- Walter Novak
- Jennifer Downey says Ambiance has succeeded by selling sex toys to soccer moms.
It doesn't offer the cachet of biotech, or the geek chic of the New Economy. There's not even a respectable-sized factory involved. But in a land where the absence of entrepreneurial spirit has long been lamented, Cleveland has to take its economic opportunities where it can get them. And the Next Big Thing to rise from the Rust Belt may well be . . . a sex shop.
Ambiance, "the store for lovers," recently made the Weatherhead School of Management's list of the 100 fastest growing companies in Northeast Ohio. The Middleburg Heights company, which has eight stores throughout Ohio, reported 93 percent sales growth in the past five years, putting it at No. 92 on Weatherhead's list.
The company has succeeded by essentially reinventing the sex shop. Instead of the semen-stained adult bookstore of yore, Ambiance is a product of suburbia, with soccer moms its principal clientele. Envision something clean and well-lit, like Bath & Body Works or Victoria's Secret -- only with hundreds of vibrators in every shape and size. "No girl wants to go down to Brookpark Road," says President Jennifer Downey.
The staff is all female, trained to put couples at ease. "We try to make them feel comfortable, that it's totally normal," says Veronica Griffith, a 26-year-old store manager who talks of vibrators the way others discuss cars.
Most important, Ambiance doesn't stock videos with covers that show every orifice being penetrated. The closest the store comes are instructional tapes geared toward couples. "I want moms to feel comfortable," Downey says.
Downey compares the state of the sex-toy business to the nascent days of the video-rental industry, when a bunch of mom-and-pops were scattered across the country. She hopes Ambiance can do for sex what Blockbuster did for videos, establishing a national chain with branches at a strip mall near you.
It's a big dream, especially in an industry that has typically operated in urban wastelands, but Ambiance might have the juice to pull it off, says Ben Keller, director for the Weatherhead list.
"I would agree with her analysis of the national situation on it," Keller says of Downey. "There's only a few people in this town who have the kind of vision to make the kind of chain that she wants it to be."
The company's slogan helps. "The store for lovers" is so catchy, it could be a litmus test of whether someone listens to Cleveland radio. Other companies apparently agree; each year, Ambiance sends five or six "cease and desist" letters to those pirating the phrase, Downey says.
The company launched in 1981, when Henry Keiluhn, a Scene music writer turned audio salesman, noticed a tabloid headline while standing in a supermarket line. "Home Sex Toy Parties Heat Up California," it read. He started hosting similar parties in Northeast Ohio.
At the time, Downey was a stock trader moonlighting as a model. A mutual friend introduced her to Keiluhn, who was looking for a swimsuit model for a brochure.
The two hit it off, professionally and personally. She organized his home and finances, which were a mess. He in turn made her his spouse and business partner.
Ambiance has since grown to eight stores, most of them near major shopping malls. "We really want to be near the mall, where Mom shops 10 times a year," Downey says. "And we want them to feel that it's normal."
Typical of Ambiance's clientele are Dennis and Brenda Levine, a middle-aged Lorain couple married 20 years. The Levines credit their marital staying power to a spicy sex life. "He said if there were more wives like me, there wouldn't be prostitutes or divorce," Brenda says of her husband.
On this day, Brenda tries on zebra-print lingerie. She shops at Ambiance about once a month, sometimes with her husband, sometimes with friends too skittish to go alone. Before they discovered Ambiance, the couple shopped at shady porn stores in New York when Dennis's consulting work took them there.
"I didn't go far from him when we were in there," Brenda says.
"We weren't comfortable like we are here," Dennis adds.
Now they use Ambiance as foreplay. When they're ready for a romp, they farm out the kids and go shopping for toys to use that night.
The Levines see nothing wrong with a monogamous couple indulging their fantasies. "Know what our kids realize?" Brenda asks. "They notice that Mom and Dad get along a whole lot better than their friends' parents."
City leaders in Monroeville, a Pittsburgh suburb, apparently disagree. The town recently put the kibosh on Ambiance's plan to open its first store outside Ohio. Officials claim the company violated a zoning ordinance barring sex-oriented businesses from operating in commercial areas.
"Does this sound sexually oriented to you: Cyberskin Cyber Suck?" asks Monroeville Solicitor Bruce Dice, reading from the company's website. "Here's another good one: soft rubber cockring set. It goes on and on." He says Ambiance is free to sell whatever it pleases, provided it locates in a manufacturing district with the rest of the sex shops.
Ambiance isn't taking the decision lying down. The company has already sunk about a quarter-million dollars into building the store and defending its right to exist. Ambiance is appealing to the county and has filed suit in federal court, citing First Amendment protections.
After all, its very business model relies on being where the soccer moms are. If Monroeville succeeds in shutting it out, it could provide a model for communities similarly reluctant to embrace the sex-toy trade. "It is our test case," says Downey. "That's why we can't walk away from this battle."
Such is the road to becoming the next Blockbuster.