trends

A Look at the Trends Shaping the European Pleasure Market

A Look at the Trends Shaping the European Pleasure Market

In today’s growing, global landscape of pleasure products, Europe stands as a vibrant and diverse market that’s constantly adapting to changing regulations while catering to ever-evolving consumer demand. Known for their discerning tastes and progressive attitudes, European consumers are driving the industry toward new heights of creativity and inclusivity. From eco-conscious designs to smart technology integration, multifaceted trends are shaping the European pleasure product market — and in turn, the market in the U.S. and around the world.

Lisa Sananes, CEO and co-founder of Gisele International, explains the impact that Europe’s increasing focus on sustainability, eco-consciousness and ethical sourcing is having on the adult market.

Brands that prioritize ethical sourcing and transparent supply chains are resonating with this eco-conscious demographic

“Consumers are becoming increasingly conscientious about the environmental impact of their purchases,” she says. “This has led to a surge in demand for pleasure products made from sustainable materials and produced using eco-friendly manufacturing processes, or even locally.”

This is in line with new regulations and laws that have gone into effect in Europe, especially in EU member countries. Consumers in Europe want to know where their products come from and how they get to local markets, and they want to know that those products are in line with their principles. That affects not just what product they are going to purchase, says Sananes, but also which companies they are willing to support.

“Brands that prioritize ethical sourcing and transparent supply chains are resonating with this eco-conscious demographic,” she notes.

Will Ranscombe, CEO and co-founder of Love Not War, concurs, adding that even beyond quality, expertise and environmental consciousness, consumers are looking for broader social responsibility. Companies seeking success in the European market, he says, must therefore look at the bigger picture.

“Customers are better informed than ever before,” Ranscombe explains. “Knowledge is power, so customers are beginning to enjoy the same level of influence in the pleasure industry as they do in other industries — and their preferences have evolved beyond their immediate personal pleasure to encompass the larger imprint their pleasure has on those around them, and on the planet. Their relationship with pleasure products has become part of their identity, and their preference is now for brands that represent their values.”

Prominent among those values are sexual diversity and gender inclusivity. Though there is yet a long way to go, society is slowly starting to accept that gender is a construct and sexuality a spectrum. Liliana Brenninkmeijer, brand ambassador for CalExotics Europe, advises companies to be open-minded and remember that there is no single, monolithic consumer demographic.

“Inclusivity remains paramount,” she says, “with products catering to varied genders, orientations and ages.”

She is not the only person in the sector who thinks so. Sananes also cites the need to offer more diverse products.

“Consumers are seeking products that are inclusive in terms of design and marketing, ensuring that all individuals, regardless of gender, orientation or background, can find products that cater to their desires and needs,” she says.

Those same European consumers are also looking for products that match their needs when it comes to sexual health and wellness.

According to Ian Kulp, global director of marketing and sales for Bswish, consumers recognize that pleasure products contribute to general well-being. They also research pleasure products just as much as they do any other purchase, especially since these products are being used in and on their bodies.

“Consumers are increasingly informed,” he says. “They favor companies that provide educational resources and emphasize product safety.”

The industry’s ongoing focus on product safety has been just one aspect of an overall arc toward higher quality, as consumers look beyond bargain prices.

Daniel Miller, company director of online retailer The Kinksters, Eva Amour online and physical stores and distributor Playharda, has observed this change over time.

“I think consumers are moving away from cheaper toys and single-use, impulse-buy products and looking for something that is built to last and that will provide them hours of pleasure, rather than just minutes,” he says. “There has been a shift over the last few years of consumers hunting out toys that are luxurious and indulgent, whether it be through packaging, the product itself or both. Sure, there will always be a budget market, but shoppers are getting smarter and realizing that they’ll probably get more bang for their buck in the long term by investing in a mid-to-high-end toy.”

These more selective European consumers look for innovation in design, function and materials. According to Paolo D. Griffo, key account manager for Danamedic ApS, consumers are leaning toward high-tech products that offer a wide range of functionality.

“The European customer requires their new sex toys to be remote-controlled via a dedicated app, with customized/smart vibration patterns that react to voice/music, genderless and genderfluid body-adaptive design, and made with high-quality, medical-grade materials,” he explains.

App-controlled products have been very popular for several years, but got an extra boost during the pandemic, notes Vanessa Rose, account manager and certified clinical sexuality coach at Svakom.

“Restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus forced people to stay at home, so rather than dating or meeting new sexual partners, many singles turned to sex toys for the first time,” she says, adding that while couples isolating together started experimenting with couple-friendly toys, others found themselves separated. “Some couples had to start treating their relationship as long-distance, and developed a preference for app-controlled toys that allowed them to interact virtually while satisfying their sexual needs.”

Even after the pandemic, the demand for app-controlled products has continued.

Finally, while ecommerce offers both discretion and a wider variety of products, as floor space isn’t an issue, many consumers feel perfectly comfortable shopping in-store.

“The younger generation proudly visits brick-and-mortar stores, and wants a boutique experience with professional sales staff that can answer all their questions,” says Hans Hultman, sales manager for Svakom Europe.

Demographic Dynamics

In Europe as elsewhere, demographic changes are driving trends like increased gender inclusivity, age diversity and a focus on couples and partner play.

“Brands are adapting to cater to this diverse and evolving consumer base with a wider range of products that meet their specific needs and preferences,” says Sananes.

Brenninkmeijer emphasizes the expanding influence of digital-native audiences who appreciate innovation, inclusivity and education related to sexual wellness.

“Further diversifying the landscape, there’s a pronounced inclusivity trend catering to various sexual orientations and genders, with products designed specifically for the LGBTQ+ community,” she says. “Alongside that, there’s a growing demand for educational content, ensuring safe and informed use, and men are becoming more proactive consumers. These shifts underline a market growing in inclusivity, education and variety, prompting brands to adapt offerings to suit these multifaceted needs.”

Kulp has seen this shift diversifying both products and marketing strategies in the evolving European market.

“Companies are embracing inclusive marketing strategies to resonate with a broader audience, shedding traditional stereotypes to foster a more inclusive and welcoming environment,” he says. “Secondly, there’s a concerted effort toward tailoring offerings to a wider spectrum of preferences and needs. This approach ensures greater inclusivity and accessibility for all consumers.”

Anne Meunier, B2B international sales director at Lovely Planet, highlights as examples of these changes the increasing popularity of male sex toys and the importance of user-friendly designs, particularly when products are being sold online.

Hultman also notes the significant increase in men purchasing products, not only for themselves but also for their partners. Additionally, he cites the impact of cam models incorporating pleasure products into their shows, adding potential new customers.

“We see more cam models using our products to interact with their followers,” he says. “I expect this consumer base to keep growing for us in the coming years.”

While customer demographic shifts are leaving their mark on the industry, Ranscombe also points out the significance of psychographic differences.

“Differences between European and U.S. pleasure customers reflect the different cultures,” he says. “Europeans are just a bit more… relaxed about issues of sex. A bit more patient, and a bit more willing to engage with a product or a brand on their own terms.

Eco Erotics

European countries are often considered among the most environmentally friendly in the world. In recent years, sustainability has emerged as a prominent and influential factor in the European pleasure products market as well.

“To resonate with consumers, brands need to not only offer durable and sleek designs and competitive pricing, but demonstrate a genuine commitment to sustainability,” says Sananes. “Buyers increasingly seek products that align with their eco-conscious values while providing value for their money.”

Brenninkmeijer further underscores the growing significance of sustainability in the industry.

“In product creation, there’s a push for eco-friendly materials, reduced packaging and energy-efficient production methods,” she says. “Brands are transitioning to ensuring products have a minimal environmental footprint. However, this process is extensive and takes several years. In short, sustainability is not just a buzzword, but is reshaping the core of the pleasure products industry in Europe.”

Christoph Hofmann, founder and CEO of Mystim, attests to the extensive efforts being made to reduce environmental impact. Eliminating plastic packaging and developing sustainable products with longer life cycles are among the strategies his company employs. Moreover, manufacturing in-house allows the brand to take additional steps toward sustainability.

“We can help customers with repairs, rather than creating a huge amount of waste when there might be only a small defect,” he says.

Many manufacturers are also transitioning to using recyclable materials for their devices. However, many eco-conscious brands emphasize the need for these efforts to be amplified in the coming years if they are to have a significant effect.

“As a younger crowd of Gen Zs ages up, and the generation behind them picks up the advocacy torch, sustainability will only become more important in the future,” Ranscombe predicts. “Every day that bigger brands drag their feet over it, they lose ground to smaller, more reactive brands like ours.”

