If the words “Fifty Shades of Grey” don’t trigger even the slightest need to roll your eyes, then you haven’t been in the pleasure products industry very long. Like every Hollywood pop phenomenon, the books and film have been overplayed and marketed to death. Despite our love/hate relationship with Christian and Ana, it’s still impossible to deny that “Fifty Shades” has done more for adult retail in just under a decade than all of our manufacturing, distributing and selling efforts combined. The positive shift in mainstream attitudes towards sexual behavior has helped elevate adult boutiques from back-alley secret to front-and-center mainstays.
The acceptance and popularity of “Fifty Shades”’ intimate themes has brought adult retailers more than just a larger client base. Our understanding of consumer behavior has evolved and, in many ways, completely changed. Demand can no longer be met by a few different styles of rabbit vibrators and furry cuffs, usually sold by sales associates who take a back seat in the buying experience. Consumers have become more savvy and bold in what and how they purchase as well as how they interact with retail pleasure experts. Though it’s almost two years to the release date of 2018’s “Fifty Shades Freed,” retailers are already leveraging their knowledge to create shop spaces that blend education and a broad range of sensual products.
Everybody’s into something and it’s our job to figure it out. -Jennifer Downey, Ambiance
“Everybody’s into something and it’s our job to figure it out,” says Jennifer Downey, CEO of Ohio retail chain Ambiance. Her sensual wellness-centered approach encourages sales staff to engage clients and develop loyalty through a unique understanding of their needs. “It’s up to us to make them feel comfortable enough to talk about their wants and desires,” says Downey. “Once you do, it’s easy to match the right product to the customer.” Ambitious salespeople, like many boutique-style staff, are a new breed. Gone are the days of the bored, uninterested clerk hiding behind a magazine. Downey’s team isn’t just selling. They’re earning the trust and confidence of clients who are becoming more informed about the market offerings. “The best salesperson asks questions and then listens carefully,” says Downey. In the case of “Fifty Shades”-type products, “it’s also important to find out if your customer has tried any type of bondage before,” she notes. “If you don’t ask that question, you may scare them off if you go right to the heavy leather hogtie restraints, instead of the soft silky tie restraints.”
As consumers become more comfortable with experimentation, a diversity of product offerings will give retailers a competitive edge. The client who purchased their first vibrator only a year ago may have quickly ramped up their play by their next visit. “Soft restraints and blindfolds will always be our No. 1 jumping-off point for customers wanting to explore BDSM,” says Erin McLaughlin of The Garden and The Chamber stores in Columbus, Ohio. Longtime toy buyers like McLaughlin understand the need to fulfill all experience levels and consumer desires. “The products that have surprised me in their popularity among people who would not identify as being in the “the lifestyle” is electro-stim,” says McLaughlin. “I had a gentleman in a suit and tie come in and ask for electro.” True to the trend form, if the media promotes a sexual act, the pleasure product industry can say goodbye to any prior taboo associations. “I asked him where he had even heard of it,” McLaughlin said. “He and his wife saw it on a show on HBO and were intrigued.” McLaughlin’s large retail space gives her the advantage of providing stepping stones as customers transition to more intense levels of play. “We have the unique opportunity to have a separate fetish store, The Chamber,” she notes. “That has allowed us to use space in The Garden to help introduce fetish to new players and then send them to The Chamber once they are more experienced. The two stores market fetish very differently.”
Now that the initial shock and taboos of the saga have worn off, pleasure product businesses will need to focus on more than just E.L. James’s brand recognition. The majority of retailers agree that the book release was the pinnacle of the “Fifty Shades” revolution. The movie prompted a small upward spike, but nothing has come close to matching the intense boost bolstered by the original publication. However, stores can still get creative in anticipation of “Fifty Shades Freed.” Most consumers are already well aware of what to expect in the black-and-grey displays that greet them. Kegel balls, blindfolds and cuffs have become bedroom drawer staples over the last several years. “The brands that have been developed around ‘Fifty Shades’ are well-known, sure-fire sellers,” says Branden Burks of Nalpac Distributors. “They’re innovative, high-quality, and cohesive.” Rather than dragging out the same Ye Olde Fifty Shades kiosk from 2011, spruce up pre-movie shop displays with new items that will intrigue veteran fans and maintain the attention of first-timers. Says Burks, “These new brands have not only changed the landscape of the industry’s offerings, but have also led to many upsells, helping other lines as well.” Stick with the recognizable grey ties, whips and crops, and black sashes to lead clients back to their favorite, familiar promotional section. Once there, allow them to discover a wealth of products that will take them beyond the trend. Adding in wellness items like couples’ vibrators, all-natural lubricants, and positioning aids does double-duty for customer retention and sales. Mr. Grey devotees will find more reasons to continue updating their bedroom collections. New fans will quickly learn that their fun doesn’t have to end with what they’ve seen on screen.
“Fifty Shades of Grey,” despite all criticisms, has brought sexual wellness the kind of attention it has deserved all along. Taboos aren’t lost easily, and leave it to Hollywood to popularize BDSM into an easily digestible merchandising opportunity. Though the hardcore lifestyle players may still roll their eyes, that probably won’t stop them from popping in for a new leather flogger. Boutiques of all sizes can lead the way into the future of sexual health with product diversity, education and an attentive, passionate staff.