“I’m not sure there will ever be ‘business as usual’ model in our industry again.”
Looking back at the past three years with Raymond Houtenbos
Raymond Houtenbos, VP of Sales at Evolved Europe, describes the years 2020, 2021, and 2022 as a rollercoaster ride. No surprises there. Two years of a pandemic, then war in Ukraine … What marks have these events left on the market – and what marks do they continue to etch into the industry? This is just one of many questions about the past years that Raymond answers in this interview. But we don’t just look at the past, we also talk about the present and, even more importantly, about the future of our market.
Raymond, what went through your head when you attended eroFame in October 2022 after the event had been cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic?
Raymond Houtenbos: Excitement went through my head! I was excited to finally see people face to face again and do what I love doing most – travelling to speak and listen to our valuable customers. It’s a world of difference to promote our brands in person. One real-life demonstration is worth a thousand Zooms. And the icing on the cake was winning an award for most innovative product line toys for Gender X!!
Did these past two years leave a lasting mark on our industry?
Raymond: Yes, definitely. The coronavirus pandemic had a huge impact worldwide on most industries. We needed to re-tool almost every aspect of our business, adapting to online-only communication, re-thinking how our warehouses ship products, sending office workers home to work remotely – these were changes that happened very quickly. Bouncing back to ‘normal’ is a much slower process. We’re just starting to see what aspects of the COVID times will stay on as permanent changes, if any.
The beginning of 2022 was marked by optimism: The first trade fairs could take place again, travel to customers and business partners was possible once more, and retail stores were allowed to reopen… and then came February 24. Gone was the dream of a return to normality – and also the dream of a prosperous sex toy market in 2022?
Raymond: It’s been a roller coaster ride of expectations and disappointments over the past 3 years. The important thing for us at Evolved has been to remain flexible in our business strategy. We’re focused on keeping safe practices in place and plan to just roll with the closures when they happen. Three years in, it feels exhausting to keep revising our protocol to meet global COVID guidelines and restrictions, but at the same time, we’ve found success by adapting as efficiently as we can.
Inflation, the energy crisis etc. played a major role throughout 2022 and had a negative impact on the consumer climate. If the sex toy market is a market like any other (as is often claimed), it would be subject to the same developments and fluctuations. Sales figures should therefore have fallen accordingly. But have they?
Raymond: There are certainly fluctuations in the consumer climate with these ‘wild card’ factors, but the decrease in sales figures has been limited for us. We’re still analysing market behaviour to find out what customer habits or world events might be behind the numbers, but one theory is that instead of people spending money on one-off nights out on the town lately, they’re instead deciding to invest in a pleasure product that guarantees multiple enjoyable evenings. We can’t complain about that!
Now that we’ve talked about the crises, let’s move on to the trends. Which trends had a particularly strong impact on the sex toy market and influenced product development last year?
Raymond: We’re aware of big and small trends around the world and create products accordingly. For example, the sea change in cultural acceptance of gender fluidity is so important that we created a whole new line for it with Gender X. Then at the micro level, innovation in strokers became higher in demand last year, so we’re responding with new technology for strokers, tinkering with ideas to make them multi-functional with unique shapes, vibrations, and more.
If we look at the distribution channels for sex toys, there was nothing new to report in 2022 – the dominance of e-commerce is not only unbroken but even visibly getting stronger. Do you agree?
Raymond: Yes, e-commerce is dominant, but we believe brick & mortar shops will never completely disappear. Customers need expert advice, and even the most detailed explanation on a website can’t replace a well-trained sales representative. At the store level, you can get tailored recommendations with a personal touch – something an algorithm will never be able to reproduce.
As for the B2B market, have we seen the rebirth of exclusive distribution in 2022?
Raymond: I am not in favour of exclusive distribution because it excludes other potential partners and restricts the customer’s freedom of choice. I am in favour of strong relationships with our regional partners since they have local market knowledge, and they understand their customers like no other. With honest and close co-operation, we can achieve common goals.
Where is our market headed in 2023?
Raymond: I don’t have a crystal ball when it comes to the market as a whole, but I can tell you that at Evolved, our mission hasn’t changed – we’re always innovating, re-inventing, and re-imagining to bring as many new ideas to the worldwide market as we can.
Do you expect big changes or disruptions in the market? Will it be business as usual in terms of trends, product developments, distribution channels, etc.?
Raymond: Honestly, I’m not sure there will ever be ‘business as usual’ model in our industry again. COVID restrictions have eased, which makes everything more manageable and less stressful, but we don’t want to let our guard down in case other disruptions occur. The conversation continues internally about ‘best practices’ going forward. Adaptability is the most important trait to have in this business climate.
During the ‘sex toy boom’ of the Covid years, forecasts for our market predicted impressive growth … Things turned out differently, but can the growing acceptance of sex toys and the accompanying increase in demand get our market back on track for the long term?
Raymond: The lockdown ‘boom’ was interesting – our industry was definitely part of the at-home product explosion! But we can’t look at the dip back to ‘normal’ as a negative trend because it isn’t. Overall, the trajectory is still on the upswing precisely because of the growth in acceptance of pleasure products. The freedom to explore sexuality is becoming less and less stigmatized year after year, which is the true long-term ‘boom’!