With more than a billion people, hundreds of millions of internet users, and a GDP that is inching closer and closer to the 100 billion dollar threshold, India is definitely a unique and highly fascinating market for the e-commerce industry. One of the companies that have already managed to capitalise on the booming internet economy in India is erotic online retailer Kaamastra. We interviewed CEO Rhaber Nazir and learned how he and his team started the company in 2012, how they turned it into one of the largest erotic retail shops in India, and how they brave the challenges in this market.
On your website, you describe Kaamasatra as the “biggest sex store to buy adult products and sex accessories online in India”. Before we talk more about your business, could you tell us a bit about the history of the shop and the team behind it?
Rahber Nazir: Kaamastra is a venture launched in 2012 by me, a then 23-year old MBA from the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade. We started with two suppliers, one employee and 125 products in four product categories selling on kaamastra.com in February 2013. We’re currently at over 30 suppliers in eight countries, 19 employees, two warehouses and over 4000 SKUs in stock, and we now sell products internationally as well. Kaamastra has grown through an unrelenting focus on sourcing and supply chain management, optimising logistics and delivery timelines and incorporating customer feedback in the launch of new categories and products. Kaamastra’s policy is ‘If we get three requests for a new product, we source and list it within three months’.
Our team today is comprised of catalogue management, sourcing, marketing, administrative, operations, and warehousing divisions.
A major milestone was achieved in 2018 when Kaamastra became the first sexual wellness company in India to go the M&A route with our acquisition of itspleazure.com, a female-focused sex toy start-up based in Mumbai. ItsPleazure has doubled its daily website traffic in the last year after being acquired and it’s on track to be a major sexual wellness player.
What can you tell us about the current status of the erotic market in India?
The erotic market is opaque in India due to Indians being conservative when it comes to talking about sex and expressing their sexuality. Most Indians have heard of and seen these products in Hollywood and Bollywood movies, music or TV but have never learnt to interact with them and explore their sexuality in a healthy manner and end up doing neither.
Customers are opening up much more now, and they have started demanding variety, choice, and more sophisticated and specific products, all evidence of higher customer education. An example: Five years ago, most customers would ask vaguely for ‘bondage products’ but now they ask specifically for whips, ticklers or mouth gags in different materials like Leather, PU, wood or metal, which demonstrates the sophistication of buying habits of regular Indians.
The market for adult products in India is growing fast and its paradigms are shifting rapidly. This makes it a very exciting market to participate in.
“Customers are opening up much more now, and they have started demanding variety, choice, and more sophisticated and specific products, all evidence of higher customer education.”
What about brick and mortar stores for erotic products in India? Are there many of those?
Brick and mortar shops are present mainly in major cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Delhi has a famous market known as Palika Bazaar and Mumbai has Crawford Market and Manish Market. Smaller towns have no outlets.
It’s an unpleasant experience for most customers since the pricing is opaque, the shops are seedy and uncomfortable, and the shopkeepers are untrained and uninformed. The experience is particularly bad for women because talking about sex products to male shopkeepers can be very uncomfortable in a conservative country like India.
Are there certain laws or stipulations you have to abide by if you want to sell erotic products in India?
Yes, India has laws regarding the display and advertising of products as obscenity and lewdness are prohibited. Kaamastra makes sure no product on our site has any explicit details showing and that more precise details of the products are shown only via diagrams, outlines, and textual descriptions.
Kaamastra also is very careful about all our advertising and marketing activities, making sure they do not offend the sensibilities of any of our audience.
An interesting thing happened in 2018, after the Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which made sex between consenting homosexual couples illegal): We saw a constant stream of inquiries about LGBT products throughout the next few months. At the end of fifth week, we had a new section dedicated to this category and ran special educated classes for our marketing and admin staff about these products so they could provide better advice to our customers.
India is well-known for its leading information technology, and with more than 1.2 billion citizens, the country also has an enormous consumer pool. But how many people in India really browse the web and go shopping online?
India has over 620 million internet users as of 2019, driven by the surge of cheap smartphones and connectivity. Telecoms like Reliance Jio have driven mobile internet prices to the lowest level in the world by far, which has increased the use of online shopping websites, online banking facilities, and communication services. We’ve now reached a place where most citizens in smaller towns and villages are connected. Last year, India added an unprecedented 6 million mobile internet users – per month. Credit and debit card penetration is almost one billion.
