Raj Armani talks the post-corona phase and the golden future of the sex toy market
The field is tilled, now it is time to reap the harvest – that’s the quintessential sentiment of this interview with Raj Armani, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of IMbesharam.com, as we talk about the market for sex toys, how it has fared throughout the corona pandemic, and how it will fare in the upcoming months and years.
To get straight to the point: Is the international sex toy market one of the winners of the corona crisis?
Raj Armani: Without a doubt, yes! Not just a win, but a bada-bing-boom! A 60-80% blanket increase in revenue for online and offline retailers, a 200% surge in traffic on ecommerce websites, and hundreds of new influencers who adopted and embraced adult products as tools/aids to improve intimacy and better sexual health – if that qualifies as a win, then the international sex toy market (which will soon rebrand as a ‘sexual health market’, I am sure) is probably one of the largest beneficiaries of the corona crisis. Everyone from brands/manufacturers to distributors/wholesalers and retailers of all kinds – ecommerce, bricks & mortar, social media – everyone got to ride the wave and still continues to do so. Thankfully the sun keeps shining, and for those who are still on the fence, now is a good time to jump in this industry as we see a worldwide evolution in terms of the products we create, the tone we adopt, the language we use, the communities we build, and the education we impart.
In conclusion, 2020-21 is for the sex toy business what the ‘80s were for the internet!
How do you explain this global ‘sex toy boom’? And did you expect this development at the beginning of the pandemic?
Raj: When you look back and connect the dots, a lot of it makes sense. The same uncertainties and inhibitions that drove us back inside the confines of our homes led to peak demand for sex toys and inspired droves of first-time users to check out pleasure product outlets online and also in-store once lockdown ended. Many store owners and brands got innovative with same-day delivery, contactless purchase, and simpler return policies further driving shoppers’ interest and increasing conversions. Most industry experts are of the opinion that staying indoors, working from home, and being cut off from our usual routine outdoors activities like sports, gym, shopping, dining out, dates, and drives resulted in people having more time on their hand and less things to do. Many of us put that time to good use after being inspired to change the routine or getting curious about the social buzz and chatter surrounding pleasure products and sextech. Plus, the stimulus checks brought in some extra cash, and you really did not have many things to spend it on while you were sitting at home. The combination of all these factors got cash registers ringing, and most adult business owners experienced a happy ending.
At the beginning of the pandemic, not many of us could fathom this was a blessing in disguise; most of us were too absorbed with the current affairs, and the rest of us were learning how to wash hands. The first 3-6 months was survival mode for many entrepreneurs, and this period gave them the time and courage to adapt and steer their operations through the complexities that came with the pandemic. However, after these clouds had cleared that the sun came out and we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. While it is most unfortunate that our generation has experienced this pandemic, it is a boon that we survived it and will live to tell the stories to the generations to come.
There are also critical voices. While not denying that this boom exists, they argue that the internet giants are the main beneficiaries while others – the bricks & mortar trade in particular – go away empty-handed. Is this criticism valid?
Raj: IMO this is just partly correct, but to understand the micro-economics, we may have to dig deeper than just the surface. The initial phase of lockdown and the following period when the COVID waves would rise and recede – where most of us were hesitant to step out and stayed home to ride this one out – must have severely impacted the retail traffic that would have been essential for them to conduct business. Plus, additional complexities relating to logistics, staffing, the health and hygiene of customers walking in, etc. were some of the newer challenges they had to face. It is a fact that a lot of potential ‘walk-in’ buyers have switched to shopping online due to the same challenges. So yes, it is very true that the first 3-6 months of the pandemic would have been more unfair to the brick & mortar store owners.
However, most of them, being hustlers and entrepreneurs, learned ways to overcome these challenges and updated their business model to make way for the new normal. When the doors opened again, their sales also rose, and they experienced similar benefits as ecommerce stores and online giants. Though they were late to the party, they did get their share of the pie.
It is without disagreement that the attribution of benefits has and will continue to favor online merchants more because in my opinion, online commerce in all shapes and forms is probably most suitable for adult product purchases. Now and in the future. So, if bricks & mortar stores don’t heed the wake-up call that came during the pandemic, they will probably find themselves at the wrong end of the business spectrum.
Maybe it is a bit early to draw conclusions, but has the corona crisis been one of the turning points in the history of our industry?
Raj: In a way, corona was a turning point in almost everyone’s life. It touched literally everything you did. Your work, your home, your children, your parents and family, and probably every other aspect of your routine and lifestyle. From the Presidents of the most powerful countries to the unemployed, almost everyone felt the impact, and many were shattered by it and its aftermath.
As for the adult industry: It may be a turning point of sorts as it brings you to face the reality that sooner or later, adult products will be mainstream, if they are not already. Not only does that mean bigger revenues, larger audiences & wider reach, but it also means more competition, higher product quality & expectations, and overall a streamlining of distribution and retail (online & offline). This will soon open up doors for D2C models as well as adult marketplaces, which in my opinion is the future of adult ecommerce.
