It is common knowledge that the e-commerce segment is dominated by a handful of big companies. Smaller retailers have to be resourceful in order to find success. Consequently, there are numerous interesting business concepts out there. Take Jo Divine for instance. This online shop relies on a selective product range and a wealth of information about sexual health. Considering that Jo Divine was launched in 2007 and is still thriving today, that concept clearly seems to be paying off. To learn more about Jo Divine, we talked with the founders and managers of the online shop, Samantha and Paul Evans.
When and why did you decide to try your luck in the e-commerce market for sex toys?
Paul: It started as an idea that I came up with as a way to earn some extra money for the family. Initially we intended to run toy parties for couples, but nobody seemed interested in that, but lots of people thought they would be interested in a website with quality products. As my day job was computer programmer it seems a logical step to start a website.
You could also have opened a brick and mortar store. What drew you to the e-commerce segment? And why sex toys?
Sam & Paul: The UK is not a friendly environment for bricks and mortar stores in our industry. The licensing costs and restrictions are onerous it was much easier and much lower risk to set up a website.
How did you come up with the name Jo Divine? What does it stand for?
Sam & Paul: We came up with the idea over a few beers in a pub in Suffolk. Jo is a neutral but quite sexy name. We liked the word divine because it indicated something pleasurable and/or luxurious.
Did you already have experience in the retail market prior to Jo Divine, or was this one of the first projects you decided to tackle in your professional careers?
Sam: I’m from a nursing background, I worked in the NHS and private healthcare for 15 years before I became a full-time mother. I returned to work for Jo Divine.
Paul: I have a background of over 20 years in IT prior to Jo Divine. The work I did was banking systems – I’ve had to learn all about websites, but I do most of the programming work myself, even now.
Could you sum up your corporate philosophy for our readers? What sets Jo Divine apart from the many, many online shops that sell sex toys on the internet?
Sam: We are one of only a few retailers dedicated to only selling skin safe products and have done so since we started in 2007. We also have a huge library of sexual health and pleasure articles written by myself. We also create our own videos and talk about our sex toys, showing our faces and telling customers about our experience of using the products unlike many sex toy retailers who only show hands, a voice over and talk about how a product works.
Paul: When we started, we went for luxury toys and mainly sold LELO and Fun Factory. I would now say that we stand for quality. We have a tiny number of returns because we only sell good quality product and we continue to maintain a rule that we will only sell skin safe toys and lubes. We are fun, but educational, we strongly believe that our balance of sexual health and sexual pleasure is the right combination as they are so strongly linked.
“We are fun, but educational, we strongly believe that our balance of sexual health and sexual pleasure is the right combination as they are so strongly linked.”
Who is Jo Divine for? How would you describe your target audience?
Paul: Everyone, although we do have many older customers as we have done a lot of advertising in women’s magazines. Many of our customers never buy from a high street shop or from a huge sex toy retailer online. They are not so much a target audience as an audience we found by accident. We have a huge number of sexual health articles and we get a lot of traffic from sexual health searches. Sam is also very involved with sexual health professionals and many customers have been advised by their healthcare professionals to give us a call or buy one of our products. We see no reason why our products and content can’t appeal to all adults, so we are certainly going to be targeting younger age groups in the future.
The competition in the e-commerce segment is fierce, and it is global. How do you manage to reach your target audience and turn them into repeat customers, binding them to your brand?
Sam & Paul: Through being a reputable reliable trusted sex toy retailer that sells skin safe products offers practical advice and a telephone advice service too. We are a trusted brand having a huge wealth of practical advice. We also work with many healthcare professionals across the UK and Ireland who use Jo Divine as a resource, give out our health brochure, show our products in their clinics and we are starting to work with people to give talks and workshops. You won’t find Amazon giving a talk in a London pub and nobody will ever have a personal relationship with a retailer like that.
Which channels do you use to interact with your customers? For instance, how important is social media for your communication strategy?
Sam & Paul: We still do print advertising and our articles bring a lot of traffic to the web site. Sam is very active on Twitter (@jodivineuk and @samtalkssex) and has a lot of interaction with healthcare professionals and people needing advice. We also maintain a good old-fashioned paper brochure mailing list and insert a brochure into every parcel. We find Facebook to be very difficult to work with, but Twitter can bring us useful contacts. Younger customers are certainly harder to reach and we’re going to be upping our Instagram game over the next few months.
There is a lot of talk about the growing acceptance of sexuality, eroticism, and sex toys within society. How do you perceive this development? Are people really more open-minded when it comes to vibrators and the like – or put differently, how many first-time buyers do you encounter in your activities?
