Some of my best spends are gay

How Virgin Megastore's gay shopping nights are pulling in the pink pound. Tony Naylor reports

If You thought the marketing tools of Britain's retailers were confined to club cards and air-mile offers, think again. This week, Virgin Megastore in London's Oxford Street will trash such notions when it hosts Get Ready For Pride, its eighth "gay shopping night".

Recently voted Gay Friendliest Company of the Year by readers of the Pink Paper, Virgin will also entertain its customers while parting them from their hard-earned cash, with a line-up including artiste Valerie Mason-John, aka Queenie, and DJs from G.A.Y.

Richard Keane of the charity Healthy Gay Manchester, who helped organise Virgin's gay shopping night there in May, says these events give people the opportunity to buy gay-orientated merchandise in a safe environment. "Virgin stocks a huge amount of gay videos, so it's a safe space for people to pick up the videos and not get any looks," he explains. "Also, in Manchester you can buy a lot of gay magazines, but in smaller towns, only one store may stock Gay Times and that's usually on the top shelf with the porno mags."

One of several companies targeting the pink pound, Virgin's relationship with the gay community is decidedly "out". Not only does the company hold gay shopping nights, it also sponsors the gay festival Pride and pressure group Stonewall, and publishes direct-mail gay magazine-cum-catalogue, Crash Bang Wallop. And while many mainstream companies still feel advertising aimed at the gay community carries a stigma, a growing number are eager to jump on the bandwagon. British Airways has launched gay-orientated package holidays in the States, while a huge range of companies, from stereo manufacturers Marantz to financial consultants Frizzell, have placed advertisements in the gay press.

"The gay market, per se, isn't great," says Liz Mackenzie, organiser of Marketing Week magazine's recent conference, Marketing to the Pink Economy, "but they really do set the trends. They haven't got more money but they spend it in very sociable ways."

The gay community is very loyal to gay-friendly companies and many firms - Levi, United Airlines and Virgin, among others - have adopted marketing strategies that extend their interest beyond the products they are selling. Sponsorship of Pride, Stonewall or The Terrence Higgins Trust means putting your reputation where your ad strategy is. "Doing something constructive, like putting money into Pride, gets talked about," according to Mackenzie.

While HMV, Virgin's rival, has no plans to join the fray, it may be time it did, warns Watson: "The message is becoming, more and more, 'ignore the gay market at your peril'."

Get Ready For Pride, Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street, London, Thursday, 3 July, between 8.30pm and 10.30pm.

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