Pleasure Purveyors Discuss Challenges, Opportunities Amid a World in Flux

Pleasure Purveyors Discuss Challenges, Opportunities Amid a World in Flux

Between an unrelenting global pandemic and the war in Ukraine, we are seeing a perfect storm that’s causing unprecedented inflation along with an economic crisis that many predict will continue to impact the international market for some time. Yet despite all the challenges, international pleasure brands, retailers and distributors are bringing their strategies and focus to bear on supplying quality adult goods to consumers in countries around the world.

“Our business field hasn’t been hit hard, so far,” said Paolo D. Griffo, key account manager for Danamedic APS. “We are seeing growth in central Europe, the U.K., U.S. and Eastern Europe, despite the complicated situation. We just entered into some new promising markets, such as India, South Africa and the Middle East.”

Retailers are facing increasing costs, but the traffic in stores and online is there and our industry is attracting more and more customers.

According to Lovely Planet’s international sales director, Anne Meunier, despite the effects of inflation, the company’s retail partners report satisfaction with sales this year.

“Retailers are facing increasing costs, but the traffic in stores and online is there and our industry is attracting more and more customers,” she said. “For us, a company that’s very well established in Europe, the strongest growth areas are America and Asia-Pacific regions. And when we are selling directly to the consumer online, our growth is more than 100% compared to last year.”

According to Meunier, Lovely Planet experienced significant growth in the U.S., a market the France-based company only recently entered. Spain-based MyHixel, which manufactures sexual wellness products for men, also reports the U.S. as one of its two main markets, along with Europe.

“The regions where we’ve seen the most growth are Spain, where the company is based; the U.K., where we have also focused our communication efforts; and the U.S. — over the past 12 months, approximately 50% of our B2C sales came from this region and it keeps growing,” MyHixel CEO and founder Patricia López said.

She added that MyHixel has also lately been focusing on the Latin American market, but that this presents some barriers such as lower salaries limiting the market for high-priced products.

Netherlands-based manufacturer and distributor EDC Wholesale also expanded into the U.S. earlier this year, opening a local warehouse to better serve its U.S. customers. Although the company has experienced growth, Senior International Account Manager Davey Ottema noted, the international market remains unpredictable.

“With the changing fuel prices, we are facing longer shipment times because boats from China to Europe are not allowed to drive that fast anymore, which affects our delivery times and financial situation,” he said. “Closer to home we are dealing with protests, which also affects the transport locally. So, many factors to consider in our business strategies. Luckily, we also see positive developments; our business in Europe is very solid. Since the beginning of the year there is interesting growth in the Asia region. There is an ongoing trend to choose western products over local products.”

The Enhanced Male’s Daniel Becker also sees the international market as volatile, with shipping cost increases contributing to the problem.

“It is getting more expensive to ship internationally, which is driving away a large portion of the market,” he said, but added, “Even with the shipping increase, we are seeing exceptional growth from Australia and New Zealand.”

Deborah Semer, CEO and founder of Joyboxx, cited climate change migration, weather-related events and food shortages as factors impacting the international market for pleasure products.

“The rest of the international markets are also affected by these issues, plus their own turmoil,” she said. “Where is there a safe and stable place that we should look for market growth? My first thoughts are Canada and New Zealand and other expat havens. Joyboxx is seeing the most growth in the U.K. and Denmark. Both surpassed Germany as our No. 1 international market. Now that USPS has resumed international first-class shipping ‘after’ the pandemic, we expect to see our regular level of sales in Australia.”

The current global market can be described as being in a state of flux as it weathers the various storms affecting it in different parts of the world, says M.D. Science Lab’s vice president of sales and marketing, Briana Watkins. “On one hand, we have global customers who are stably recovering from the logistic issues present during the pandemic, but on the other hand, due to the current crisis in Ukraine, we’re witnessing others being very cautious with their purchase and growth plans,” she said. “What our world needs is stability. For M.D. Science Lab personally, we’re seeing significant growth with our Canadian partners.”

