Fifty Shades’ of Opportunity

Tod Hunter

The book “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its follow-ups “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed” have become a worldwide phenomenon, with publishing rights sold in more than 35 countries and sales reported at 10 million copies worldwide.

The three books tell the story of virginal college graduate Anastasia Steele and her relationship with Christian Grey, a manipulative billionaire who has her sign a contract allowing him complete control over her life (with a non-disclosure agreement) and introduces her to bondage, domination and sadism in his “Red Room of Pain.”

A store in Phoenix, Fascinations, cross-merchandised the trilogy with our Sex & Mischief line all on one wall. — Tom Stewart, Sportsheets

“It takes about 200 pages in the first book to get to the first sex scene,” Sportsheets Vice President Julie Stewart told XBIZ. “I thought that was a little long to wait, but once you get there it’s pretty much sex for the rest of the books.”

The books have served as an introduction to BDSM practices and paraphernalia to a large population of readers, much like “Deep Throat” changed oral sex from “dirty little secret” to “Topic A” in the 1970s. The books have also received massive coverage in mainstream venues ranging from ABC’s “The View” to straight-laced publications like Business Week.

XBIZ spoke to retailers and manufacturers to get an insiders’ view of the “Fifty Shades” phenomenon.

“We were early on the bandwagon,” Stewart said. “Some of us in the office had been reading the books, and we thought ‘Wow, there’s something to this,’ and the buzz kept going and going. I’ve had women from my mommy play group talk to me about it. When something hits, it gives everybody permission to talk about it. I think it’s great that women can get excited about kinky sex. Not just a small part of the population, but mothers, doctors and professionals. Women who ‘aren’t supposed to be that sexual any more.’

“Now you’ve got Sherri Shepherd on ‘The View’ saying ‘These are some of my favorite things’ and holding up a pair of handcuffs.”

General-interest adult-toy manufacturers are getting in on the action as well.

“As a manufacturer, we’re here to support retailers and our customers any way we can during the ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon,” said Desiree Duffie, California Exotic Novelties director of public relations. “We’ve put together a list of our brands that strike a chord with the ‘Fifty Shades’ theme. Our bondage-y, fetish toy lines fit perfectly with the products featured in the book. Our ‘Something Blue,’ which is a bridalthemed line, has cuffs and a mask, so it ties in with this as well.”

A number of adult products — not all of them BDSM oriented — are mentioned in the books, and sales of those products have increased.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in ben-wa balls, and we’ve also seen an increase in restraints. The under-the-bed type has been outselling the over-the-door type, because that’s what’s explicitly described in the book.” Hollie Petillo, corporate buyer for the Hustler Hollywood stores, told XBIZ. “We always did a brisk business in floggers and crops, but we’ve seen that pop up a little bit too. We sell a reform school pleated skirt and we also have a grey tie, which is hugely pivotal in the book. We’ve seen an increase in the sale of the grey ties.”

Manufacturers are actively working to help retailers cash in on interest in the books.

“I’m working out a ‘Fifty Shades of CalExotics’ list of products that reflect the ones in the books,” CalExotics’ Duffie said. “For the consumer, we have our ClubCalExotics. com online community where we discuss the ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon and provide tips for consumers on how to play like you read about in the book, and what products are best to use, especially if it’s your first time at this and you’re discovering these products.”

“This summer we’re going to be coming out with things that are more directly mentioned, like nipple clamps,” Sportsheets’ Julie Stewart said. “We’re going to have an actual grey tie, metal handcuffs, and a flogger. Plus a Mardi Gras mask like on the cover of the second book. We’re also building kits that are perfect for home parties and online, and will also display well in stores. We can put items together for retailers on request.”

Retailers are merchandising “Fifty Shades” materials together to build interest and increase addon sales and upsells.

“A store in Phoenix, Fascinations, cross-merchandised the trilogy with our Sex & Mischief line all on one wall,” Sportsheets CEO Tom Stewart told XBIZ. There are 25 really good ways for retailers to cash in on this, because that’s how many items we have in our Sex & Mischief line right now.”

Petillo told XBIZ that all 14 Hustler Hollywood stores carry the three “Fifty Shades” books.

“They’re flying out the door. We’re making concerted presentations at the front of the store,” Petillo said. “We have created in-store signage and suggest four of the basic items mentioned in the books, so if you want to live out your own ‘Fifty Shades’ fantasy, here’s how to get started.”

Fed by word of mouth, the interest in the books continues to grow, and Universal Pictures and Focus Features bought the movie rights after a spirited bidding war involving several major mainstream movie studios.

“These books enable the consumer — who didn’t know about these products or didn’t feel comfortable about them — it’s allowing them to try something or talk about it. I’ve had women from my mommy play group ask me about it,” Julie Stewart told XBIZ. “The mass appeal of this has been shocking to me. We’re seeing business growing in a segment that thought bondage was too hard, even soft bondage like Sportsheets and Sex & Mischief. Now that segment is saying ‘Our customers want it, we’re going to give it a try.’ Everybody can accept a vibrator, but bondage — that’s like in ‘Pulp Fiction.’ You don’t see that in mainstream media.”

“I was skeptical about whether we’d see the lift in sales, but we have seen it, definitely,” Hustler Hollywood’s Petillo said. “We’ve had customers come in with lists. I’ve been buying books in one capacity or another for 15 years. I haven’t seen anything like this since ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ It grabs the imagination.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this yet.”