The naughty wolf in sheep’s clothing? Meet Martin King from Sinsins Boutique, in Norwich.
Still going strong after nearly two decades in the adult retailing sector, Martin’s seen a lot, and learned a lot. Read on to get his thoughts on a variety of key business and marketing issues – and a healthy dose of reality for good measure.
BRIAN GRAY: First impressions count. From the pictures of your boutique, Sinsins is so untypical of an erotic or adult retailer. It’s not dark, it’s not trying to be edgy. It looks more like a nice artisan bakery or a gift shop. Are you the (naughty) wolf in sheep’s clothing?
MARTIN KING: Your description of Sinsins is totally spot on. You’re absolutely right when you say first impressions count. In essence, Sinsins is a gift shop which sells sensually charged erotic gifts and treats for temptation, seduction and flirtation with decorum, integrity, subtlety and vivaciousness whether they be for yourself or your sweetheart.
Many years ago I had the dubious privilege of venturing into a ‘sex shop’ which was part of a national chain. I went in as a lover and an explorer not as a wannabe hardcore porn star seeking blatant arousal and instant gratification. Hand on heart, it was the worst shopping experience of my life. It was at best functional, at worst grotesquely soulless. I was so incensed by this tawdry and sleazy debacle that I decided to create my own little independent Boutique of Love.
Sex shops sell blatant fantasy fodder with equally blatant, unrealistic imagery to match. Sinsins has done the opposite by shunning the gaudy and licentious. In a relationship love and sex are both pleasurably and immeasurably entwined… both elements are giddily special. ‘Naughty’ is in the eye or mind of the beholder, and the way Sinsins does ‘naughty’ is much more subtle, more thought provoking and intrinsically much deeper through its passion and captivation of the senses.
You’ve now been around for more than fifteen years. What do you think has been the key to surviving and thriving?
This is now our 18th year of trading, and I ask myself this question frequently. The only answers I can give with any degree of certainty, beyond refusing to sell tat, is having a strong rapport with our customers and a willingness to change with the times.
In this time, you’ll have probably witnessed a fair few changes or developments within the adult retailing industry. Which ones most stand out?
In the old days, the majority of suppliers didn’t seem to care what they sold. I remember having a ‘heated’ argument with one over the fact that their product stated it required AA batteries to work. The only problem with this was that no standard brand of AA battery would fit their product. Their answer at that point was that their own brand fitted so what was my problem! Nine months after me providing them with an unequivocal direction in which they could go, they phoned me up out of the blue to tell me they had changed all their product motors because of me.
Product-wise (moving on in years) the biggest game changer for me and Sinsins was Lelo: elegant, luxurious, seductive…stunningly designed and beautifully presented. A real game-changer with a price tag to match. Almost everything about this brand matched perfectly with Sinsins’ ethos. It was also at this point I ended my ten plus years of self-inflicted single dad bachelor lifestyle and met a special lady, now my wife.
The other biggest change for me is the camaraderie within the industry. Maybe because I’ve been in it for so long now, maybe it was the beginning of the recession but there was a point when suddenly everything seemed to change. Suppliers started to care. Sales teams became not just good… but really good. There’s a large pool of awesome people out there in this industry who not only do a good job but they go out of their way to show they care.. even after moving companies.
If you were just starting from scratch in the adult retailing industry now but had all the knowledge and wisdom from your Sinsins years to call upon, how differently – if at all – would you go about it?
If I were starting from scratch?! I’m not getting any younger you know, time is passing me by way too quickly these days.
As a sole trader I wouldn’t. There’s a lot more to it than just buying stock from A, whacking it out on the shelf and selling it to the happy, non-demanding customer. Unless you’re a big player with tremendous cash deposit behind you, don’t do it. The sleepless nights, the cash flow worries, the sheer volume of work simply doesn’t stack up when it comes to immediate financial reward.
The majority of the consumers out there are more driven by online price comparison than by good old fashion face-to-face customer service, truthful sales knowledge and upfront expertise. We are lucky in that once our customers meet us they tend to remain loyal and we get to know them well.
It’s not hard to imagine that there’ll be some people who will take umbrage at a sex shop located in their local shopping street. How have you engaged with both the NIMBY’s and other local communities (business, public), etc. ?
We have never considered ourselves as a sex shop. Eighteen years ago our first premises was a council owned building. The estates department were loving our concept, the licensing department were not so enthralled. Licensing even refused us advertising on a black cab at one point – they took exception to the strapline ‘gifts, goodies and gadgets’. Apparently ‘gadget’ was potentially offensive.
Sinsins has always operated without a need for a sex shop licence due to the balance of goods sold. We were lucky that Norwich Council decided to trust our concept before making the final licensing decision. We have earned their trust by hard graft and remaining apolitical.
Sinsins has never hidden behind the shutters, you’ve always been able to see through our windows. Bar three cheeky pre-planned occasions (for press coverage), we have always maintained delicate and subtle window displays.
