Jennifer Downey and her business partner, Henry Keiluhn, opened the first “romance enhancement” outlet in what is now their eight-store Ohio chain back in 1983, after realizing the home party business wasn't the ticket for them.
“We realized for the home party business most of your time is spent recruiting for salespeople and recruiting for other parties and stuff,” Downey told AVN. “We found that a lot of the same people attended the parties, and if what you had in your suitcase didn't turn them on the first time, the next time you saw them you didn't have a sale.
“We felt that we wanted to give women a place to shop and buy some of these products, and not feel like they had to go into an adult store — to give them a place to shop where they feel comfortable to ask questions and learn about products.”
With the tagline “The Store for Lovers!” Ambience stores carry only instructional adult DVDs — no features and no gonzo — as well as a plethora of carefully selected novelties.
“We want to be in the strips inside of the mall, and we want moms to shop, and moms can bring their kids in as we have things here,” Downey explained. “So if they've got their kids in tow, they can come in our store still and buy adult products, but we don't have to have 18-and-over on our door.”
The stores are, on the average, 2,000 square feet, with a deliberate uniformity — they’re all pastel-hued, for instance — fostering brand identity.
“I want our stores to look like a mall store,” Downey said. “I want people to walk in and feel very comfortable inside. It's kind of like when you go into The Limited, and you know exactly where the jackets are.”
Further insuring the desired uniformity are standardized operations manuals.
“In our 25 years, we've developed a lot of different manuals,” he said. “We have a procedures manual, a policy manual, a product knowledge manual, a managers manual, a display manual: All of our stores run exactly the same. One manager from our store 50 miles away can come and run another store the exact same way.”
In that regard, Ambience is patterned after the McDonald's model.
“Every McDonald's tastes the same,” Downey noted. “It took us a long time to put it all in place, but that helped us tremendously manage our business, develop our help, train our employees. Getting a uniform shopping experience for the customer is really important for me.”
Ambience employees undergo an extensive training program to become “Certified Romance Consultants,” and Downey sends secret shoppers into each venue once a month to make sure that store policies are being followed to the letter.
Ambience stocks California Exotic Novelties, Doc Johnson and Topco Sales toys, with O'My's clitoral stimulant gel being its top-selling item. The chain counts as must-stock instructional DVDs Adam & Eve's Nina Hartley guides and Sinclair Institute titles.
“I wish there were more of them and some updated ones, too, because one of the complaints I hear from my customers is that the productions look old,” Downey said. “It's hard to believe that people need instructional movies but they do. They get into a rut, and they don't know how to get out of it, and sometimes those videos or books — and we carry an awful lot of self help books — can get them moving again.”
Ambience’s future includes launching the first non-Ohio store in either Las Vegas or San Francisco.
“I hate to say it, and I don't want to, but we want to get out of the red states and move into the blue states,” Downey said. “We're looking at moving towards the West Coast, at this point. We don't see any chains out there, especially in San Fran. Vegas has a lot of stores, but there's no chain. If we're going to go in with like four or five stores, it has to be cost effective.”
Looking back, Downey smiles at the once-edgy concept that's now all-but standard fare.
“Women wanted to buy these products, myself included, and it was a little uncomfortable going into an adult store,” she recalled. “I figured there was nothing out there, why not have something like that? It was a new idea. Now it's kind of old hat. Twenty-five years later, everyone realizes women have money and want to spend it, and women want to have a good sex life, and women want to feel good, and couples want to enjoy sex.
“I love what I do.”
Ambience has eight retail stores in the state of Ohio located in Boardman, Canton, Cuyahoga Falls, Maple Heights, Mentor, North Olmsted, Parma Heights and Richmond Heights. Their corporate office is located at 17820 Englewood Drive, Suite 12, Cleveland, Ohio 44130. They can be reached by phone at 1.440.234.6996, by fax at 1.440.234.9745 or through their Website, ambience.com. They also operate the retail website storeforlovers.com.