Pandemic Impact Continues

Shanghai is a city with over 24 million residents, and is a key hub for manufacturing and business. Despite the majority of the world moving on from strict pandemic measures, the Chinese government put the entire city into lockdown in July due to COVID. Though this is just one city, the lockdown sent shockwaves internationally. Not only do businesses across the world have connections to the city, but it is a clear indicator that China’s strict approach to controlling the pandemic could continue to negatively impact international business. With so many pleasure product companies dependent on China for manufacturing, this lockdown is an opportunity to reflect on what the pandemic has taught us about our own industry, and what can be done to move on from it and avoid the same issues in the future. When the pandemic caused the economy to slow down and nearly stop, the U.S. government helped people directly. In addition to many Americans being eligible for over $2,000 in stimulus checks, many benefited from various other programs. Combined with a soaring stock market and other employment shifts, many Americans had disposable income. Since they were stuck at home with their partners, they decided to use some of that money to buy sex toys. However, the growth phase has cooled down and sales are leveling off at a new normal, with people returning to their normal shopping and spending habits.

“The initial growth phase came from the free money the government was handing out,” said The Enhanced Male’s Becker. “Since those funds are no longer being given to the public, things have returned to historical levels.”

After both overall and online sales jumped, both began to normalize once lockdowns started to ease up. Griffo observed that lockdown policies and spending during the early days of the pandemic caused a boom in online sales of sexual wellness products, but that this effect has begun to diminish.

Reflecting on how COVID impacted IMBesharam, the company’s co-founder and COO, Raj Armani, said, “It feels like the pandemic has passed, but its aftereffects are still felt in almost every department. No doubt it brought a positive change as well, which increased the demand and led to a tremendous increase in revenues across the board, but it also came with its own set of challenges.”

China’s COVID lockdowns are intended to prevent the spread of the disease, but have also deeply delayed factory production. Anne Meunier of Lovely Planet noted the difficulty of getting products produced and delivered in a timely manner.

“It takes at least 60 days to manufacture and 90 days to transport from Asia. A restocking by sea freight is therefore five months of delay. A restocking by air costs seven times more than three years ago,” Meunier said. “But we have no other choice but to keep our customers happy and we spend more every day to get our products on the shelves of retailers.”

EDC Wholesale’s Ottema shared that the company's response to China’s lockdowns includes increasing its supplies ahead of time. This way, if there is a disruption, EDC still has plenty of products so that shelves are never bare.

Ukraine Upheaval

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 had an immediate impact on the global economy. The international community responded with economic sanctions against Russia that caused its stock market and currency — the ruble — to drop in value. Because Russia is one of the largest producers and exporters of grains, crude oil, rare minerals and metals, while Ukraine is a huge producer of wheat and a key tech location for many global businesses, the invasion has negatively impacted nearly every industry and is one of the reasons why consumer products have become so expensive in recent months.

However, a war does more than just impact the economy. It destroys lives and buildings. Just like other sectors, the pleasure products industry and the people in it have been impacted by Russia’s actions. The majority of the industry is experiencing secondary impacts of the war, meaning that while they are not in the combat zone or directly tied to the economies of Ukraine and Russia, the conflict is still affecting them. By understanding these impacts, we can gain insight into both the economic and human costs of war.

Since so much of the pleasure products industry relies on ecommerce, many companies had to alter digital strategies. As Patricia López of MyHixel explained, “The news saturation about the war worldwide and the algorithms also affected the global business, which reduced our possibilities to get more visibility in different channels, such as the press. It also affected social media strategies. Given the sensitivity of the matter, we, as many other brands, had to rethink the content we published.”

Beyond public relations concerns, there has also been a ripple effect causing price increases. Lovely Planet’s Meunier addressed how the conflict has impacted the prices of everyday products.

“The goods imported from Ukraine to France are mainly agricultural and food products,” Meunier said. “The scarcity of these products creates inflation for supermarket items and it consumes much of peoples’ budget, allowing less for spending on second necessities, such as products related to intimate pleasure.”

