Well, the data bears out what we expected. Sex toys are selling.
Adam and Eve, a company with franchised locations across North America and an online store, reported a 30 percent increase in online sales in March and April based on the same time period last year.
Other big companies that do most of their sales online also saw an uptick. Wow Tech Group, which owns We-Vibe and Womanizer, reported that online sales for both brands were more than 200 percent higher this April compared to last year.
And as Vice reported in April, online sales for products through Cotr Inc., the company behind B-Vibe, Le Wand and the Cowgirl, were roughly three times higher this March than they were last year. Alicia Sinclair, the chief executive, said that the numbers have continued to climb, with April’s sales surpassing March’s by 80 percent.
Some of this can be chalked up to lockdown boredom. (Also, during the height of stay-at-home orders, Amazon seems to have continued to ship sex toys, despite their nonessential status.)
But while big, corporate sex toy retailers seem to have thrived, the same cannot necessarily be said for brick-and-mortar sex shops. As consumers rush to buy sex toys from websites, businesses that usually rely on foot traffic and interpersonal connections with customers are suffering.
Sid Azmi, 37, the owner of Please, a store in Brooklyn that has been open for roughly 6 years, explained that despite having an accompanying online shop, she cannot compete with bigger online retailers.
Azmi said that small businesses often charge more for sex toys: They do not get bulk-buying discounts from distributors, and they cannot afford to have huge sales on their products. Customers are usually willing to pay more, she said, because of the friendly service and education stores like Please can offer.
“The reason why people come to us rather than buying from Amazon or bigger sex shops like Adam and Eve is because we offer in-house education, conversations, our time and our recommendations,” she said. “It’s that one-on-one personable service that we can’t promote through online sales.”
Shag, a store that features a collection of body-safe sex toys that has been in the Brooklyn borough of New York since 2009, is also feeling financial strain. Samantha Bard, 45, one of the store’s owners, said that while online sales have risen slightly in the last two months, the store is selling far less than it would if the brick-and-mortar shop in Williamsburg was still open.
As a result, the owners have tried different tactics to succeed online: They have started selling locally made face masks; they have revamped their online store and added more products to it; they have even integrated with Amazon, so potential customers can find the store’s products there.
“We’re hoping that that will generate some people to come back after they’ve made their first Amazon purchase, maybe they’ll come back to our own web store and purchase through us,” Bard said.
In addition to single-location sex shops, established chains in New York are also hurting. Lisa Finn, a representative from Babeland — a chain with three of its four locations in New York City — said that, though online sales are higher, it is not enough to make up for how much the stores usually sell in person.
Glen Buzzetti, the CEO of Romantic Depot New York, said that since shifting to online-only, and offering same-day delivery, sales from the website have surged: Online sales in March and April were roughly 12 times higher than they were this time last year.
Yet it does not compare to how much the business, known for its massive, depot-style locations, usually sells from its physical stores.
“It’s not enough to make a difference where it’s going to be able to pay our rent,” he said. “That’s the reality: Our bills are higher than what is coming in.”
Sex shops in other cities, further along than New York in easing restrictions, are still struggling to adapt to new, mostly online business models.
Darling Way, in Houston, was able to open its doors to the public again on May 1. But Beth Liebling, 54, the owner and founder, said that the store is quieter now than it ever has been in its four-year history. The store’s sales in May were 70 percent lower than what Liebling had projected in January.
“People aren’t out and about very much,” she said. “They just aren’t in a big spending mood.”
Serene Martinez, the owner of Pink Bunny in San Francisco, said that it had been a generally positive experience. Though Pink Bunny has not been able to open its doors to the public yet because of California’s restrictions on retail stores, Martinez has been able to connect with customers through one-on-one Zoom calls where she acts as a personal shopper, as well as through the store’s YouTube channel.
June Pilote, a sex educator, said that part of the reason boutique and smaller sex shops are struggling right now is because their prices are higher.
“Sex toys are something that can really help you explore your gender and your sexuality, but they’re also expensive,” he said.
He said that to avoid spending money on a product that is not right (it is usually not possible to return a used sex toy), people should take the time to research the toys they are buying.
Local shops may also be able to provide more education and community. Luna Matatas, a sex and pleasure educator in Toronto, said sex toys made from materials like jelly can be toxic.
She said safe materials include medical-grade silicone, stainless steel and glass.
Liebling emphasized that, though sales may be high for big online retailers, the next few months will be uncertain for business owners like herself.
“I don’t think I’m the only one that’s just looking around and going, ‘Can we do this? Can we actually survive, financially?’ ”
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