Kink Report: Manufacturers Credit Couples for Market Boom

The popularity of soft bondage products has grown exponentially since “Fifty Shades of Grey” took readers and filmgoers by storm. The product category is still growing and evolving, along with its target demographic, and the ways retailers are preparing for the next “Fifty Shades” film release.

Sally Fish, PR executive for U.K.-based Lovehoney, says that “Fifty Shades” has created a large uptick in sales for the company. “In 2012, when the book trilogy first caught people’s imaginations, Lovehoney saw the sale of bondage items increase by 109 percent, the sale of whips and floggers increase by 235 percent, and the sale of blindfolds increase by 230 percent,” she says. “The famous ‘silver balls’ which Anastasia Steele, the heroine in the books, used to wear for her sensual sex games with Christian Grey, were among the biggest selling items from our first range of Official Fifty Shades of Grey toys.” Fish notes that Lovehoney sold out of these silver kegel balls before they appeared on the company’s trade site, due to the level of pre-orders. Sales of kegel balls in general rose by 300 percent following the release of the books.

[The ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise] has introduced millions of people to more open communication about sexuality, new ideas for sexual connection, and the world of sex toys in general, whether BDSM-focused or otherwise. - Erica Braverman, Doc Johnson

For the next “Fifty Shades” movie release, Fish encourages retailers to be creative and recommends placing an exclusive“Fifty Shades of Grey” display area at the front of the store. “Use our extensive, free point-of-sale materials to lure in customers familiar with the brand.” She also suggests retailers email the Lovehoney trade sales team for more information about in-store brand training.

Fish says she believes the original film still drives the sales of related products, citing the success stories of business partners globally and a continued high demand for official, licensed products. “We are witnessing year-on-year growth as retailers plan ahead for ‘Fifty Shades Darker,’” she says. The second film will be released to for Valentine’s Day 2017.

In general, Fish says she sees that the BDSM category has expanded, with Lovehoney itself offering more products in its official Fifty Shades of Grey category, items that provide a “gentle introduction” into the world of BDSM. She says the majority of their customers are couples, and the products appeal both to novice “Fifty Shades” fans and bondage fans alike. Unlike more traditional BDSM gear, soft bondage items are easier to use, she explains, and made from materials like satin and lace that are less intimidating for beginners. “They often have simple escape routes if needed, and come with minimal risk of injury for all parties involved. They are for everyday use and can be used without specialist furniture.” On the other hand, more traditional items are usually made from harder materials such as leather and metal.

Tom Stewart, founder and CEO of Sportsheets International, in Huntington Beach, Calif., says that while his company has experienced steady growth since it began 23 year ago, restraints were one of the top sexual taboos at that time, with very few speaking about their use outside BDSM clubs. “The taboo loosened over the late ‘90s and into 2000-2010 decade. We saw the evidence of increased sales in Sportsheets products which told us couples were beginning to adopt this genre of sex play,” he says. But when the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy hit, and women across all demographics were being introduced to the erotic potential of BDSM play in a relationship, the market greatly increased. “Our Sex & Mischief line arrived on store shelves just ahead of the book hitting the bestseller list in 2012,” he reports. “This was a different looking product with its classic high-end black and white representation of women wearing handcuffs as if they were wrist bracelets and ball gags hanging around the model’s neck like a necklace.” Sportsheets sales doubled that year, aiming at this new consumer, and other manufacturers and distributors joined in the phenomena seeking “Fifty Shades”-inspired products.

Once accounting for only around 10 percent of the market, according to Stewart, since 2012, the restraint category has increased in both product selection and in sales. He suggests the best way for retailers to prepare for the next movie release is to read the book — or both books, again. “You’ll benefit by having the playbook right in front of you. At least scan the second book to find the scenes in which the characters use items that represent potential products to sell.” He also reminds retailers not to forget the toys from the first movie and book. He sees this second film as likely less impactful. “Retailers that I’ve spoken to say they were underwhelmed by the impact of the first movie. While devoted fans will see the second film, the non-readers that saw the first movie will probably not see the second one.” However, Stewart says Sportsheets’ overall sales are still driven by the first book and movie, with the entire BDSM category improving overall in the last five years.

According to Stewart, while fashion has dictated a new look or feel for items in this category, the actual products are all staples, such as blindfold, handcuffs hogtie, collars, leashes, crops. “The history of the category has evolved from the casual user utilizing neck ties, rope or metal handcuffs. The dedicated BDSM user found leather restraints from their local craftsman.

