Many years ago, I was involved in the creation of a small, online sex toy retailer. I was young, just 22 when I came on board to handle all the forward-facing aspects of the business, from customer service to PR, via blogging, copywriting, social media and more. Times were tight, but we were passionate. Every sale counted, every product could mean the difference between getting paid and going hungry. For a time, we used a lift in someone else’s office building as a makeshift stock room. The lift, incidentally, was made by a company called ‘Schindler’, and was therefore known as ‘Schindler’s Lift’. (“Yes madam, your inflatable dildo is in stock. It’s just in Schindler’s Lift, up on the 9th floor, but should hopefully be down soon.”)
And all the while, as we worked late into the night fighting for every single sale, we fantasised about a time when we would stock EVERYTHING. The breadth of our sex toy range would humble every other adult retailer out there, and our mighty warehouses would sprawl into the verdant Hampshire countryside like surf rolling up a virgin beach.
What I didn’t know, though, was that it’s not the size of your warehouse that matters. It’s how you fill it that counts.
I stayed at that company for around three years and loved it, before taking a big step up to my current position, where I’m still currently sat, smiling to myself about the old days, sharing a warehouse with a company that sold bottled water, the staff of which were incredibly curious about the stock we were holding and suspicious of us as a result. Smiling about how naive I was, how innocent and idealistic.
Recently my partner Annie Player, who also moves within adult creative fields, and I are increasingly contacted by start up sex toy companies, full of good intentions, that disappear again before we can even reply to them. A significant bulk of my twitter followers are probably sex toy start ups that follow a thousand people in a day, tweet twice, and then abandon the account, a testament to how hard it is at the bottom of the pleasure product ladder.
Online at least, the sex toy market is dominated by two or three large retailers and then a bustling pool of smaller retailers. It’s a kind of benign ‘orgasm oligarchy’; the largest share of the wealth divided amongst the elite and the rest is fought for below.
What I’ve come to realise in the few years: I no longer believe that a vast depth of product is truly the right approach, as I had previously believed it was when I was at the bottom of the ladder. Perhaps the right approach these days, if one wants to survive as a retailer of pleasure products, is to define one’s niche up front and stick to it fiercely. A good example that comes to my mind immediately is a company like www.labelleuk.co.uk, which has been around for a good few years now, quietly finessing its website and looking at stock opportunities. I think its survival and success to date is thanks in no small part to its clearly defined manifesto.
As a sex toy consumer, I often find that overwhelming choice is just that: overwhelming, and that’s the major complication of sex toy shopping. The sheer volume of choice, the baffling array of messaging, the indistinct USPs, the fact that all the manufacturers and suppliers are competing with each other and therefore more concerned with one-upping each other than clarity of customer buying decision all make sex shopping an exhausting and vaguely unfulfilling exercise. Which is a shame.
It’s tempting to believe that a virtually limitless breadth of product will attract all customers, cater to all tastes, satisfy all needs. But I fear these benefits are superficial; the temptation is hollow. That’s because, if there’s one thing people shopping for sex toys want above everything else, it’s clarity.
Have you bought a new mobile phone recently? The moment you walk into a phone shop, you’re immediately shouted at by countless different messages, statistics, bullet point lists and arcane technological language. If you’re not pre-armed with knowledge and research, the choice is so baffling that it’s virtually impossible to make a good buying decision right there and then. Now translate a shopping experience like that to something as personal as sex toys, especially for a relative newcomer to sex toy shopping.
What we need, as sex toy consumers, is two-fold: a Which? Sex Toy magazine (and if you’re interesting in helping me make this a reality, please do get in touch) and a more focussed product offering from every major sex toy retailer.