Meunier echoes the sentiment, citing rechargeable toys and the use of silicone as a flexible, body-safe material as important steps, along with the selection of biodegradable or recycled materials for packaging.

The latter is something the Kinksters and Eva Amour online stores proudly tout, Miller notes.

“We ship products out in pre-loved boxes and packaging materials, and we ask our customers to then try to reuse or recycle the box after they receive their order,” Miller says. “After speaking with a number of our customers directly, they are thrilled about it and can’t understand why more retailers don’t jump on board with this idea.”

Miller notes, however, that important as sustainability may be, price still remains a significant factor in purchasing decisions. He says that shoppers often experience a battle of ethics trying to choose between less expensive items and pricier Earth-friendly products.

Rose notes that Svakom has not only switched to recycled packaging, but has partnered with charitable initiatives to contribute to a sustainable future.

“Our partnership with Trees for the Future, a nonprofit which restores landscapes in developing communities, has seen more than 86,300 trees planted in Africa since last year,” Rose notes.

As consumers increasingly seek products aligned with their eco-conscious values, the role of sustainability will likely continue to grow.

Leveraging Technology

As consumer preferences evolve, so do the methods of engaging with those consumers. Today’s European pleasure brands are harnessing digital technologies to connect with potential customers, provide valuable information and enhance overall experiences.

Consumers today are not just interested in the products themselves; they crave information and a closer look at the latest developments. This desire for insight has made social media an indispensable element of customer communication.

“You can convey information targeted to the customers in multiple formats on different platforms, such as Instagram or TikTok, thereby directly communicating both desired and necessary background knowledge about the products to customers and reacting to feedback or requests,” says Alexander Giebel, founder and CEO of pjur.

SCALA, a prominent distributor based in the Netherlands, understands the significance of embracing digital technologies to connect with European customers. Brenninkmeijer reveals that SCALA is actively enhancing its B2B website to improve speed and search functionality, with an update planned for Q4. Furthermore, the company has a robust presence on social media, which facilitates direct interactions with clients. Collaborations with influencers and bloggers amplify SCALA’s online reach, while email marketing provides a way to share personalized promotions and news. Behind the scenes, data analytics refine the company’s approach based on market insights. SCALA also provides innovative touch points such as virtual showroom tours and augmented experiences using QR codes in its B2B magazine, enriching the experiences of its European clientele.

Technology can be especially crucial when marketing niche items. Griffo highlights the power of tools like Google Ads campaigns, SEO, YouTube product training videos, and collaborations with affiliates, influencers in sexual wellness and brand ambassadors on social media.

“Educational content is key within our line of business, since explaining how our medical devices for permanent penis growth work, and how/why consumers should use them, is of capital importance,” he shares.

Miller also emphasizes the importance of social media. While the choice of what specific social media channels to use can be debated, he underscores that social media allows businesses to reach customers directly and convey product information, offers and news in a familiar and engaging manner.

“Social media is king,” he says. “It’s important to not only use social media, but to follow and understand the trends going on within the digital world. It’s honestly a full-time job!”

While social media is crucial for reaching end consumers, when it comes to B2B, Hofmann stresses the importance of digital communication.

“We have been using digital technologies for years,” he says. “Especially since COVID, we have focused even more on digital communication like video calls and online trainings. As our products are established almost everywhere, we luckily were forced to install these communication systems pretty much from the start.”

The digital age has ushered in new opportunities for businesses in the pleasure products industry to connect with their customers, share information and enhance experiences. Whether through social media engagement, website enhancements, educational content or data analytics, today’s brands are relying on technology to bridge the gap between their products and their valued consumers.

Regulating Pleasure

For pleasure product companies, doing business in the European market these days requires navigating an almost labyrinthine system of rules and regulations, especially in the European Union. To make things even more complicated, regulations are not standardized across EU member countries — or as Sananes puts it, “A product that is compliant in one country might not meet the requirements in another.”

As a result, companies have to research compliance regulations within each target market, and then be prepared to invest the resources necessary to meet those requirements. For example, any electronic product marketed in Europe is required to carry the CE mark, indicating that it meets EU standards for safety, health and environmental protection.

In some cases, regulations have not yet been made applicable to pleasure products; the universal charger requirement is one such example. While the mandate encompasses portable electronic devices such as cell phones and tablets, pleasure products have yet to be included within its scope. More likely than not, that oversight will be corrected and companies will have to comply.

