Online Retailers Offer Forecast of Internet Shopping Trends

Tod Hunter

XBIZ made a quick survey of online retailers to get a feel for the upcoming trends and their expectations for the upcoming selling season.

What’s currently driving online sales?

We have been making sure all of our content is available on screens anywhere. You want to create a seamless experience because most people are computing on multiple devices. -Jeff Dillon, Gamelink

“What we’re seeing driving online sales is devices,” Gamelink Vice President of Business Development Jeff Dillon told XBIZ. “Tablets and the iPad Mini were slated to be the most in-demand product this past holiday season. As more people have these media devices in their hands, consumption of that is going to go up. We have been making a big move to make sure all of our content on our sites is available on screens anywhere, and that our site is also compatible with those devices. You want to create a seamless experience because most people right now are computing on multiple devices.

“We’re predominately movies, that’s where the bulk of our business is,” Dillon said. “A lot of movies that drive sales are where people put a lot of money in their content productions. Good story content that sets them apart from the pack, from the typical formula movie — you know, the quick striptease, blowjob, missionary, bend over, cum shot. We¹re seeing higher production values on the parody porns. Also, Graham [Travis at Elegant Angel] has Wasteland,’ his follow-up to ‘Portrait of a Call Girl.’ We’re seeing those are big, big sales drivers. Also high-end novelties. ‘Fifty Shades’ was definitely a driver — a lot of novelties, the ‘Fifty Shades’ kits, the book itself, Smash Pictures did a parody of it that’s still doing gangbuster sales. These are the key factors driving sales for us.”

Jackie Strano, executive vice president at Good Vibrations, agrees that “Fifty Shades” is driving sales: “I call ‘Fifty Shades’ the gateway book because it definitely opened up the conversation and normalized it for a lot of folks that wouldn’t necessarily start that conversation. We saw a surge in BDSM-type toys and products. Kegel balls, anything that remotely resembled Ben Wa balls have taken off for everyone.”

Lower-profile companies are relying on search engines and affiliations to drive business.

“We get most of our traffic through search engines,” said Nick Mahler of online retailer Dallas Novelty. “Links from different sites we’ve been partnered with, that’s where we’ve been getting most of our traffic lately. Site directories used to be the hot ticket, but since Google and the other search engines started penalizing people for being part of that, we stopped having anything to do with those. We seem to get more targeted traffic looking for sex toys and bondage equipment from reviewers and porn star sites. We’ve worked with Taylor Vixen for 11 years.”

“There are hundreds of ways to get traffic, and they’re all very little, and Google is the elephant in the room.” Dave Levine of SexToy.com said."Navigating Google’s SEO changed last year, and SEO is not about tricks and games and secrets any more. It’s about having a site that is properly designed, with good linking structure, and the links to you are proper and real, organic links. It’s almost like there’s no way to cheat any more. Google looks at a site and says ‘This is really a good site, with real, unique content and coded properly.’ And coming up on Google remains the biggest force for traffic.”

How is the online retail marketplace evolving?

“Online shopping for 2013, you’re going to see a lot of folks doing price-matching between brick-and-mortar and online locations,” Strano said. “It’s going to be very competitive on the web. You can offer shipping incentives, shipping guarantees, turnaround times. If you’re in the online commerce game, you’ve got to stay competitive that way. And you can’t talk about online sales without mentioning mobile. We’ve seen browsing and shopping continue to rise on that platform. We’re pretty proud of that.”

“I’ve put in, I’ll bet, 20,000 items by hand,” Mahler said, “I know what we’re selling. Make sure descriptions are correct and we have ingredients on everything. People want to know what’s in the product. I suggest silicone everything.”

When asked if it was tough to reconfigure Gamelink for different devices, Dillon said, “in the world of technology, nothing’s tough. Building a pipeline, social media, aggregators, that’s easy. The toughest aspect for Gamelink as a company is to understand this is where the market is going, let’s be the first one to design it, not the last one.”

When we asked retailers how they selected merchandise for promotion or specials, they replied that the customers make those decisions.

“We base it on popularity,” Mahler said. “One of the biggest items we had was the Tommy Gunn Cyberskin extension. I sold every one in the country by posting them on Twitter and Facebook. They’re on national backorder now, I can’t sell any more. I posted on Twitter that we had some, and we sold them all out. We linked to the reviews, and we linked to the product, and it pretty much sold itself.”

Larger companies are using sophisticated data analysis to determine where customers’ interests lie.