Our approach is to deny the NIMBYs any fuel to their way of thinking… the subtle approach challenges their negativity and leaves them solely to their own imaginations… We have no wish to upset or challenge anybody, that’s just offensive and pointless. Those NIMBYs who have ventured over our threshold have, by and large, left more with a more accepting and appreciative view of what we do once they realise the branding of our product ranges don’t overtly scream out SEX! We’ve never touched pornography in any way shape or form. The atmosphere within Sinsins has always been as normal as in any other high street shop.
Over the years I have been invited to do talks to Relate Counsellors, the Institute of Psychosexual Medicine, lots of health related charities, Gynecology Units at The Norfolk & Norwich hospital and Addenbrookes too. We’ve also been invited guests on TV & local radio too. In every situation these organisations have approached us, not the reverse. We have earned an awful lot of trust by many people and organisations locally… and rest assured this didn’t happen overnight! Discretion, subtlety and confidentiality are of paramount importance all round.
Another factor for us is that Norwich champions small independent businesses.. we are proud to be part of this, and we are active members of Norwich Lanes (a local organisation which does a absolutely fantastic job of promoting the diversity of local independent businesses).
Let’s talk about your name SinSins Boutique of Love. How did you come up with the name and what made you decide to use it?
The name Sinsins is a play on words…. literally meaning Without Sin.
Who do you think the ideal Sinsins customer is, and what three adjectives would you want your customers to associate with your brand?
The ideal Sinsins customer is one who is polite, smiley, respectful, non-judgemental and with a positively inquisitive mind. It’s a bit old fashioned but those customers who talk to us and ask questions are the ones who get the best shopping experience from us. As far as three adjectives go, I’ve let my customers answer this for me: romantically welcoming, discretely joyous and intimately confidential.
[That’s SIX, Martin, but I’ll let you off! – Brian]
The popular perception is that adult retailers will be busiest around Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Is this still the case, and what are the most popular products you sell at these times, and the rest of the year?
Without doubt Christmas is the big one for Sinsins. Valentine’s is our second bite at the annual cherry. If i had to pick one product range the lube is our best seller by far. The time of year doesn’t change the variety of items sold, but it does massively change the quantities sold.
Good marketing is important for any company, not only to thrive but just to survive. What have been your key marketing learning points and observations so far?
As a micro business the marketing budget is for want of a better phrase… shoestring. Sinsins relies heavily on social media and customer recommendation. Marketing is an organic thing which builds the brand and trust over time. My main learning point over the years has been to do a little but often. You can waste a lot of cash on ill-thought through marketing, been there, done that.
What has been your biggest marketing challenge so far, and what steps are you taking / have taken to overcome it?
The biggest marketing challenge…. I guess that would have to be marketing sinsins.com . SEO is a full time job all by itself. I want to get our online presence to a wider audience. Working on the website is time consuming for sure, but I do see this as the way forwards.
What are the most valuable things you’ve learned so far both about competing in the adult retailing industry, and as an entrepreneur?
The most valuable thing I’ve learned is cash flow. Cash flow is paramount. Building up a solid rapport and trust with suppliers can make life a hell of a lot easier too. Don’t try to compete, just build the uniqueness of your business… and never stop renewing and never lose sight of your bottom line.
And what does the next twelve months hold in store for Sinsins?
As of January 2017, Sinsins relocated within Norwich City Centre. The next 12 months is all about bedding in again, pushing sinsins.com and to keep evolving. The last Friday of every month we are looking to do late night shopping collaborations in store. We kick it off at the end of this month with the Hewson Group’s Women, Sex & Shopping research – ‘All About Lube’. Then in June we are looking forward to collaborating with a very talented local photographer Julia Holland and we will be running An Introduction to Julia’s Boudoir Portraits.
I’ll admit: before coming across Sinsins on Twitter, the only thing I associated with Norwich was a silver spinning horse and the accompanying voiceover announcing “From Norwich, It’s the quiz of the week!” before Sale of the Century graced our TV screens. That and Delia Smith’s legendary (and for her sake, best forgotten) half time ‘announcement’ to the Norwich City crowd.
Now, with Sinsins, there’s a far better reason. For anyone thinking about entering the adult retailing sector, Martin’s account of things is an extremely insightful one, bursting with realism. It’s all very easy for new entrepreneurs to forget about the basics of business finance and instead focus on the perceived sexier aspects. His highlighting of SEO and cash flow particularly should be well heeded.
Through their own sensible stewardship, and maintaining good relations with the council and other local businesses, there’s a lot to be said for their approach to running a business in this sector.
Something tells me one interview with Martin might not be enough…..
…but for the moment, thanks again, and keep up the good work!
ARE YOU AN AMBITIOUS, MARKETING-LED, COMPANY IN THE SEX TOY, LINGERIE, FETISHWEAR AND EQUIPMENT OR DATING SECTOR?
If you’d like to be interviewed about your entrpreneurial journey and associated marketing issues that will be interesting to the Lascivious Marketing web fraternity, then get in touch!
Until next time!