Retail Strategies For Selling Nouveau Chic Novelties

Bob Johnson

They look more like items you’d find in Beverly Hills than in back alleys. Highend luxury novelties from gem-studded vibrators to glitzy BDSM gear are prominent on the front page of top websites and are flying off of the shelves of brick-and-mortar retail stores.

So how do savvy shopkeepers handle the frenzy, and what are the secrets to maintaining customers and the tony appeal of today’s nouveau novelties?

At Coco de Mer there’s no question that you should feel too shy to ask and there’s no product in the store that you shouldn’t touch — we’ll discreetly show you how everything works and fits. —Nellie Mavroudi, Coco de Mer store manager

According to Good Vibrations’ events and publicity manager Camilla Lombard, since her company opened its doors some 35 years ago, the philosophy has been to allow customers to “touch and feel” products — a radical approach and practice that today has helped to distinguish luxury products from the typical sex toy.

Lombard says that the now often replicated approach, coupled with an eye for packaging that focuses on product instead of sexy images that turn some folks off, makes for a winning formula. “People can see for themselves that certain products don’t smell or have a more lifelike texture, etc. This ‘touch and feel’ approach has been successful,” she says.

Noting that Good Vibrations’ was the original “well-lit vibrator store founded by a therapist in 1977,” Lombard maintains that the establishments have always been women and couples-friendly — an approach that fits perfectly with the current interest in luxury novelties.

Quoting company associate Coyote Days, Lombard recalls that Good Vibrations has been honing their luxury products marketing since LELO emerged onto market in 2004–2005 as the “first real luxury brand.” “It took until 2007–2008 for it to become a ‘trend,” Lombard says, noting that since then her company has been ready for the surge.

Peekay founder Phyllis Heppenstall is also a retail professional who quickly embraced the changes in the luxury novelty marketplace by catering to high-end customers, but cautions while many retailers intuitively “know” this, they are “slow” to “show this.”

“It’s not good enough to simply “add” them [luxury goods] to your inventory,” Heppenstall says. “These products are ‘new and special’... treat them that way. When you pay tribute by showing how you merchandise, where you merchandise, and the level of knowledge your staff has, you create and justify the higher asking price.”

Merchandising the higher-end toys requires that they be segregated from the run-of-the-mill, according to the executive who maintains that they will stand on their own if they’re showcased with care, attention, and high-end compliments. “Do not expect to garner $279.00 for that new toy when you are presenting it next to one on the shelf for $79.00,” she advises.

“Who in the world would have thought we would be selling vibrators for over $200.00? Yet, I am reminded that who thought we would pay $1 for a Mrs. Fields cookie or $4 for a cup of coffee?” Heppenstall says.

PinkCherry CEO Daniel Freedman agrees with this type of strategic marketing and makes a similar Starbucks analogy. He says that people who may not be able to afford the luxury vacation or car, especially given the current economic trend, can still afford the luxury personal pleasure product.

He noted that his company has had great success with the premium luxury brands like JOPEN, Njoy, Fleshlight, Tantus, Je Joue, LELO and Sliquid and points to a new demographic that’s used to the finer things.

“Buyers are looking at indulging in one high-end luxury item as opposed to spending money on several mid-line or low-end products. The same can be seen in trends of other luxury purchases such as women buying one highend purse rather than having a number of less expensive ones,” Freedman points out.

A name that’s been long associated with the classier end of sex novelties is England’s Coco de Mer. The company describes its stores as the “original erotic boutique” since 2001 and prides itself on delivering the most luxurious and provocative merchandise, both online and in its store in Covent Garden, London.

Embracing the hot market — although new to most retailers — has been standard operating procedure for Coco de Mer. Providing a quirky and flirty atmosphere, that’s quintessentially British, the store nevertheless maintains itself as classically luxurious, with a timeless opulence. Its deep crimson walls and mahogany furniture add to a feeling of being at a high-end establishment that in turn helps sell what store manager Nellie Mavroudi describes as “a treasure trove of tactile, sensuous and precious products, all made by the most accomplished craftspeople.”

Buyer Emily Thomson adds, “Coco de Mer’s ethical philosophy means that we make use of local artisans and overseas fair-trade projects. This ensures our products are as exquisite and unique as possible.”

All of the company’s toys are high-end and individually sourced for their exceptional quality, while its designer lingerie reflects current season catwalk trends.

Coco de Mer said its style is both “aspirational and accessible.”

Customers can find toys that use gold, silver or feature precious stones, such as the Crowned Jewels Silver and Diamond Vibrator Gift Set (costing more than $8,000) and the AHH Fornicouture Leda Sterling Silver Plated Dildo (priced at about $1,500).

“We want customers to feel welcome as soon as they walk into our boutique,” Mavroudi notes. “We ensure everyone is served by smiling, friendly and helpful staff. At Coco de Mer there’s no question that you should feel too shy to ask and there’s no product in the store that you shouldn’t touch — we’ll discreetly show you how everything works and fits.”

Heppenstall likes Mavroudi’s approach and is a major proponent of educating employees to the max. “You can’t give them [employees] enough. We all want to be authorities, and when you empower your staff … they are the biggest advocates. Smart manufacturers know this. Partner with them. Use their expertise and training,” she says.

But catering to the new ritzy clientele also requires working more closely with manufacturers in toy technology — especially online where the face-to-face experience doesn’t exist.

EdenFantasy’s marketing and public relations director Jaime Lee says that whether it’s luxury, high end, or simply unique, the new wave of products has a special place on the company’s website in its Eden Community where product information, reviews and comments are openly discussed.

“They address material safety, brand appeal, product power and features, plus overall beauty and performance; and their opinions put value behind the price tag. Since an online store like ours can’t use shelves or fancy display booths to promote luxury products to the customer, we use a variety of ways to share information that leads to more sales, and more satisfied users,” Lee says.

EdenFantasy’s Presents pages visually showcase the products and their top features with descriptive reviews from advanced reviewers. Lee says customers get a better idea of the toy in action, and sneak peeks and video reviews give users a clearer idea of what the toy will look like in their hands, and what the features and functions really mean.

Lee notes, “These shopping tools are unique for every product or product line, and designed to give customers a sense of value that makes the price tag more appealing. We also use Google Analytics and social media campaigns to ensure that these tools are readily available across our website and beyond.”

Surprisingly, most of Eden’s buyers are experienced when it comes to high-end products, according to Lee, and that’s a testament to how the marketplace has responded to demand and are using well-learned techniques to make a sale.

She says because the company has so much information available to new toy users, many want to “start themselves off right,” feeling encouraged to dive into a more expensive toy based on the recommendations and in-depth analysis of the product from other users.

And although glitzy design, better superior quality, and new techniques and strategies help, old school word-of-mouth — a staple since the first vibrator hit the shelves — still help make the sale.