“It’s all about analytics these days,” Levine said. “I don’t try to pick winners, I don’t try to get people to buy what I want them to buy. I analyze the data to see what people want, and then get that closer to the front and to the top. We have 40,000 items and if a bunch of people find one item and it’s doing pretty good with sales, that’s what I want to promote up top. If people are looking for it and buying it, imagine what would happen if I put it at the top. I promote what’s already winning.

“We split-test parts of pages,” Levine told XBIZ. “If you’re getting your results alphabetically — like we used to — you’re not competing. Is your add-to-cart button the right color? Is it easy to find? Can you delete from the cart or change quantity at every step? Is it easy like it is on Amazon? Little things like that make a difference.”

“The good thing about being an online store is you’ve got data analytics,” Dillon said. “It’s instantly possible to understand what people are gravitating towards. If you’re looking at a title on the pay-per-minute model, and it gets five-second, six-second, eightsecond views, it’s not generating a lot of consumer interest. If I have a title that’s getting two minutes, five minutes, six minutes, the viewer doesn’t continue on and clicks “Watch Movie” — that’s a hot title. We try to push those out to consumers. At a brick-and-mortar store, you can’t really tell what your customer’s looking at. With ecommerce you’ve got data that allows you to see everything: How long were they on the page, how long they watched that movie, how many people watched that movie, what else did they like. You can start bubbling all these recommendations up to people with similar purchase patterns or a What’s Hot section.”

All the companies we spoke to are using social media — mostly Facebook and Twitter — to reach out to new customers.

“Twitter is one of the biggest things right now,” Mahler told XBIZ. “We get a lot of people through social marketing.” Mahler said he puts descriptions of products and links on Twitter. “I try not to spam people a whole lot because people don’t look if you spam them too much. People are looking at them at work, so we try not to be too explicit.”

“You have to be very strategic about your online advertising, your SEO and your social media. We have a well-respected blog that has been around for a while,” Good Vibrations’s Strano said. “We have authentic voices coming through those channels. We have a dedicated staff for social media, Facebook and Twitter. We have an Antique Vibrator Museum on Pinterest. It’s physically in our Polk Street store in San Francisco, and it’s online at AntiqueVibratorMuseum.com. There are some great specimens on there.

“Education is the cornerstone of our brand. We tell you the truth about the products. We’ll tell you anything you want to know. We give lots of information,” Strano continued. “We have lots of fun events, workshops, to make shopping as easy as possible and it’s that way on the website too. We’ve got product reviews on there that are honest, from users. We like to have a wide array and let everybody give their opinion. Besides good deals, online to stay competitive you have to have the good offers, the good products.

“Recently we held our Sex Summit, a one-day conference. We brought academics and authors and educators together. We’ll tweet about that, we’ll tweet about specials we have.

“You call our 1-800 number — we have extended hours on that — you actually reach a trained sex educator/sales associate who is experienced with the brand and products. We don’t outsource that. Live chat, emails, phone, on the mobile site we have click-to-call — anywhere you navigate with the brand we want to make sure you interface with a human being who’s trained by our staff Ph.D.s.

Who is currently your target demographic?

“We have about 75 percent female buyers,” Mahler said. “We have our fair amount of guys, most of them are buying Fleshlights, something like that. But most of it is women, buying rabbits and bachelorette party supplies. One of the biggest things we’ve had was the We-Vibe. Most of the women we have have a fair amount of money. We have sold a couple of the Jopen Intensity vibrators.”

Mahler also is moving into specialty markets: he is preparing a site to sell sex toys for people with limited mobility — a muscular disease has confined him to a scooter — and acts as an agent for makers of custom-made malechastity devices.

“We did some research and our customers are mostly married couples, 25 to 45, with two kids,” Levine said. “We’re trying to be relevant as a resource for sex toys on the Internet and have it come up that way on the search engines.”

“It’s tough to say what our target demographic is because we’re a global company. We try to offer a little something for everybody,” Dillon said. “Typically our audience is U.S., English-speaking, male; however, because we function as a catalog we also slice off segments. We have toy stores, which focus on older professional women. That’s one of the good, unique things about being a catalog: we have a lot of target audiences. Our gay and mobile businesses are growing.

“We’re aiming at everybody, but our demographic — if you’d have to stereotypify it — would be 25 to 45 or 50 year old, college educated. A lot of couples, maybe 60–40 female. We get lots of couples,” Strano said. “We’re known as the woman and couples-friendly store. We love everybody, and we want everybody to come in. We serve a lot of different communities as well.

Our stores are located on either coast, in metropolitan cosmopolitan areas — San Francisco bay area and Boston — but we started with a catalog business that we morphed into the web. We’ve got everybody in there online.”