So, while the invasion isn’t directly causing prices of sex toys to increase, when essential items skyrocket in price and disposable income shrinks, pleasure products may not make the cut. As Joyboxx’s Deborah Semer put it, the war “has slowed business for the general population who might otherwise be buying adult products, and diverted our business resources and hearts and souls.”

But make no mistake: in addition to general concerns about inflation, customers for sex toys domestically and abroad have been directly impacted by the war. According to a study by the Kyiv School of Economics, Russia’s invasion has already cost Ukraine over $600 billion. While it is too soon to accurately measure the global impact of this conflict, the World Trade Organization warned in April 2022 that “prospects for the global economy have darkened since the outbreak of the war.” The pleasure products industry is already feeling direct impacts of these shifts.

Lisa Sananes of Gisele International shared how she views this downturn.

“From a business standpoint, it totally froze any activities in the region. Both Ukraine and Russia are strong markets for sexual wellness products, so the war caused an immediate stop of any kind of international business activities,” Sananes explained.

Sananes also noted how consumers in Ukraine and Russia are responding differently. “From our understanding, Russia has sustained its business activity locally but was impacted by the war and the global sanctions imposed on Russian companies in general. No possibility to issue international bank transfers so no possibility to get ahold of international products,” Sananes shared. As for Ukraine, the invasion has forced its people to focus simply on survival.

In addition to financial stresses, many in the industry are also struggling emotionally because they know people suffering due to the war. With so much adult retail business taking place in Eastern Europe, it is no surprise that people have also developed deep personal connections to the region. Not only does IMBesharam have six employees in Ukraine and an office there since 2016, but Raj Armani married a Ukrainian in 2010.

“The first two weeks were quite difficult for us as our family and friends were totally taken aback and couldn’t realize the gravity of the situation as to how quickly things changed. They never expected the war to start. We felt shocked, upset, concerned and at most times helpless as we could not do much,” Armani shared.

Instead of feeling defeated, however, he and his team thought of ways to help.

“In March we decided to do something about it. So, we at Besharam started a GoFundMe page and raised about $15,000. I flew to the Polish-Ukrainian border, at Medyka Crossing and the Przemysl Train Station, with a friend from the U.K. who could speak Russian, and was joined by an ex-teammate from Ukraine who arrived in Poland as a refugee,” Armani recounted.

“In the beginning we doubled as drivers, volunteers, translators, runners, nurses, coordinators, food servers, aid distributors and more. We were fortunate to meet many selfless people from across the world, including Americans, who shared similar purposes as we did. Within a few days, we identified two key issues which needed urgent attention: safe accommodation for women and children, and reliable transportation to and from. So, we pooled our financial resources, expertise and network and made arrangements to bring mothers and children to a safe center in Lesko where they had warm food, cozy beds and a small community of displaced Ukrainian refugees,” Armani explained.

Though the war has not ended, and it will take years for Ukraine to recover from the damage Russia has inflicted, some are beginning to see business return to normal. There is already some evidence that the pleasure products market is rebounding. Reflecting on Gisele International’s business, Sananes explained that “despite everything going on, we recently saw some of our clients start their activity again in Ukraine.”

Gvidas Motiejauskas, general manager of UAB Foneka, a retailer and wholesaler serving Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, echoed this perspective, sharing that UAB’s sales numbers were returning to normal.

Though no one knows when sales will return to prewar numbers, Russia’s invasion has shown how resilient the industry can be to global disruptions.

Global Pleasure Trends

While navigating the changing global marketplace and its challenges, pleasure product purveyors are staying up to date on the evolving needs and tastes of consumers, which can vary based on region. Across the world, trends are evolving and driving the demand for a broad range of products. UAB’s Motiejauskas said that in his region, consumers are in search of trendy items such as supplements, lubricants, air pulse stimulators and vibrators. In order for brands to be internationally successful nowadays, they need to be “affordably priced, and offer good quality,” he said.

Over the past two years, IMBesharam has seen a rise in demand among Indian consumers for pleasure products for vulva owners compared to penis owners.

