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Published: Thursday, 2/26/2009

Shoppers air displeasure at selling of pleasure aids

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Shoppers walk through the Vermont Country Store's retail site in Weston, Vt., one of two in the state. In its 64 years of business, the staid New England brand has never been accused of being racy. Shoppers walk through the Vermont Country Store's retail site in Weston, Vt., one of two in the state. In its 64 years of business, the staid New England brand has never been accused of being racy.
TOBY TALBOT / AP Enlarge

WESTON, Vt. - For 64 years, it's been a mailbox staple, offering home remedies, kitchen wares, and long-forgotten brands in hopes of helping consumers solve life's little problems, from spider veins to unwanted nose hair.

But recently, the Vermont Country Store catalog made a surprising addition: sex aids.

The inclusion of an "Intimate Solutions" section selling instructional sex videos, "pleasure gels," and more has prompted cancellation notices, irate letters and calls, and a sort of identity crisis for the staid New England brand, which had never been accused of being racy.

"It's hard to read the customer letters," said Cabot Orton, 39, wincing as he sat in the store last week. His father, Lyman, is the proprietor. "It makes me a little ill, really."

The catalog started by Lyman Orton's father as a 12-page mailer in 1945 is now a $100 million-a-year business with retail sites in two Vermont towns. Its stock in trade: "purveyors of the practical & hard to find."

Customers take the firm's slogan of 'purveyors of the practical and hard to find' to mean toenail clippers and pine tar soap. Customers take the firm's slogan of 'purveyors of the practical and hard to find' to mean toenail clippers and pine tar soap.
TOBY TALBOT / AP Enlarge

You'll find heavy-duty toenail clippers and Vermont-made suspenders, Lanz of Salzburg nightgowns and pine tar soap, waterproof handbags, and Buster Brown socks, all presented with a dose of Yankee sensibility.

Mr. Orton, 67, with a country storekeeper's sense of what sells and what doesn't, says the idea of helping older folks keep sexually active was his.

"We never got any letters saying we want this. This was a sense, because our customers are a certain age and sex is below the surface in the world we deal in. I said 'Look, let's see if our customers respond to this.'• "

"It certainly would seem at odds with their wholesome, good-old-days approach," said George Hague, senior marketing strategist for J. Schmid & Associates, a marketing research firm in Mission, Kan., that works for mail-order houses. "Any time you stray beyond what is your marketing niche, there's always a concern."

Mr. Orton's three sons, who are partners in the business, were leery at the prospect of adding something blue that might make customers see red.

"We thought he was crazy. We thought he was out of his mind," Cabot Orton said.

The customers responded alright - some with their pens, some with their pocketbooks.

"I am one of the women who respects her God-given human femininity," wrote a now-former subscriber in a longhand letter. "These items are offensive to me."

Mr. Orton figures he got 600 letters, most of them critical. Some called the items "pornographic."

"You'd think I suggested that we sell nuclear devices to terrorists," he said.



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