According to Sananes, it might be worthwhile for businesses to proactively adopt changes before legislation makes it mandatory, especially regarding eco-conscious practices like using rechargeable batteries, reducing packaging waste and seeking sustainable solutions. Svakom has already taken steps to get ahead of future regulations, aiming for early compliance and seizing potential advantage with consumers.

Hultman takes a similar “Get with the program” approach.

“The EU is implementing many changes in Europe in the coming years,” he notes. “Making products easier to repair, being able to change batteries, standardizing charging cables and new rules when it comes to recycling. As a brand, you will have to act locally to sell in Europe or implement the changes to your range of products globally, just as we saw Apple do on the iPhone now having USB-C. This will also benefit the brands that are serious.”

Some progressive companies are adopting practices used in mainstream market sectors, especially regarding packaging, even in cases where regulations have yet to be applied to pleasure products. According to Hofmann, many companies actually use the standards applicable to children’s toys.

“We, like many other responsible companies, stick to these standards and focus on using high-quality materials, as well as complete documentation for all our products,” he says.

Yet the lack of standardization between one country and the next makes adhering to regulations that much more difficult, particularly regulations governing labeling on product packaging.

“It would be desirable to have a European standard, but unfortunately many countries have their own recycling systems and require their own logos, etc. on the packaging,” Hofmann says. “Having different regulations, like the ones applicable to recycling, sometimes makes it difficult to comply.”

The latest regulatory challenge companies face in Europe? The impending Medical Device Regulation, or MDR. Beginning May 2024, now less than a year away, certain products, including lubricant, are slated to be classified as medical devices, and will therefore be subject to stringent regulation.

Such classification is not unheard of. In the U. S., 510(k) certification from the FDA has become the norm. Companies unable or unwilling to conform to the new MDR requirements will not be allowed to sell their products in Europe, which according to Sananes will add a new layer of complexity to already complicated regulatory practices.

“This classification introduces new compliance requirements, testing procedures and quality standards,” she explains. “It will require significant investments in research, development and compliance efforts.”

Fortunately, the October 2021 introduction of ISO 3533 — the International Organization for Standardization’s design and safety requirements for the pleasure products industry — has helped to prepare companies for Europe’s regulatory landscape, even though adhering to the standards is not mandatory. Many businesses saw this as a positive step. So did Ranscombe.

“Not because the standard was particularly rigorous, or even very good, but because it proved that our industry is now mature enough to warrant serious consideration and oversight,” he states.

Besides bringing legitimacy to the industry, the introduction of safety and design standards in adult products will help weed out the bad seeds — companies that care more about the bottom line than ensuring that their products are safe to use.

“Once you’ve been through the various regulatory processes a couple of times, you have a good understanding of what will and won’t pass from the beginning of the design stage,” Ranscombe says. “If you’re a responsible brand to begin with, then the regulations are there to help you, not hinder you. The regulations exist to hinder the more reckless fly-by-nights who pop up every now and then like whack-a-mole.”

Brenninkmeijer sums it up succinctly: “While navigating these regulations can be intricate, they’re fostering consumer trust and elevating the industry’s standing.”

Ecommerce, Brick-and-Mortar Challenges and Opportunities

For adult businesses across Europe, online and physical stores each present unique challenges and opportunities. As Sananes aptly points out, finding the right balance is key.

“Businesses often benefit from a combination of both approaches to maximize market presence, gain in flexibility and meet diverse consumer preferences,” she says.

Brenninkmeijer echoes the sentiment, noting, “Ecommerce boasts of expansive reach and agility, but brick-and-mortar provides the charm of a tangible experience. In the European context, the best approach would leverage the advantages of both platforms, aiming for comprehensive customer engagement.”

Ecommerce undoubtedly provides a wider reach and data-driven insights into customer behavior.

“It offers consumers unmatched convenience and discretion,” Kulp says. “Businesses can tap into a global audience, expanding their reach beyond geographical boundaries.”

In a highly competitive and saturated market, however, success in ecommerce is far from automatic. Navigating regional regulations, particularly in cross-border ecommerce, can pose complexities for ecommerce sites. Safeguarding customer data privacy and security is another prominent concern. Perhaps most importantly, businesses must find unique ways to differentiate themselves and offer something compelling to consumers.

