Why it's Yes yes yes to Ann Summers
It made waves when it opened in 1999 but Ann Summers in Dublin is now one of the brand's leading stores, writes Gillian Fitzpatrick
Worlds away from the seedy sex shop stereo-types, Ann Summers in Dublin's city centre is packed full with whips, paddles, handcuffs, masks and ticklers - not to mention toys, lingerie and costumes. In fact, it's positively a treasure trove of bedroom delights for those inspired by erotic fiction, or intrigued by what they've seen on screen.
And seemingly Irish people can't get enough of the brand - this week it was announced that its O'Connell Street shop is the second-best performer (pipped to the post only by Manchester) out of close to 150 outlets here and in the UK.
Walking out of the drizzle into the store yesterday at 10am, there was already a steady stream of customers - mainly women, but also a handful of men.
"There isn't a typical person who shops here," the friendly staff on duty tell me - it's a line often spun by big-name companies who are eager to retain their cross-appeal, but with Ann Summers it seems to be true.
"Women in their 80s have stopped by. There was a couple recently in their 70s who clearly didn't have a clue where to start but left an hour later very pleased. Then you've the 18-19-year-olds who come in to get some nice underwear."
There's no denying that the work of EL James has exerted considerable influence over recent consumer preferences. And if statistics are to be believed, the release earlier this month of the first Fifty Shades film starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson has only further whetted our appetite for more exciting bedroom exploits. Indeed, Ann Summers highlights that since the release of the trilogy of books, sales of handcuffs alone have increased by 66pc.
"Fifty Shades has certainly allowed us to talk more openly and be more honest," says Beth Wallace, founder of Bliss Ireland, an organisation which promotes sexual freedom. "Although the reality is," she adds, "a whole load of studies show that a majority of sexually active adults have tried some form of BDSM. They may not label it like that exactly - but there's a little subtle power play, a spank or pinch here or there. And I think bringing it out into the open is only a great thing."
Beth also offers some insight into why the likes of Ann Summers are currently enjoying such a bumper trade: "In our modern world, where Irish women are expected to 'have it all,' sexual surrender can be a great relief from the constant weight of expectation."
Calantha Forde (23) lives in Cavan. "All my friends have been into the O'Connell Street Ann Summers store at some time or another," she explains. "It's pretty much an institution at this stage. I actually view it as being part-and-parcel of the women's liberation movement in Ireland."
In 2013, Calantha also briefly worked for Ann Summers as a party organiser and says she used to "love seeing the older women at the events - the mothers and mothers-in-law who you think would be terribly embarrassed by everything going on around them but then you realise that they've been there, done that, and seen it all before".
Now working in HR, Calantha also highlights that Ann Summers' female-friendly set-up is key to its success. "There's nothing grotty about the stores: lots of pink and frills with some nice candles and massage oils. I'd never feel intimidated or embarrassed popping in. Actually the first time I went into the O'Connell Street outlet was a few years ago - I had just broken up with my boyfriend and I went in by myself to buy something nice."
Across the water, Ann Summers first opened its doors in the early 1970s, with CEO Jacqueline Gold later launching the now iconic Ann Summers party plans in the 1980s. The early 90s heralded the arrival of its trademark Rampant Rabbit; still the company's top-selling product. The vibrator featured in an early episode of Sex And The City and the rest is history: an oft-quoted statistic is that at one point, more Rabbits were being sold than washing machines.
Of course, back in 1999 the presence of a "sex shop" on O'Connell Street was deeply divisive - with many consumer and trading organisations labelling it "inappropriate".
Still, 54-year-old multi-millionaire Ms Gold says today that the opening of Ireland's first Ann Summers outlet was "a really big moment in my career".
And these days, latterly aided by Fifty Shades, it continues to be a really big contributor to the burgeoning Ann Summers' kitty.