When Sabina Elvstam-Johns started her store in Copenhagen in 1998, the erotic market was a very different place. The brick and mortar trade was focussed on male customers and that was also reflected in the product range. Women, on the other hand, were largely neglected by the trade and industry. Sabina’s wish to change that situation was actually one of the main reasons for her decision to open an adult store. EAN had the opportunity to talk to her about the history and the concept of LUST and the ever-changing adult market.
You opened your first erotic store in Copenhagen in 1998. Why did you decide to take that step back then? What was your motivation?
Sabina Elvstam-Johns: I opened LUST as a young woman, together with a female friend, because we wanted to create a place where women, and modern girls like ourselves could feel at ease with their sexuality and sensuality. As far as we were concerned, all the traditional shops were full of horny men and ugly, offensive products. We coupled sexuality and eroticism with something spiritual, and holistic, and this struck a chord with many people. It was not focussed on the crotch and hard selling, but a temple for body, mind, and soul.
When you opened your LUST store, it was innovative, different, a breath of fresh air in the Scandinavian erotic retail market. What was it that you did differently from all your competitors?
The interior was very romantic and fantasy-inspired. We had angel wings, shells, roses, and baroque elements. I remember an old lady who would visit every week. She didn’t know it was a sex shop, she just loved to come by because it smelled so nice and looked so pretty! We had mothers bringing their daughters into the shop for sex-education, and of course many couples who would never have dared enter a regular sex shop. We collaborated with doctors, nurses, and hospitals, educating them on sexual aids for patients after cancer treatment. We did it softer, with more sensibility, and of course with a lot of passion.
Three years ago, you opened a boutique on Majorca. How did that come to pass?
I wanted a new challenge, and my multi-cultural family wanted to move away from Denmark… We decided on Spain because of the climate and beauty. It wasn’t really a strategic decision at all, but I couldn’t imagine not bringing a part of LUST with me, so I decided to ‘have another baby’.
The LUST Shop in Palma de Majorca
What’s the philosophy that guides you in your retail activities? Which concepts are reflected in your two stores?
Both my shops are very different, each with its own unique scheme of art, colours and furniture. I am in charge of the visual art and the interior design, so in a way it is a very personal experience, even if people don’t know it is a picture of my mother on the wall, to give but one example. Both shops reflect a playful and sensual approach to eroticism in an intuitive, non-traditional retail environment.
What do you offer your customers in terms of product range? And what kind of shopping experience awaits them at LUST?
The philosophy of LUST is that clients will only encounter products of the best quality and functionality, paired with committed counselling by our well-educated staff, whatever their needs may be. That way, we aim to minimise the risk of consumers buying something they don’t want, which would result in disappointed customer who would never come back. LUST has a very loyal customer base who have been visiting the shop since the start back in 1998.
Do you prefer brands when choosing new products? If so, why?
Being a brand in itself is not important for us when we select new products. We look at the important elements: products design, functionally (too many products are never tested and tried before they hit the shelves it seems like?!) and the visuals of the packaging. Most well-known brands have several products that are the best-selling cornerstone of their portfolio and many ‘misses’ that are not so interesting because they simply aren’t well designed. We prefer fast-moving products of course, and products with higher profit margins. The reasons why more and more clients choose brand products is the heavy marketing. It is annoying, however, that the most exclusive brands have the lowest profit margins.
So you have one brick-and-mortar store in Copenhagen and one in Palma de Majorca. Are they both located in the city centre? Are there other adult stores in the vicinity? Was it hard to get these locations for stores such as yours?
When LUST opened in the heart of commercial Copenhagen, it created quite a stir, and we were featured on the television news and in other major media. We sailed under false flag I suppose, when we rented the space, labelling our business a gift-shop, which isn’t a lie, but I admit we didn’t mention the erotic aspect. All was forgiven when the non-sleazy approach was revealed. In Catholic Spain, there is more resistance to erotic shops is, even if there are big changes going on in society. On Majorca, we’ve had nuns making cross signs whenever they passed by the shop on the way to the next door convent, and puritan neighbours complaining about the mannequins and the shop itself. So yes, more moral boundaries in Spain still. And there’s not as much media attention anymore, times have changed.
What target audience are you aiming for? And what are these consumers expecting or looking for when they enter one of your stores?
Our main focus has always been women, with an emphasis on the mature ones, 30-45, but actually, just as many men and couples frequent the stores.
Majorca is a popular holiday destination. Is the clientele you get there much different from your customer base in Copenhagen?
No, it is basically the same segment, a mix of young females, couples, and the more mature. Of course, the nationalities are more varied.
How strongly is the product range in your stores affected by trends such as sexual wellness, couple products, 50 Shades of Grey, etc.?