Two-plus decades ago, Cathy’s Cuffs, Rachel’s Pleasures and Sportsheets, among others, introduced Velcro restraints to the market. This gave the curious or casual user something safer, more convenient, and less formidable to use for restraint play. The Velcro bed sheet, the Sportsheet, and Velcro cuffs all took the products out of the dungeon and made bedroom restraint play more appealing, accessible, affordable and acceptable.” He notes that one of Sportsheets’ first taglines was “with Sportsheets you’re only as tied up as you want to be.” He says, “They can have their fantasy, let go, and still be in control of their situation. Over the past two decades, the Velcro restraint has had more impact in getting couples to experiment with restraint play than the ‘Fifty Shades’ movie has. Still, there’s no doubt that the book and movie sparked the imagination of couples of all ages and experience.”

Sportsheets has developed three specific brands to appeal to three categories of couples in the BDSM demographic, Sex&Mischief (S&M), Sportsheets and Edge, he says. “S&M is our lower priced beginner line for customers new to restraint play. Sportsheets is our premium line, with a full selection of restraints, sexual positioning products, and strap-on harnesses. All products in the Sportsheets line are backed by a limited lifetime warranty, and are directed at couples who know what they want and aren’t shy about shopping for it,” he relates. “Edge is our leather restraint line, designed for high-end customers who demand high-quality gear, and BDSM enthusiasts who appreciate the quality, selection and the surprisingly affordable price points.”

Kathryn Hartman, sales and marketing director for New York-based Nasstoys affirms that the bondage category was always a niche market. “It’s trended during the mainstream phenomenon of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ and there was also a renewed interest in fetish sparked by the Madonna ‘SEX’ book, the release of the ‘Erotica’ video and similar S/M themed music videos by artists like Rihanna.” She says the upcoming release of the “Fifty Shades Darker” film has a less resounding industry buzz than that of the previous entry, particularly as the first film did not do as well as expected in theaters. However, she notes, “In anticipation of the return of the newly primed and desensitized shoppers created by the books, carrying erotic products that move the experience up to a higher level would be encouraged.” She also encourages product education for safety’s sake.

Hartman doesn’t attribute the past “Fifty Shades” film to the actual purchase of existing BDSM products, however. “Excellent retail merchandising and marketing by manufacturers and webmasters are what’s attracting the consumers to these products at this point.” While in the past, BDSM consumers would make their own gear or purchase from small home-based businesses, today there’s a much wider range of soft bondage items directed at beginners “or couples who want to introduce a minor bit of kink into their routine, such as furry handcuffs, small, soft floggers, or Velcro restraints.” She notes that Nasstoys has an extensive variety of these entry-level items.

On the other hand, Erica Braverman, marketing coordinator at Doc Johnson in North Hollywood, Calif., says the impact “Fifty Shades” has had on the sex toy market cannot be overemphasized.

“More and more consumers are buying BDSM items, including many of the whips, restraints, and masks from our popular Black Rose collection. Before ‘Fifty Shades,’ Black Rose and Black and Blue might not have appealed to such a widespread audience.” Braverman also notes that the franchise has “introduced millions of people to more open communication about sexuality, new ideas for sexual connection, and the world of sex toys in general, whether BDSM-focused or otherwise.” She says that sales of BDSM products have shot through the roof since the books were first published, and the film has reinvigorated this effect. “What separates the book from the movies, however, is that a lot of women are going to be taking their partners along to the film, providing more access to a different demographic: men. Not so long ago, BDSM products were very niche, but since the massive popularity of ‘Fifty Shades,’ more and more consumers are asking for soft BDSM products. Restraints, blindfolds and spanking paddles, for example, have gained tremendous mainstream acceptance.”

Unlike traditional BDSM products, Braverman views soft bondage products as providing a subtle sense of restraint or domination through light spanking, sensory deprivation, sensation play with feathers or ticklers, and restraints with a soft, comfortable fabric, such as silk. “The items in our Black Rose collection are perfect for anyone interested in soft bondage, as many of these products are designed to provide comfortable restraint and sensation, while being easily removable.”

Overall, soft bondage is still a burgeoning market, with many manufacturers and distributors seeing a direct link to the “Fifty Shades” books and films.