Kim Airs has lots of experience in the brick-and-mortar trade and the e-commerce segment and she knows what matters most when you want to sell sex toys. Having worked close to 25 years in the US adult retail business, she has seen a lot, and she has a lot to tell. EAN asked her to dissect her home market for us.
Kim, among other things, you run the GrandOpening.com online shop. How long have you been in the business?
Kim Airs: I started in the adult industry when I left working at Harvard University to open my bricks and mortar store, Grand Opening!, in November, 1993, in a town adjacent to Boston, Massachusetts. I had been a consumer of sex toys since the late 80s and there was no comfortable place to buy sex toys in the area at the time. As I like to say, “I left my job at Harvard to sell rubber dicks to girls!”
Why did you decide to open an online shop and not a brick-and-mortar shop?
When I sold Grand Opening! in December 2005, I wanted to continue to provide my customers with a place to shop for toys with the same confidentiality that I provided with my bricks and mortar store. The affiliation I have with CNV (also known as www.MyFreeWebsite.com) continues that same level of confidentiality. When a purchase is made, I don’t learn the customers’ names, just what they bought.
What is your company’s philosophy?
As I mentioned, confidentiality is very important to me and always has been. It was true at my bricks and mortar store and continues on my website as well.
What are the pillars of GrandOpening.com?
The immense variety of products we offer. As an affiliate site, several distributors drop ship for it so there are tens of thousands of items available including lingerie, VOD, every kind of lubricant, and hundreds of funny sex-related gifts as well. It’s not all sex toys!
“In many ways, the online marketplace is a race to the bottom, with competitors on Amazon and eBay.”
What do you do differently from your competitors?
Since GrandOpening.com is an affiliate site, all of the distributors are highly regarded for their speed, efficiency and confidentiality in processing our orders.
What are the greatest obstacles when it comes to selling erotic products online? The competitive market? The price war?
In many ways, the online marketplace is a race to the bottom, with competitors on Amazon and eBay. The only way I can combat that is knowing that NONE of our products is counterfeit and many of them have a warranty that is backed by the manufacturer. This should give the buyer peace of mind when placing an order on GrandOpening.com as opposed to another site on Amazon or eBay.
How has selling sex toys online changed in recent years?
It has become MUCH more competitive and the buyers have become much more savvy, due to the information that is available online. This also applies to the buyers at bricks and mortar stores as well.
Who are the typical customers at GrandOpening.com? Couples? Women?
Well, since I do not know the gender of the buyer because they are pretty anonymous when they order, this is a tricky question! I never know if it’s a couple or single person placing the order and definitely cannot guess by what they are buying, either.
“The consumer has no brand recognition for the new products and many times, the same products are available under several manufacturers’ brands.”
What criteria matter most to your customers when they go shopping? Price? Functionality? Quality?
I would say all of the above. There are shoppers who want the most inexpensive bullet vibe out there (and frequently pay more than the cost of it for shipping!) and those who order vibrators over the $200 range. And of course, within those ranges, there are very big differences between the price, functionality and quality by the manufacturer.
How would you describe the current situation of the US adult retail trade (online and regular)? What problems do US retailers have to deal with?
With 23 years in the adult toy industry, the current situation has me very nervous. With the ease of availability of toys manufactured in China, there have been dozens of new companies that have cropped up who are all trying to muscle their way into the business (I’m sure after they hear there is so much money to be made in it!). Many of these companies are spinoffs from the DVD world since the DVD market has been in decline for many years and now the competition for the consumer dollar has never been tougher.
What happens in a bricks and mortar store is that the toys brought in by newcomers become lost with the larger presence of the major manufacturers products who have been in the market for decades. The consumer has no brand recognition for the new products and many times, the same products are available under several manufacturers’ brands.
In the United States, everything seems larger than it is in Europe. But when it comes to the adult retail trade, how many brick-and-mortar shops and how many online shops are there?
My guess is that there are 5,000 brick and mortar stores in the US (including chain stores) and as for online, I cannot estimate since many of them are affiliate sites and are easy to create but I wonder how many of them get enough traffic.
What trends influence the US retail market right now?
What I tend to see is what I call the “sex toy du jour” in that there’s always ONE thing that’s innovative enough to catch the attention of the buyer. Several years ago, it was the Sqweel, now it seems to be the womanizer, which, of course, many companies are knocking off now. And there’s now the trend of high tech toys that one can stimulate a partner from many miles away. Those toys are becoming more and more popular but my concern is with all of the remotely used toys, who will need actual physical contact anymore?
What are the bestsellers in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Seattle?
There’s always the Magic Wand which was redesigned and remarketed a few years ago. It has a firm stronghold in the adult market and never ceases to amaze me. I don’t think there are regional bestsellers as opposed to general adult product bestsellers.
In Europe, the year 2016 was declared the year of the male sex toy. Is this something that is also happening in the US?
Not so much. I think the evolution of all of the toys is galloping at such a rapid pace that it should be the “moment of the sex toy”!
“I think in many ways that the market is flooded with products and there are too many selections for consumers.”
Interactivity, virtual reality, teledildonics – those are just a few buzzwords floating around right now. How does modern technology influence sex toys in the US market?
As I mentioned, with the increased consumer awareness and demand for non-contact sex toys, there will be more and more of a demand for these types of toys. And when that happens, the cost will become less and less which is good but in my opinion, eventually takes the uniqueness out of any given type of product and dilutes that particular type of product.
How important are brands in the retail segment of the US industry?
Very important! As with any consumer product, if a customer likes a brand, they tend to stick to products within that brand, hence the difficulty smaller companies have with rolling theirs out to the market.
Is it true that American customers prefer brick-and-mortar shops over online shops? And if so, why?
I believe so. There’s a term “showrooming” which is when a customer comes into a store to touch and feel a product and then goes home and buys it online. I think the impetus for stores is to win over the online shoppers and give them an experience they can’t have when they shop online and close the sale without them going online to buy the product.
There is a lot of controversy whether these two ways of distribution cannabilise each other, or whether they cater to different customer groups. What do you think?
Online stores definitely are cannibalising the industry. It’s a race to the bottom with pricing, for sure, but I still think stores can guarantee that the products are not knock offs, which happens frequently online.
What does the future of adult retailing in the US look like?
As I mentioned, I’m actually kind of nervous about it. I think in many ways that the market is flooded with products and there are too many selections for consumers. But then again, sometimes a woman wants THAT VIBRATOR in pink and not purple so I guess there’s always a market for every toy out there. We know as retailers (both in store and online) that we have to cater because without them, none of us would have a business. Besides which, as I like to say, in this industry, THE CUSTOMER ALWAYS COMES FIRST!