Friday 22 March 2019

Meet the women giving adult toy stores an upmarket twist

How the sale of sex toys has moved from dark alleys to the high street

Shawna Scott
Denise Burke
Sarah MacDonald

Fiona McBennett

With recent figures released by adult store Anne Summers showing its Dublin branch to be the top performing shop of 144 premises across the UK and Ireland, it appears that our bedroom antics have become more adventurous in recent years.

While the Irish industry has enjoyed a boost of late, thanks to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, it has also seen a move away from the unsavoury backstreet shops of the past, towards upmarket online shops and boutiques.

Offering friendly advice and a range of high-quality products, these businesses are founded and operated by women determined to change the face of the industry.

Shawna Scott, owner of Sexsiopa.ie - an online sex shop - says that female-run upmarket stores were lacking in Ireland when she began her business in 2011.

"I am from Seattle originally and I'd been to a great female-owned store there that was more like a boutique than a sex shop. The staff were very friendly and everything was displayed really nicely. There was nothing like that here at the time, so I decided to set up my own."

The business, which originally started as a pop-up shop run by Scott and a friend, is the first and only in the country dedicated to selling body-safe sex toys and its success is something Scott is very proud of.

Her hard work saw the website win the 2013 Realex Fire Web Award for Best Ecommerce Site. However, Scott admits that her first experience of entrepreneurship has involved much trial and error learning over the years.

"I have worked in retail my entire life, so I have experience in that sense, but I'd no business background. When I first started out, I thought that the best way to get things done was to pay a professional.

"I soon began to realise that it was going to cost me a lot of money for things like web design and graphic design - so I decided it would be better to teach myself, or get other people to teach me."

Scott enjoys the sense of freedom that comes with being a first-time entrepreneur.

"There is a lot of paperwork involved and my boyfriend helps me from time to time. As I've never had my own business before, I don't know what to expect, which means I can experiment with it a little bit and do what I want. It feels very free and I can just see what works as I go along, which I like."

Working in the industry for the past four years means that Scott has witnessed first-hand the changes in the Irish market.

"The response has been really positive, which I was surprised about when I first started the business. I thought there would be a certain amount of moral backlash, but that never came. I think Ireland is far more liberal than we give ourselves credit for."

The demand for sex toys has picked up in recent months according to Scott, who has made sure to cater for Fifty Shades fans.

"Last December was my best month yet and January was very good. It's hard to tell if Fifty Shades of Grey had any effect, but I did get in a few extra products - like nice handcuffs, as people asked for them. People are definitely becoming more open."

Denise Burke, owner of Canoodle.ie - another online adult shop - says that while Irish people are becoming more curious, there are still some preconceptions surrounding the industry.

"Some people seem to think that I will be going around in thigh-highs and latex and they are shocked when they see how normal I am," she laughs.

The mother of three launched the business in 2013 and has had the support of her family and friends right from the start.

"Everyone I knew said straight away I'd be brilliant at it and that they couldn't imagine me doing anything else," she says. "I am a very open person and I think people feel comfortable taking to me.

"My husband helps me with the business and is a great support. All that my children need to know at this stage is that I sell bras and knickers to women. When they are older I will be very open and honest with them.

"It's a wonderful industry to be involved in and I have great fun doing it."

As well as offering a wide range of sex toys and lingerie online, Burke runs an advice blog through the website and one-to-one live web chats with relationship experts that include a health nurse and a "sex positive sex educator".

Burke also enjoys selling her stock at hen parties and insists that women bring something different to the industry.

"I think there has been a gap in the market for an open and friendly environment. Women are more compassionate. I have had phone calls from people who have been very hesitant at first, but have been totally relaxed by the time they have finished talking to me.

"I do think Irish people are becoming more open about sex. Maybe 20 years ago, you would never have been able to sit on the train with your Fifty Shades book, now people don't care."

According to Burke, networking has been an essential part of her business's success.

"I am passionate about women in business getting out there and sticking together. I am part of a few networks for women in business and they are a great support."

Sarah's Accessories, on Wexford's Main Street, is another female-owned Irish business taking sex toys out of the backstreet.

Sarah MacDonald opened the business in 2012 and sells a selection of sex toys, lingerie and hen party essentials alongside jewellery and wedding accessories.

"I find that it all ties together really well," she says. "The sex toys are popular with hen parties and those customers come back to buy wedding accessories like bridal hair clips and fascinators. I've had lots of people saying that it was about time someone in Wexford started selling sex toys."

MacDonald also offers an online ordering service through the shop's website, however, she says that the welcoming atmosphere in her Wexford boutique means she sells more sex toys there than online.

"The fact that I sell more items in the shop shows that people are comfortable to come in and purchase in the store. I wanted to get away from the idea of the backstreet sex shop and I've lots of female customers and couples who are not embarrassed or ashamed. And a lot of men come in around St Valentine's Day and at Christmas."

Opening a new business during the recession involved inevitable challenges, yet MacDonald, who had worked in jewellery and accessories for almost 20 years before the business began, stayed positive throughout.

"I wasn't worried about setting up the business at the time, as when I get an idea into my head, I just go with it and don't really think about the consequences. However, it has been stressful at certain points over the years, trying to keep on top of things and make sure that bills get paid."

MacDonald says sales have picked up in recent months and that adult toys appear to be back on the agenda for many.

"I have seen a change in the last four months and customers are definitely treating themselves now. Hen parties went a bit tame for a while but they have also picked up again and I have expanded my range of stock."

"As well as changing attitudes towards sex, people have a little bit of extra money now - my blindfolds are all sold out at the moment."

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