We notice all the trends, and we are the mouth piece for media – whenever there is a new wave of something, the journalists come to us and ask about it. Be it 50 Shades, ecological sex toys, Moulin Rouge, burlesque, you name it – we are aware of it… we formalise it and acknowledge it, thus enforcing the trends. However, we only offer products that we believe in.
Which other trends have an impact on the consumers at the moment? And which factors – price, materials, functionality, brand, etc. – are most important to them when shopping for an erotic product?
The gender dynamics are a ‘hot potato’ in Scandinavia, and we sell harnesses for strap on sex like never before. Anal sex and heterosexual males’ exploration of prostate pleasures is noticeably fashionable, as well as the kegel training craze among women.
When you opened LUST in Copenhagen back in 1998, the erotic market was very different, also as far as the customers are concerned. What has changed the most since then, and how did you manage to adapt to these developments?
Our upstart was noticed by a new crowd, fashionable and young – now this generation has grown up, and many newcomers discover the shop for the first time, even if it is a grand old dame by now. We have constantly been evaluating the products, giving all we can in terms of customer service and counselling. We adapt organically, new staff in the shop bring new ideas, new energy, and we stay focused on what we do best. The internet is obviously a serious competitor, many ‘old school’ sex shops have been forced to close, and to be honest, I actually miss them in a way.
Have you been able to capitalise on the growing acceptance for sex toys? Can it be clearly felt that there is now a new audience opening up to these products?
Yes, it is mainstream and more regulated. No more ‘wild west’.
What role does the erotic retail trade play in fostering this public acceptance of all things erotic? How can adult retailers help dispel misconceptions, educate the consumers, etc.?
By showing that sex and eroticism should be as normal and accessible for everyone as food and clothing – bare necessities for a comfortable, fulfilled life. The retailers should take pride in knowing their products – not just try to sell them. Knowing that they work and that they are body-friendly, for example. Some products out there still make we want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Are the requirements for running a successful store in the erotic market the same as when you started LUST? Are shopping experience, product range, and professional sales advice still what matters most?
I think it is also very important to have a sense of style in your shop, and that you can follow what is happening in the online market.
In addition to your walk-in stores, you also have an e-commerce shop. How important is this multi-channel strategy for you?
More and more important. Even though we were one of the first alternative sex shops online, we have made many mistakes, and we are still not the strongest in e-commerce, unfortunately. I personally prefer to meet people and look them in their eyes, but I have to accept that this is the future, and the future is already here.
Is there some kind of cross-pollination between online shop and walk-in stores, or is there cannibalisation between these two channels?
There used to be, when we had a differential price structure to be able to compete more successfully with other online companies that were slashing prices. This created a very frustrating situation for customers as well as our sales staff – what price was valid? Is it negotiable? Some people would come to the shop to get advice and then leave the shop to go bargain hunting on the internet. I am sure all shopkeepers know what I am talking about. Now we have the same prices online and offline, and for a physical shop, we are on the lower side. Clients use the internet as a catalogue, but many still prefer to come to us, to the shop and make the final choice.
What are the biggest challenges in the e-commerce segment?
The pricing game, the ‘feed the monster google adword’ game can be frustrating. Setting up a good page, and finding tech people who know what they are doing and don’t rip you off.
Do you feel that, as a retailer, you get enough support from your suppliers, i.e. from the producers, distributors, and wholesalers?
Too much at times… in terms of sales materials with big company logos. Producers trip on their toes to promote their brand, but for me, the brand is not the most important thing. And having 20 different logos side by side creates a very chaotic visual impression. Let the great products do the talking. Most wholesalers are very good at what they do and I have no complaints.
Many companies offer POS materials and product training courses to the trade. Do you think that this is enough to appeal to the consumers in the stores and to ramp up sales?
It may not be enough in itself, but it is good for information, and it is necessary now that the vibrators have become as technologically advanced as a small spaceship. Sometimes I just give up and let the (often male) client do the reading of the manual, while I stand aside and offer female support! Keep it simple – would be my advice to the producers here.
How would you describe the current situation in the erotic trade – brick and mortar and online – in Denmark in particular and Scandinavia in general?
It is a time of change and challenges. Many walk-in stores have suffered or closed after the crisis, and only the strongest remain. Same goes for the internet – the small ‘garage’ shops are gone. However, the market is getting bigger, more mainstream, and there will ALWAYS be an interest in sex. The shops that manage to keep up with the times and appeal to ‘modern’ consumers will prevail. There will be fewer, more serious players competing for business. Scandinavia is a stronghold of liberal thinking, and this we should be proud of! Let’s not forget the history of pornography. Let’s not lose the sexiness…Sex shouldn’t be too high-tech and slick. Sex is personal.