Santa knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. This year, he’s rewarding couples who want to be both. Spurred by the global sensation of the Fifty Shades of Grey bondage trilogy—the best-selling books of all time in Britain—sex toys featured in the tale are leading to a banner Christmas for the adult novelty industry. Europe’s retailers are struggling to keep up with demand for the leather-covered spanking paddles and blindfolds featured in the novels.
Just as Sex and the City made the Rabbit vibrator an acceptable household appliance for single women more than a decade ago, the erotic novels’ popularity has made restraints and so-called love balls acceptable stocking stuffers for couples this year. Explains Nick Hewson, head of Hewson Group, which does market research on women’s products: Sex play, such as bondage, domination, and sadomasochism, “tends to be a couples activity. You need at least two people there.” The $2 billion industry has grown from 5 percent to 10 percent annually in the past decade as retailers went upscale and targeted women, according to Hewson; it will expand at the top end of that range this year and could exceed 15 percent next year due to the ripple effect of Fifty Shades.
Lovehoney.co.uk, Britain’s No. 1 online retailer of erotic merchandise, is betting on that expansion. It won the rights to produce and sell a range of Fifty Shades-branded sex toys everywhere except the Americas. The line of 20 products, including vibrators and bondage kits, was introduced in time for Christmas and endorsed by the book’s author, E.L. James. Prices start at £11.99 ($19.32) for blindfolds, feather ticklers, or “vibrating bullets,” and rise to £54.99 for the “Submit to Me” bondage kit. Lovehoney, which reported sales of £15.9 million in the fiscal year ended in March, estimates the line will generate £10 million in revenue in its first year on the market.
Lovehoney, also the official distributor of Fifty Shades products to other retailers, sold out its first production run within days of the line’s Nov. 12 debut. It’s seen booming sales of products such as $24.99 “Inner Goddess” silver pleasure balls like those the lead character, tycoon Christian Grey, tries on Anastasia Steele, the book’s heroine. “Fifty Shades has had an incredible effect on business,” says Lovehoney co-founder Richard Longhurst. “It’s given couples permission to enter the market” and told them “that buying toys is all right.”
That’s good news for sex toy merchants at the second-busiest time of year for the industry. (Only Valentine’s Day is bigger.) Shares of Beate Uhse (USE:GR), Europe’s only publicly traded adult goods retailer, are up 154 percent this year as a stronger focus on women helped it reach an operating profit in the first nine months of 2012 after two years of losses. “We see that we sell more S&M articles such as little whips and handcuffs,” says Chief Executive Officer Serge Van Der Hooft. “That’s really due to the book.”
The retailer, which doesn’t have a license to use the book’s name for its products, has still displayed together the ones most often used by Grey to dominate Anastasia, including whips, in its shops. The chain is sending actors dressed as Christmas angels onto the streets of German cities to advertise the shops and will open more outlets focused on women and couples next year in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. “If people don’t have the money for a holiday or a television, they search for little things to enjoy life more without too much investment,” Van Der Hooft says. “Our products are very good for that.”
Hewson says growing acceptance of sex goods will also benefit upmarket products such as those made by Sweden’s Lelo, which sells the $159 Tiani 2 couples toy, and Jimmyjane, producers of Little Something precious metal vibrators, including a $3,500 diamond-and-platinum version. Such high-end gadgets represent only about 7 percent of the market by value, Hewson estimates, leaving plenty of room for growth. “If you work in the City and make good money, how would it look if you went into the special part of your cupboard and had something ugly?” says Allison England, a saleswoman at Coco de Mer, a chain of British lingerie and luxe sex toy boutiques that also has a shop in Manhattan. Men who wear bespoke suits and drive expensive cars want to impress in the bedroom, too, she says.
Another trigger for growth in coming months could be the end of the holidays themselves. According to Renee Denyer, a manager at London shop Sh!, which sells a range of Fifty Shades merchandise, sex toy sales usually spike again following Christmas as people look for distractions after prolonged periods spent with their relatives.