The Mainstreaming of Pleasure Products: Boom or Doom?

The Mainstreaming of Pleasure Products: Boom or Doom?

Not all that long ago, the idea that you might pick up a sex toy at the same drugstore or big box store where you do the rest of your shopping seemed unlikely at best. But today, with attitudes toward sexual wellness shifting, our category has hit the mainstream.

Durex started the trend back in 2008, when its Little Gem vibrator began showing up in pharmacies across the country. The Little Gem may be long gone, but the trend it sparked seems here to stay. CVS has been crushing sales of the plusOne Vibrating Bullet and Sephora is now featuring multiple options for vibrators, lubes and libido supplements from pleasure brand Smile Makers.

Stores like yours can offer the human touch, superior inventory assortment, reliable intimate guidance and the genuine, authentic care that big retailers are throwing to the curb.

Among folks in the adult industry, there are two schools of thought regarding these developments:

1) “Cool, the more mainstream this category gets, the better for business!” This camp looks on the bright side, seeing the move toward mainstream as supporting sex-positive conversations and more sales conversions for all. “Remove the stigma and get it on the list,” they say. After all, even if our customers do pick up that “little something” with their milk and garbage bags, they’ll still come to us pros for the big buys.

2) “Oh, hell… it’s the beginning of the end.” This faction sees doomsday scenarios, liberally peppered with some Amazon PTSD. The prevailing sentiment on this side? “These companies eat small businesses for lunch, and now they’re coming for us.”

If that’s your worry, take a breath. Your customers may now see a Walmart ad pop up when they search for sex play, but even when the gorilla brands put our category on their shelves, specialty adult retailers still retain several clear and distinct advantages.

For a start, the biggest friction point their customers experience is where our industry most excels: customer service. That’s right, their sucky service is our main advantage.

According to the National Customer Rage Survey, billions of dollars in potential revenue continue to be lost due to customer dissatisfaction. We refer to this as “the Caring Crisis” because when company leaders truly care about their customers and employees, it’s obvious. Conversely, when they don’t, it’s cancerous.

Just take a look at the CSAT (Customer Satisfaction) scores for many well-known companies and you’ll see this correlation in action. At the top of the list, we tend to see Amazon, Costco, Nordstrom, Apple, Trader Joe’s and Zappos. The bottom feeders? Walmart, Comcast, AT&T, Home Depot, Lowe’s and, interestingly, Amazon again. Now, think about your own experiences with these brands. Yep, my point is made.

Here are the other biggies:

Privacy: Most people aren’t looking for an impulse sex toy purchase to become the key factor determining their future recommendation feeds, but that is exactly what will happen once that SKU hits their unique customer ID. When big retailers don’t respect privacy, customers who feel strongly about theirs will stick with retailers who do.

Discretion: Mainstreaming may indicate that stigma is waning, but that stuff is pretty deeply ingrained in a lot of folks. Which means plenty of people still feel uncomfortable picking up sexual wellness products from big public stores. They’d just rather not bump into their neighbor or co-worker while putting lube or a vibrator in their basket.

Inventory: Big national stores miss the mark when it comes to stocking a wide range of sexy goodies and toys. People with “particular” tastes will always opt for cool specialized shops with selections that accommodate their one-of-a-kind preferences.

Expertise: There’s a reason we fit within the “specialty” retail category. It’s a special kind of sale! Big brands can’t even successfully train their staff to sell commonplace items, so good luck getting solid guidance and expertise from them for intimate products like ours.

Trust: Customers know that large retailers rarely get out in front of safety and quality concerns about the products they sell. It seems like every week, we see huge national recalls. It’s one thing when it’s your ice cream, but your sex products? Big no.

Human-Centered: According to Forrester, 78% of shoppers literally dread self-checkout — but just try finding a human cashier at a national retailer these days. Behind this frustrating situation lurks a store ops team hell-bent on cutting labor costs to boost profitability. This is short-sighted at best, and shopper sentiment is only getting worse.

“But Sean,” you say. “I thought this was a monthly technology column. What does any of this have to do with tech?”

Everything. Here’s why:

As large national outlets try to steal share from sexual wellness retailers, their shortcomings as detailed above will ultimately become their Achilles’ heel. Meanwhile, stores like yours can offer the human touch, superior inventory assortment, reliable intimate guidance and the genuine, authentic care that big retailers are throwing to the curb. However, keeping your competitive edge intact does require more than intention — you also need the right tech tools to help you maintain the advantages that set you apart. For instance:

360-degree view of your customers: Do you have a CRM? Do you have a loyalty program? What do your customers buy online? How about in-store? When do they buy, and how often? Do you know high traffic and conversion times to optimize your labor staffing? Whom do they buy for? What product lines do they like?

On-demand data in your associates’ hands: Your platforms should be able to present all this data to your staff in real time, so they can assist shoppers with a personalized journey based on their customer profile while walking them through the store.

360-degree view of your inventory: What is moving, and what is not? What is not only moving but moving very quickly? How do you buy?

All of the above — superior training, multidimensional customer profiles, advanced inventory management and killer clienteling — are fueled by an advanced store IT platform that makes data about the product, the person and the purchase history available whenever you need it. This becomes the foundation for the knowledge, customization and intimacy customers buying our products crave and respond to.

To sum up: While Big Box may be looking at our category as their next Big Bang, don’t panic. The customer experience craze that hit almost a decade ago is still the right way to go, but the gorillas are going in the opposite direction faster than we can track. They are never going to offer the information, education, breadth of product and care that you can. Let their pivot prove your competitive advantage.

Sean Quinn is the CEO of All Point Retail, a retail technology company that offers managed retail commerce to retail businesses. He is a true veteran, both literally and figuratively. Bolstered by years of military experience in a variety of positions and commands, his strategic intelligence background laid the foundation for his passion for business intelligence through technology — especially in the retail arena.


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