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What’s it like selling sex toys in the 21st century?

Pre the digital age, sex toys were sold from grimy stores hidden away on truck routes or ordered from the back pages of seedy porno mags arriving in a plain brown envelope. How times change!

The internet was the first revolution, now you can shop from the comfort and privacy of your own home. More importantly, you can learn about sex toys from discrete online information, for your eyes only and, you can engage with others and even ask questions. All of this has conspired to make sex toys much more mainstream, endorsed by their inclusion in cult shows like Sex and the City and the infamous movie, Fifty Shades of Grey.

The advent of Ann Summers made the sex industry much more mainstream in the UK with nearly 150 stores now following its first appearance on the high street in 1970. And the Adam & Eve store which has been around in the US for a similar length of time, forty years, has recently brought their offering to the forefront with the launch of the Adam & Eve franchise. Are sex stores bucking the trend and deliberately targeting the high street when everyone else is deserting it in droves and heading online?

Adam & Eve are intentionally aiming to take the smut out of sex shop and are trying to create an environment that welcomes couples and in fact, even focuses on sexual health. As with the Ann Summers’ stores, the palatable (pun intended) items and classy lingerie are at the front of the store and in the window and the naughty bits get tucked away behind partitions further back in the store. Adam & Eve clearly have a conscience as all the DVDs on sale are viewed and reviewed to ensure that what they depict is positive in terms of human wellness and sexuality.

The stores are designed to be open and inviting so that solo women feel comfortable shopping there. Locations are carefully chosen to avoid seedy backstreets, areas where most women would simply not feel either comfortable or safe. The franchises are popular and reflect the unique elements of sex toys which is that people browse online but like to be able to actually see and touch the item in person before they purchase it.

What are the advantages of buying in store?

You can see the item for real, pick it up, feel the weight and texture, it’s a totally different experience to just looking at an image on a website. For the brave amongst shoppers, there is advice and guidance to be had from knowledgeable store staff although for some customers this is just a bridge too far.

The sex industry is buoyant and as sex toys become more mainstream and acceptable, the franchise opportunity is proving attractive to people who are looking for a business venture that will really make some money. What have Adam & Eve noticed about the sex toy trade in recent years?

  • When they started, the average age range was definitely over 35 but now the span is much broader; there are more young people coming into the store so, the early 20s and the top age range now is well over 70!
  • Sexual health is a big promoter particularly important when you are using sex toys. Many of the franchised stores run sexual health nights either for ladies only or for couples and will invite in a sex therapist or gynaecologist to come and give a talk. It’s a great way to promote safe sex in all its guises and it overlaps the sex store with the medical profession adding respectability and accountability which can only be good for business
  • There is the usual resistance prior to opening a new store that they are going to be some sort of porn hub and landlords and adjacent businesses can be tricky to handle. But, as the franchise expands, so these types of shops are just becoming more acceptable in mainstream culture

But other smaller, entrepreneurial start-ups do report resistance whether it is advertising their products on certain platforms or being denied payment services by companies like Stripe.

Shopify only works with Stripe and Stripe won’t entertain any adult products on its platform – game over? Not necessarily, some recent adverse publicity has encouraged Stripe to think again. But Stripe is not alone in this attitude.

Many of these start-ups cater to men and women who really don’t want to buy in store and will use a web offering with perhaps party schemes. Sex toys are a $15 billion industry but it seems that conventional organisations are still reluctant to recognise this. Smut sticks.

More and more women are getting involved in the sex toy trade and some entrepreneurs feel that this is actually where the point of resistance is. Previously, the trade has been dominated by men and many organisations are just not comfortable about women fronting a sex toy company. But sex toy parties are all the rage – think Tupperware but 21st century!

My Secret Soiree sends an employee to someone’s home with a range of samples and lots of good advice. Over a Prosecco or 12, women can pick out what they like best in the company of their friends with plenty of frank exchanges of ideas and some fun into the bargain. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these products are frivolous, cheesy or down market – there are some very high-end offerings and many are subtly disguised as jewellery. These occasions are gaining a huge fan club and are popular as bachelorette parties, bridal showers and even divorce parties. The appetite for sex toys shows no sign of going away anytime soon, in fact, it is likely to increase as an industry rather than diminish. Tech has a part to play and this has

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