The Place: Well, it’s basically an online business but there is a shop in London, WC2 under the Coco de Mer brand, which Lovehoney recently bought.
The Story: Neal Slateford and Richard Longhurst (yes, the most successful online sex toy retailer in the UK is run by men) were colleagues at Future Publishing. There they were down in the West Country watching this whole dotcom malarkey unfolding and Richard was at Dot.Net magazine while Neal was on the business development side of things. E-commerce they thought one day. Hmm, we wonder.
So they upped and left? Indeed they did. In 2000, with the very definite idea that e-commerce was the way forward. It’s going to be big, it’s going to be marvellous, but the only trouble was…
They didn’t know quite what to sell? Goodness, it’s like you were there. Longhurst ran a shopping directory with the usual home and garden categories and one bright day he added an adult shop. And as part of that process he had to research the category obviously. What he found provided him with several ‘lightbulb moments’.
Enlighten me too please: The customer service was appalling and the goods were universally presented from either a pornographic viewpoint or at the very least a very masculine one. It felt like a threatening, non-secure retail environment. Then came Sex in the City and it began to be obvious that women wanted to buy these products too. Kerching! The second lightbulb was that these sites sometimes paid 25% on referred sales. That can only mean one thing – sky high margins. So after a visit to the Erotica show in 2001 the decision was made - sex toys it is.
And why ever not. How has the category changed since then? It’s changed enormously. Helped in no small part by one E L James. Every other person in Britain has read 50 Shades of Grey and they all know what kegel exercise balls are. And they want some.
I’m not sure I know… It’s a girl thing: The point is that sex toys have gone mainstream and magazines now write about them. Lovehoney hand-holds, provides reassurance, and guides nervous customers into this new category in a way that didn’t exist before. The message is you’ll be happier and healthier with a good fun sex life. Longhurst is not joking when he says they position it alongside getting your Five A Day.
That sounds energetic. Steady. Five A Day is fruit and veg: But Lovehoney has managed to move away from the ‘seamier’ side of this sphere and the ladies don’t have to stare at massive cleavage shots online all the time as with some competitors. It’s been an evolution rather than a revolution but Lovehoney has survived as the fittest. And the enormous amount of positive customer feedback they get is testament to their game-changing part in that.
And who is their competition? Well, it’s still good old Ann Summers in large part. The difference being that the madame of the sector has 150 shops whereas Lovehoney’s focus and innovation is almost all online so there isn’t too much head-to-head. However, this could be all about to change if the format for Coco de Mer works out.
Ah. Bricks and mortar: Yes, the high street beckons. Anita Roddick’s daughter Sam set up Coco de Mer and Lovehoney has bought it. Neither founder has ever run an actual shop before so they want to get this formula very right first and then unleash it onto high streets everywhere. The fulfilment and online side has been brought in-house and new managers appointed. Currently a new autumn/winter 2013 lingerie range is being designed.
Wait. There are seasons for lingerie! You know nothing. This shop will sell you everything from erotic wallpaper to rather elegant salt and pepper shakers shaped like …
Stop. I need to take a breath. How much more excitement is there? Well Longhurst is very animated about his party business - another newish string to the bow. Called Blue Bella it offers rather more stylish house parties than the ones you are imagining showcasing lingerie or toys. Ladies-only needless to say. And then of course we have the holy grail of erotica – getting into the big retailers.
Is that feasible? There are certainly difficulties. There are things you just cannot put on a shelf without offending people. But as Mr L says, other retailers shy away and yet are strangely fascinated. They know there is a tremendous appetite for it but stores have to be designed to ‘make it comfortable’ for shoppers. Think about it – where are the only products in this category currently sold?
Umm, I’ll tell you: Condoms (and lubricants if you are lucky) are sexily placed in the pharmaceutical aisle somewhere between corn plasters and knee supports. Lovehoney would like to see them somewhere much more romantic – get them on the aisle with scented candles and body lotions for example. Whenever the retail world is up for it, Lovehoney is ready and waiting with its own brand of best-of-breed toys.
Goodness whatever next: I think we’d better get on to some figures. Turnover to the year ending March 2012 was £16 million. That will be significantly up this year. The Channel 4 documentary on Lovehoney broadcast in May raised its profile no end and caused a massive hike in interest in the site, which has never really gone away.
And in five years’ time? Oh, it’s a modest aim - to be the world’s biggest supplier of sexual happiness.
This article is in association with Retailinsider.com and PCMS
Lovehoney founders Neal Slateford and Richard Longhurst will be speaking at the Retail Bulletin’s Multichannel Retailing Summit, 6th February 2013. Click here to register your place and view the full programme.
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