"My whole thing is, jeez, if I have to go to UPS and yell at them because they lost a package, I want it to be from Stormy Leather," jokes the San Francisco fetish fashion and adult toy shop's Web manager, Rachel Schwarz. The self-taught Webmistress cheerfully provides a likely list of the contents of a box that might easily be shipped from the store. "You'll be looking for a dozen dildos, a set of restraints, a blindfold, a leash, a giant butt plug, a baby beginner butt plug and a gallon of lube," she ticks off matter-of-factly before bursting into good-natured laughter.
The woman-owned brick-and-mortar business has existed since 1983, when Kathy Andrew set up shop in the city she'd only planned on visiting while on vacation from England more than a decade ago. Stormy Leather (www.stormyleather.com) took its first step into virtual retail space late in 1996. During its first two years online, the site served primarily as a brochure for potential storefront shoppers. In 1998, Schwarz responded to customer requests for an online shopping option by expanding the site's available services to include not only sales, but also fetish photo galleries as well as information about the company's classes, events and two physical San Francisco store locations.
Schwarz, who originally handled all aspects of the site, now has trained her own support staff and, with their help, StormyLeather.com has been, according to her, "running full tilt ever since early '99." She continues to perform most internal IS duties and computer support for the company, yet her work on the StormFront™ Website has increased online sales impressively. "If you look at the sales from January of '99 compared to January of 2000, there's a 900 percent increase," she says. Schwarz continues to seek new marketing opportunities, such as holiday promotions, and to learn more ways to reach prospective customers.
Considering that Stormy Leather not only retails but manufactures its fetish clothing and toys, there's a lot of potentially valuable information to disseminate. Part of Schwarz's challenge is to package that information in a way that appeals to surfers on both an educational and entertainment level. Currently this is accomplished in part by an online newsletter that announces new products, gallery shows, and classes held within the retail spaces. The online effort has been so effective in reaching new markets that, "Our wholesale department now gets the bulk of its inquiries through its part of the Website," according to Schwarz. Additionally, international trade increases every time Stormy Leather representatives travel abroad and present their wares, with sales shipped to Japan, England, Canada and Germany. Which countries have the most active accounts fluctuates with international exchange rates.
The majority of customers are still U.S. citizens, however. "There are people who write to me and place orders from places where there are no sex stores," Schwarz explains with the kind of surprise possessed by those used to the abundance of a cosmopolitan environment. "There are no stores with anything adult. All over the midwest. Different remote parts of places like Idaho. You get spoiled in San Fransisco where you can walk in anywhere and get what you need."
Other domestic clients include merchants, such as lingerie stores, that carry an assortment of Stormy Leather goods including clothing, a variety of toys, a few restraints and some videos. Like the mythical gateway drug, this introduction to the product line gives consumers a hunger for other possibilities. "The name gets out," Schwarz says with a chuckle, "and then someone will find us and say, 'Oh my god! Corsets and pants!'"
Those visiting the site in the near future will find the addition of mens' leatherwear to the clothing inventory. Although Stormy Leather has made menswear in the past, there was a pause in production and thus this is actually the return of an earlier in-store service. The company hopes that the line will be successful due to the number of men accessing the Internet, thus expanding their client base to include surfers seeking high quality leather goods online, and not merely at the Castro district storefront.
In addition to the renewed menswear line, Schwarz is proud to announce that Stormy Leather has also doubled its plus-size business. "I had the most incredible experience last year where I was trying to survey and talk to as many people as I could," she says. "I got a feel for what people were looking for and I really worked in June to bring more of the items that we had to the Website and to expand the size range to be the most we could manufacture at the time."
Demographic information culled during Schwarz's survey as well as from online trade sources revealed that the average age of Stormy Leather surfers was well above the teen and 20-something range. "My customer base is getting older," Schwarz confirms. "And we get a lot more men who either are bigger or who dress in womenswear. They wear our larger sizes." She believes that purchasers of the plus size lines are split fairly evenly between women and crossdressing men.
Clearly, online shopping provides both marginalized populations a welcome anonymity as well as an uncommon opportunity to view a variety of fashion options likely unavailable in their home areas. This, of course, has produced humor among the Stormy Leather crew. "The joke is," Schwarz confides, "if we're going to have the extra lusty line for women, we're going to have to work on the bear line for men. If we're going to make good stuff for the big ladies, we have to make good stuff for the big guys. It sort of becomes a monster you have to control so it doesn't grow too fast, so you don't over extend and go beyond what you can actually make."
Concerns about growing too quickly carry a delicious irony when the simple roots of Stormy Leather are recalled. Beginning in what Schwarz refers to as a "sort of one room basement here in town with leather being bought a hide at a time," the famed leather shop now has two storefront locations, a production warehouse and approximately 50 employees. Andrew had founded the ambitious little company after concluding that quality custom leather and latex work was in short supply and thus was a niche with potential for growth, especially for women. As its reputation grew, it became a wholesaler in the 1980s, taking similarly sex positive San Francisco sex toy and education store, Good Vibrations (www.goodvibes.com) as its first customer.
Given their common philosophies, the connection was only natural. "We both have a very high regard for customer privacy as well as a high level of customer service," Schwarz points out. "To me, it's the positive side effect of two organizations that are dominantly organized and run by women and are very sexual and very open about what part of the sexuality they are into." In fact, both companies often find themselves providing counseling sessions with customers just venturing into new areas of sexual exploration. "Sometimes it borders on psychotherapy," the Webmistress admits. "I keep handy reference lists of different organizations, different groups, different toll free numbers where people can talk to people who are more knowledgeable and are trained to talk to them."
This can be especially important when people, especially "vanilla" customers, call with serious questions about medical conditions or using sex toys to enhance pleasure for the elderly or disabled. "It's always interesting to hear what a customer will say and how you tailor your language and who you talk about erectile aids with and who talks about cock rings. Who talks nervously about how their partner kinda was talking about harnesses and some play phalluses, and then another person just calls up and wants to talk about dildos."
Beyond offering more advice and information on the Website this year, Schwarz plans on introducing a few more items to the online inventory beyond even the increased plus size and menswear categories. Product descriptions will become more full, garment measurements more precise, and red leather will make its appearance, as well as a new line of top selling corset styles, including the popular Lombard corset.
And what Stormy Leather is doing is adding increasingly diverse, high quality fetish/leather lifestyle and general sexuality products while listening with careful enthusiasm to customer feedback. "I've heard some really interesting rumors and things from product development," the Web manager teases. "Of course, you never know quite what they're going to show until you sit down, because people make things right up until the last night as they have ideas."
With an attitude like that, Stormy Leather's future on the Web should be bright.