E-commerce is expected to grow to $100bn a year by 2020, from $12bn in 2013. E-commerce companies in India have introduced innovations like cash on delivery, lighter and faster mobile apps (that run better on low cost smartphones that sell a lot in India), logistics flexibility for smaller, far flung warehouses, and creating individual logistics services rather than using existing logistics supply chains. These developments have been impactful in increasing customer trust and loyalty.
For adult products, online selling is the best way to ensure customer privacy and shopping comfort while being transparent on pricing, designs, and educating customers. What all of the above did is give the customer the convenience of ordering from their sofa, with discreet delivery, and saved them from the embarrassment of being exposed to an often judgmental society.
Which consumer groups are the target audience of kaamastra.com, and why did you choose to focus on this particular clientele?
India is the fourth largest porn consumer in the world – every adult Indian is a potential customer! Our initial target market was 18-35 year old men and women in large cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Pune, and Kolkata because we expected them to be more familiar with the products and have bigger buying power. Surprisingly, we have seen disproportionate representation of smaller towns in our buying pool and also receive many orders from remote locations that can only be served via the Indian Post system rather than FedEx.
We have changed our approach throughout the past few years to offer better and faster delivery to distant areas while also creating knowledge banks that answer the questions of users who have never used these products before.
“We have changed our approach throughout the past few years to offer better and faster delivery to distant areas while also creating knowledge banks that answer the questions of users who have never used these products before.”
What’s most important for your customers when they visit your shop? Is it discrete delivery, price, fast delivery, the information you provide or something else?
Discreet delivery is extremely important. We offer this for all orders by default. Fast delivery is also important since many customers gift our products to friends and family for weddings, anniversaries, bachelor and bachelorette parties and as gag gifts.
Information is critical since many customers are first-time buyers. We have set up the Kaamastra Concierge service – enter your phone number, and we’ll call you back to discuss your concerns.
Another important thing is trust. Customers have all seen fake ads on porn sites for pills and other adult products and are concerned about ordering and not receiving the products they wanted or receiving cheap products. Our return and refund policies, WhatsApp customer care line (the most used communication app in India), customer care phone numbers, and email support create better trust.
Customers can be price sensitive but it’s not the most critical issue since customers also value quality and efficacy. With our sexual medicines’ category in particular, customers are most concerned about quality.
How important are well known brands for your shop and its customers? Do you customers search for particular brands, or are they just as happy with a “no-name-product”?
Both. Customers prefer brands when they are shopping for more expensive product categories, or when quality is very important due to possible side effects (e.g. pills, oils, etc). For bread and butter items like sexy lingerie, sexy dresses, etc., brands aren’t as important, and it is the design and style that sells.
We receive very few requests for European brands like Lelo or American brands like Pipedream or Hustler because of the ultra-high cost of those products.
Kaamastra branded products where we guarantee quality and offer warranties ourselves sell well.
What is the philosophy behind kaamastra.com? What sets your shop apart from its competitors?
Kaamastra stands for the sexual liberation of Indians (and soon, other nationalities). Fussy attitudes and prudishness have negatively impacted Indian culture by forcing people to conform to 19th century standards instead of embracing their desires. Kaamastra fosters free acceptance and experimentation between all consenting adults to make them happier and sexually satisfied people.
We don’t judge our customers as long as what they do is consenting and legal.
Can you tell us something about the steps you take to advertise your shop? Are there legal limitations for the advertisement of erotic products?
As mentioned above, we can’t advertise and sell products with explicit branding or advertising – we are very careful about this.
We focus on SEO, blogging, guest posting with different publications across the world, and sharing our content on social media to reach the customers. In 2018, Kaamastra has also sponsored Mukhauta, a Youtube crime and drama web series which gained over four million views.
What are your plans for the future of kaamastra.com?
Kaamastra and ItsPleaZure have been growing at a rapid pace these past seven years and will continue to do so.
We look to cover all aspects of the sexual wellness market with our own brands of products. For example, we’re going to launch Kaamastra publications which focus on erotica for Indians and by Indians. Our first book is expected to be out by the end of June 2019.
We will also launch Kaamastra in several other countries before the end of the year, especially countries with large Indian migrant populations.
ItsPleaZure is working on multiple ways to get more women involved in the supply chain and will be testing a new offline model for the sale of the products.