“Just in Q1 2022, the demand for various groups of products for vulva owners has grown by 80%, leading to an increase in sales by 40% when compared to Q1 in 2021,” Raj Armani said. “The stats for the last 12 months have shown revenues from sales of pleasure products for penis owners at 42%; 53% are for vulva owners.”

Armani noted that Lovense is leading the way, due to an increase in webcam performers out of India who monetize on Lovense gadgets. He added that in terms of revenue from sales, Fleshlight Girls comes in a near second.

“Since we have a direct partnership with Pipedream and Lovehoney, we were able to bring prices down and this led to an immense increase in sales of dildos and masturbators, bringing them in respectively at third and fourth,” he said. “Satisfyer’s wide range of products are a close fifth with the suction technology products being hotcakes all over. Vibrators are still the queen of the category and being that we offer some of the most desirable lines from almost all the popular international brands, it appears we have sold and shipped over 20,000 vibrators already in 2022.”

According to Armani, a successful pleasure products brand must be universal in more ways than simply offering translations in other languages.

“It’s about how they communicate about their products and services, the user experience they deliver both presale and post-sale and lastly, how well they stand for their products and services through the lifetime of it,” he said. “They focus on the materials used, craftsmanship in construction, ease of operation as well as reliability for longer times due to better components and higher quality of finished product. So, when you are happy with your experience with the brand, you will pick that over the competition always and also recommend it to your friends and family. Thus, when its customers become the spokespersons for the brand, the brand tends to be universally successful.”

Motiejauskas and Armani also offered details about today’s demographics of pleasure product consumers in their respective regions.

“The average consumer is between 35 and 50 years old; 70% are male, but lots of them are buying presents for women,” Motiejauskas said.

IMBesharam has been serving the 1.3 billion people who live in India for nine years, but Armani says that the most drastic shift has occurred over the past two-plus years during which the pandemic has plagued the world.

“The phenomenal change in mindset of average Indians in metro and non-metro areas post-COVID, and their perception of pleasure products as being a desirable product and less of a taboo, has resulted in 1,200% increase in web impressions on conversations around sexual pleasure, sex toys and body parts, and has led to more info on social media about sexual health, sexual wellness and sexual pleasure as normal topics to discuss, research, explore and improve on,” Armani said. “The majority of our shoppers are between 25 and 35, and as per Google analytics, 48% are females and 52% are males. Though we sell 62% of our products for vulva owners in terms of quantity and 68% in terms of revenue, the balance is for penis owners.”

Manufacturers specializing in penis-oriented products also say that the category is exploding globally.

“America has opened up this product category, driven by penis vibrators, which we see the international market following now,” said Daniel Becker of The Enhanced Male.

In addition to masturbation aids, popular items for penis owners include items that enhance penis size, and products for increased stimulation and stamina during partnered sex.

“Our product category, penile extension devices for permanent penis growth, is very popular in Eastern, Central and Northern Europe and the U.K.,” Danamedic APS’s Griffo said. “Awareness surrounding our product category is rising also in markets such as Latin America, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and India.”

According to Patricia López, MyHixel’s bestsellers outside of North America are the company’s products for ejaculation control, as well as its MyHixel two-pack of supplements that help reduce anxiety and are made from all natural ingredients.

“Our solutions MyHixel Med and MyHixel TR are popular in Europe, Latin America and Australia mainly, and our supplement is doing really well in the regions where it is available — the U.S., U.K., Spain, France, Italy and Germany,” she said.

M.D. Science Lab’s Briana Watkins also discussed the popularity of consumables such as supplements and lubricants.

“With mainstream wellness becoming increasingly popular, we’ve seen an overall positive impact on all our consumable products across the board,” she said. “Our supplements, which are currently in the process of getting a reimagined design, are becoming more sought-after and our product collections, which are made to be used concurrently, are also increasing in sales month over month.”

The trend towards gender-neutral, nonphallic pleasure products also is growing among consumers outside of the U.S. According to Lovely Planet’s Meunier, in Europe and Asia, products that elicit imagination and “romanticism” are the most popular, with pastel tones being preferred.

EDC Wholesale’s Ottema also sees gender- neutral products becoming more popular.