“That’s a challenge and an opportunity,” Ranscombe says. “The tectonic shifts in buying behavior over the last 15 years have repeatedly moved the goal posts, requiring a complete site overhaul every five years at the very least, and generally much more regularly than that. While digital-first brands don’t have the overheads of brick-and-mortar retail, it’s not cheap to repeatedly rebuild your whole website.”

Brick-and-mortar retail, on the other hand, grapples with the challenge of providing a distinct in-person experience and a product selection that sets it apart from online competitors.

In the face of the rising popularity of online shopping, the strength of brick-and-mortar retail lies in direct customer interaction. Physical stores can foster loyalty and enable immediate feedback, helping businesses cater to customer preferences.

“Many of our successful brick-and-mortar retailers don’t only offer customers great advice, they also have beautiful boutique-style shops where customers have a completely different shopping experience,” Hofmann says.

Meunier emphasizes the need for more physical stores to create welcoming, educational and community-driven shopping experiences.

“Most customers prefer to buy on the internet as it is more discreet, and also a place to find product reviews, read blogs and compare products without asking anyone anything,” she says. “Brick-and-mortar retail should make the difference by offering a space where people can come to access resources like books, magazines and workshops that support learning and exploration.”

Having tracked the accelerated growth of ecommerce channels during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rose sees both online and brick-and-mortars stores facing challenges and opportunities in the European market.

“As ecommerce sales continue to grow for online and hybrid retailers, so too does pressure on supply chains and logistics networks,” she explains. “For example, warehouses and fulfillment centers need to cope with higher order volumes and a demand for faster deliveries, creating opportunities for automation and more staff. More orders also bring more customer data. Securely managing this end-to-end will present challenges without investment in software, cybersecurity systems and frequent staff training.

“Some traditional retailers in Europe will struggle to compete with ecommerce platforms offering lower prices and fast delivery to an ever-growing customer base, but their online competitors should not overlook the long-standing strengths of this sector. Across the market, the ability to offer high-quality products in personalized shopping experiences where customers feel valued and rewarded for their loyalty will present growth opportunities for retailers in Europe who can rise to the challenge.”

Forecasting Growth, Challenges

What factors and trends will shape the European pleasure products market in the coming years, and what will be the result?

“Despite market saturation, the European pleasure products market will continue to experience growth,” Sananes predicts. “This growth is driven by an increasing interest in intimate well-being and sexual pleasure. Some territories in Europe are focusing more on sexual health education, which is expected to boost demand for pleasure products. Informed consumers are increasingly seeking products that promote intimate well-being.”

Brenninkmeijer is also optimistic, but emphasizes that economic volatility, changing regulations and a growing focus on sustainability could pose unforeseen challenges.

“It’s crucial for us to balance our ambitions with a healthy dose of caution, staying adaptable and prepared for any shifts in the landscape,” she advises.

Ranscombe highlights one such scenario: potential future disruption caused by increasing geopolitical tension with China. The industry’s dependence on Chinese manufacturing could lead to uncertainties in the supply chain.

“Until the ability to produce quality goods at low cost is brought ‘in-house’ to Europe, we’re all going to have slightly jangly nerves,” he says. “Frankly, if major manufacturing is created in Europe, sex toys will likely be pretty low on the list of priorities, after electric car production, silicone chips and so on.”

The main growth area Ranscombe sees is therefore one associated with values.

“Investing in advocacy,” he says. “In other words, sustainability is sustainable.”

Miller anticipates further growth in sextech, and believes that remaining battery-powered toys will be phased out in favor of rechargeable options.

“Some still do use old-school disposable batteries, and while it’s a cheaper alternative to a rechargeable toy, it’s not as environmentally friendly,” he says. “And it inconveniences the customer when the batteries are flat — talk about a mood killer! Rechargeable all the way.”

Rose predicts that ecommerce will continue to be the shopping method of choice in the European market, particularly shopping directly from social media platforms.

“Social commerce sales for retail in general are expected to reach 33% in Europe by 2025, so now is a critical time for the pleasure products market to capitalize on this growth area,” she says. “However, it faces a potential disruption unlike most other retail categories: censorship. Overcoming strict advertising rules to take advantage of social commerce will require the European pleasure products market to get creative or get campaigning in the coming years.”

In summary, while the European pleasure products market faces potential disruptions, including economic challenges and geopolitical tensions, it continues to grow steadily. Key growth areas include education-driven demand, ecommerce, and a focus on sustainability. Adapting to changing consumer preferences and navigating regulatory complexities will be essential for businesses in this evolving market.

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