can’t have schlubby stores, either. You have to have nice stores and that’s all there is to it. Open, fun nice stores with as much natural light you can get in there.”
When it comes to products, Bertino says there are blanket consumer trends across the entire industry. With adult toys, for instance, the push to go green often means choosing products that cost more upfront, but are also longer-lasting and use more earth-friendly materials.
Plastic products, for example, which are harder to clean and more easily broken or worn, have been challenged by their silicone and glass counterparts. Oil and lubricant manufacturers have also been making purer and vegan products without extra dyes and chemicals. The Bertino family couples these widespread industry changes with key insights in their two chosen markets to give themselves a leg-up.
For the hard goods and adult toys, Bertino says it’s a bit more difficult to predict what will sell. Something may sell steadily for six months and then “hit a brick wall,” she says. But for the soft items, such as clothing and DVDs, the company has a solid working formula for its staple items. “For lingerie, we have a list of percentages that we need to have of each, like the bustier that always sells out first,” Bertino says. “The same goes with DVDs. There is a stock set of certain types. You have all-male, all-girl, new features, parodies. We know what people will need so we carry certain percentages of each.
“Also, this is the Midwest, which is different from the coast states – people are practical here,” Bertino adds. “We could stock an expensive marabou-trimmed teddy and people will look at it and say, ‘How do you clean that?’”
Fantasy Gifts’ ability to carry products for all walks of life but still tap into what sells for their given consumer base has been key in another area of its business. In addition to the inviting brick-and-mortar shops that welcome people in, Fantasy Gifts will travel to host buying-parties on request. In the early 1980s, Bertino’s parents would market and host parties, but the cultural acceptance of sex wasn’t exactly where it’s at today.
“Someone would giggle or crack a joke and it would kill sales for the evening,” Bertino says. In the 30 years since, people have changed. A few years back “we kept getting phone calls about doing parties because people assumed that we did,” she adds. “We would always say ‘no,’ but we decided that we needed to start saying ‘yes.’ Our store manager started doing events and home parties. The whole thing has worked out well. It’s not the hugest thing we do, but now when someone calls up and says, ‘Can I have a party?’ the answer is ‘yes’ versus ‘we don’t do that.’”
Because Fantasy Gifts owns warehouses, the party host is able to tailor items for the given occasion and partygoers can go home that night with products, as opposed to traditional product parties where items are ordered and later shipped. In the future, Bertino would like to modify the company’s website to allow customers to book parties online.
Bertino explains that the experience customers have at home parties simply mimics the experience they would have inside an actual store. Employees who respectfully guide customers to their items of interest, offer knowledge on product benefits and provide people with the means to fulfill their fantasies is an everyday thing.
Those same employees, Bertino insists, are crucial to Fantasy Gifts’ vitality. Reflecting the company’s clientele, the management team at Fantasy Gifts hires from all walks of life, but all the employees carry one very important trait – trustworthiness. Bertino recalls being away from the store for four months with a broken ankle, yet operations resumed as if nothing had changed. “There is no way, with 10 stores, that we could do this without them,” she says. “The stores still functioned because the folks here are spectacular.”
Between loyal employees and loyal customers, Fantasy Gifts is living proof that successful local family businesses are not a thing of the past. “I make my business on people having a good time whether it’s for a bachelorette party or a fun weekend,” Bertino says. “That is not a bad way to make a living. It’s frustrating at times, just like any business, but for the most part it’s quite enjoyable.”