“Especially for that trend, we created a gender-neutral brand called Hueman, which has become highly popular in the E.U. ever since its introduction in 2021,” he said. “Another outstanding collection in the E.U. at the moment is Rosy Gold, which features different kinds of vibrating products and a luxurious butt plug.”

Gisele International’s Sananes pointed out that the reason North American and European consumers share similar trends is that they are rooted in similar social milieus.

“The timing is often different, but the topics of interest are mostly the same,” she said. “We are all human and are all somehow facing the same type of issues: knowing and understanding your body, accepting your sexuality, embracing who you truly are and what you like, facing the taboos and constructs of society.”

Driving the trends globally, Sananes adds, is social media.

“TikTok has become a real platform for our industry and from it, we see some new product trends emerge — e.g. the rose,” she said. “We often mention a new product to a client somewhere in the world, thinking ‘There is no way they have seen this,’ and we turn out to be totally wrong!”

Global Goals

As a further testament to the tenacity of pleasure product purveyors, manufacturers shared their upcoming plans for expansion around the world.

López said that her company’s global expansion goals include focusing on U.S. growth but also expanding in the European market.

“Besides Spain and the U.K., we are introducing our brand in Germany with a new German PR agency to grow in this market as well,” she said. “Given the many limitations we face to advertise MyHixel in paid media, our goal is to reach more consumers globally by working on our brand positioning strategy in general, focusing on our organic growth, lead nurturing, social media and communities, as well as optimizing our search campaigns. Additionally, we intend to get more visibility for B2B, finding new channels, collaborators and partners to grow our brand.”

The opening of EDC Wholesale’s warehouse in the U.S. will support the company’s goal of expanding its presence in the marketplace.

“Our goal is to further increase our effectiveness and to assure fast delivery and optimal service for our customers, including expanding our customer base,” EDC’s Ottema said. “The same goes for our existing customers from all over the world. Despite all the challenges we are facing, we still want to offer them the service and availability of our collections that they deserve.”

Becker said that The Enhanced Male also is focused on Western markets such as the EU and Australia, and that the company’s plan for growth is both ambitious and strategic.

“Our plan is to focus on international SEO and paid ads that are direct to specific local markets,” he said. “Our goal is to double our international business every year for the next three years.”

Danamedic APS’s Griffo said that in order to expand into new regions like Latin America and China, the company will be “engaging on new influencer marketing campaigns in several regions, and working with local brand ambassadors to help strengthen the brand awareness on our top-quality penile extenders.”

Watkins said that M.D. Science Lab’s strategy is to empower retailers worldwide with training and support.

“We’ve found that retailers everywhere are experiencing staff turnover at higher rates and have had difficulties with ongoing product training,” she said. “In response to this, we created an international hub on our B2B website where retailers can access product training videos in multiple languages: Spanish, French, Dutch, Italian, German and Russian. We’ve also created an online Swiss Navy Certified Expert certification program to support retail trainings and are hoping to expand on that as well.”

Additionally, M.D. Science Lab is now in its second year of partnership with Shots, which Watkins credits for the company’s success in European territories.

“We’re grateful for being able to have strong partners throughout the world,” she said.

Because shipping is so crucial to global expansion, Joyboxx’s Semer said, her company’s strategy has been to manufacture locally “wherever that is, to reduce costs for customers.”

“Another strategy is to focus on international markets where the currency is higher than the U.S. dollar and they seem relatively stable to the impact of Russia's war and climate change — and have a healthy appetite for sex, health, joy and love, such as Israel, Argentina, Uruguay, Panama, Australia, Ireland, Iceland, Denmark, Italy, Japan and possibly Mexico,” she explained. “Working through Amazon and others could be the best or worst route to some of those markets.”

Manufacturers, distributors and retailers with international aspirations have their work cut out for them as they find new ways to cope with the unprecedented effects of the pandemic and the Ukraine war. Nevertheless, the global trend that’s steering pleasure products into mainstream is also supporting the industry’s growth worldwide and inspiring entrepreneurs to dream beyond borders.

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