Let’s move on to the question of what comes after the crisis. Scenario 1: The pandemic opens the door for more ‘gold rush’ years with sex toys being in high demand. Scenario 2: The market returns to the level of the years before the corona crisis. Scenario 3: Consumers spend their money on other things again and return to activities they were denied during the pandemic. Which scenario is the most realistic in your opinion?
Raj: You ask great questions, and I hope I can predict it closest to the real outcome. Out of these three options, I believe that it will be a combination of #1 & #2. What you call the ‘gold rush’ will settle into a ‘silver rush’; demand for the newest and coolest products and gadgets will remain high and stay consistent at 50% or more of the current surge, which may still be 30-50% higher than pre-corona times. That’s because:
The number of consumers who have noticed or become interested in sex toys is far bigger than the number of consumers who have already committed or converted. The ones who didn’t make the jump yet will come back and invest in the product as they are attracted to the experience, so this will keep demand on a higher level than in pre-corona times
The new customers who just joined the club will come back for repeat purchases and try related or connected products soon.
More and more brands are coming up with cooler products that are smarter, sleeker, and cuter. This will make purchase decision easier for people who already bought a toy, and thus increases the LTV (lifetime value) of customers. Another bonus.
More social media chatter and buzz brings more awareness, this will continue and probably have a more relevant impact on making these products go mainstream. And when they do, the demand may even end up being double of what we see today.
So all in all, it is a good time to be in the pleasure business in 2021. If you have not jumped in this industry, now is the time!
What role do external factors play in the further development of the sex toy market? Quite a few warn of a worldwide recession, others talk about corona being only the beginning of a ‘Pandemic Age’…
Raj: The external factors that would build most momentum for the sex toy market are the audience’s (shoppers’) perceptions and access to better products in markets where there are still problems with the supply chain and commerce. These factors are a work in progress, and as more and more companies see the world as a borderless market, they will further invest in ‘normalising’ sex toys as essentials for sexual health, relationships, and happiness.
About that worldwide recession – while there may be some chatter about it, the economics of the world and countries we live in don’t appear to predict that outcome. Yes, the world did get a shock, a pretty severe one, but most countries have either recovered or are recovering after a visit to the ER. Of course, no one can predicted with certainty whether or not we will face a recession anytime soon, but the good news is most people agree that the sex toy business is recession-proof, just like other vices.
And about the corona crisis being the start of a pandemic age? I admit I do not have the most accurate information about this and I don’t think I, or any other entrepreneur, can predict what’s going to happen in the coming 12 months after experiencing the last 12 months.
Would you agree with the statement that whatever the market will look like in the future, there are certain developments accelerated by the corona crisis that are irreversible … for instance the growth of sex toy e-commerce or our market moving more and more towards the mainstream?
Raj: I agree 100% with both these arguments and will hopefully live to tell tales of the world and our business in pre-corona times.
The transition to ecommerce was long overdue for the adult products industry, and there is no doubt that this model is made for our business. Though it’s not completely fool-proof, it’s the place to start. It will evolve over the coming months and years and very soon, we will see more and more brands get consolidated under a single e-commerce mall (marketplace model). The various aspects of this business cycle will be handled by experts so brands can focus on making quality products, and these marketplaces will focus on marketing them and bringing in the audience while the logistics experts handle the entire cycle from sourcing to delivery.
About going mainstream – we are at the threshold. The pandemic gave us wings and brought us very close. More and more brands are improving the aesthetics and design of products to focus on functionality and look for new experiences. Many sellers move away from emphasising the lasciviousness of products and put the focus on aesthetics and sextech instead. More box stores and retailers (online & offline) are showcasing these new lines on their platforms and reach out to newer audiences who are being introduced to the facelift of pleasure products. More and more entrepreneurs launch their companies to reach audiences that were previously ignored, to create products with a brand message and tone that portrays inclusivity and purpose, thus shifting the debate from stigma to happiness. This is all happening now, and it’s just a matter of time before it will be perfectly normal for my Dad to accept a package I ordered from IMbesharam.com. I betcha he will just hand it over and ask: Did they not have a ‘buy one get one free’ deal, son?
If we put all the things we have discussed in this interview into an imaginary kitchen blender, what do we get?
Raj: We would probably get a juicy steak, well done, with fatty edges and a bone in the middle on a long white table. A steak because everyone who is at the table on time will get a piece of meat. Fatty and juicy represents the surge in demand and thus profits and bottom lines. Well done because it has been simmering for a while during the early days of the pandemic, so it had its time to sizzle and get done. The bone represents the inequality of revenue distribution between online and offline sellers. The long white table represents the way forward, a clean slate, a window of opportunity and a once in a lifetime chance to cook(write) your immediate future with your own hands.
What will our market look like in five or ten years’ time?
Raj: In five years, I will have retired, lazing around a blue pool with a margarita in one hand and a smartphone in the other, probably wondering how great the last five years were and being happy that I won’t have to worry about the next five.
In all seriousness, I think the whole DNA of the adult business will be renewed. I don’t have a crystal ball to predict things, but I would think the market will already have become mainstream by then. Half of the global population will have toys and pleasure products in their backpack or bedroom drawers and the other half will have placed an order and wait for delivery by drone or robot within a couple of hours after placing the order.