Sam & Paul: Because we speak to a lot of customers on the phone, we know that there seems to much greater knowledge and acceptance of sex toys and people are much happier to talk about sexual health issues. It can however vary massively from person to person and some people of whatever age will be very embarrassed when talking about anything to do with sex, let alone sex toys. A preconception is that younger people are much more open but we often find that the older people love talking and they become much more liberated as they get older. Sometimes the conversations with younger people can actually be very difficult. We are often a first destination for sex toy novices as they find our site unintimidating.
“We are often a first destination for sex toy novices as they find our site unintimidating.”
Your online shop has a section just for information and education. How important is it to you to offer this added value to your customers? And where do you get the content you present in that section? How do you pick it? Also, how much education is still necessary in 2019?
Sam & Paul: Almost all of the information and education articles are actually written by Sam, although we do have articles by previous employees, and we are always searching out for new contributors. We are really pleased with our latest contributor Alice Hunter who is writing for us about the fetish and kink scene amongst other topics. The articles drive traffic to Jo Divine. They are well written, researched and offer practical advice in great depth that no other sex toy retailer or manufacturer offers. By combining sexual health and sexual pleasure we address the sexual issues that many people experience. Adult sex education is key to a happy healthy sex life, yet many people are still uninformed and misinformed about their own bodies and how it functions. Having a nursing background Sam writes much of the content from her own experience and through researching medical literature and articles.
We advise many people and their partners about ways to enjoy sexual intimacy and pleasure when they experience sexual health issues due to disability, injury, illness, disease, medical/surgical intervention and the ageing process, including vaginal dryness, vaginal tightness, post op scarring, decreased sexual sensation and low libido and erectile dysfunction through exploring suitable sex toys and sexual lubricants which can help them overcome sexual issues, remain intimate, enjoy sex and have fun with a partner or for solo pleasure.
In 2015 we were asked to create a health brochure containing suitable products with a urogynaecolgist and women’s health physiotherapist at our local NHS hospital to help people overcome sexual issues. As a result, we now work with many healthcare professionals in the UK and Ireland who give out our health brochure and show sample products to their patients in their clinics and sign post them to our website, articles and videos in addition to advising them to give us a call for further advice or to place an order. The health brochures are now being given out across the UK by many healthcare professionals, at talks and conferences. Sam also gives talks to healthcare professionals and have spoken at medical conferences about how HCPs can open to conversation about enjoying sex. We also attend medical conferences and work with several gynecological cancer charities.
We strongly believe having a health issue doesn’t mean your sex life has to stop! Whoever you are, you should never have to give up on your sex life and I passionately believe that it is always possible to enjoy pleasurable sex by being imaginative, adventurous and making it fun.
Let’s talk about your product range. What criteria are you looking for in the products and brands that you consider for your shop?
Sam & Paul: Skin safe, high quality reputable brands made from silicone, glass, metal and ABS plastic. We (and our customers) value reliable products – we have a tiny number of returns which keeps us and customers happy. We only sell skin safe pH balanced sexual lubricants that are glycerin, glycol and parabens free as we know all these ingredients are detrimental to vagina/vulva health. We also like manufacturers who value their brand. Some seem to have no regard for their brand and are happy to have the value degraded by low quality sellers on eBay and Amazon. We are now starting to ask the question of manufacturers and distributors ‘why should I bother advertising your product if you’re not going to protect the brand and retailer margins?’.
How would you describe your product range? What are the focal points of Jo Divine? For instance, how important are brand products to you?
Sam & Paul: As above, we only work with reputable manufacturers and distributors, it is a core principle. We have a trusted brand ourselves and we are looking to leverage that going forward by own branding quality products.
Trends come and trends go: A few years ago, women-friendly products were the be all and end all, then there were couples products. Today, male products are in high demand, and there is a lot of buzz surrounding sexual wellness and sexual health. How are these developments reflected in your range and in your communication with the customers?
Sam & Paul: We are well ahead when it comes to sexual wellness as we have so many articles in addition to our health brochure. We are currently in the process of creating a male health brochure with suitable products for men who experience erectile dysfunction which will hopefully be given out by Health Care Professionals (HCPs). We are aware that many HCPs have no idea about suitable male sex toys that can help erectile function. We promote sexual health and pleasure as they go together and focus on the benefits of enjoying sexual intimacy and pleasure, regular orgasms and promoting good sexual health. We have noticed many more beauty/wellness/menopause brands, websites and celebrities promoting poor products and treatments that can be detrimental to sexual health and pleasure.
What are the purchasing decisions of your customers based on? Is the price the most important thing for them? The brand? The material? How much weight do your recommendations and sales advice carry?
Sam & Paul: It is an issue, but certainly not the main one. We see so many retailers promising to be the ‘cheapest on the internet’ appearing every year – two years later they are gone. If price is your sole selling point you won’t last in this industry. Being a reputable trusted brand people value our advice, we often advise people that the product they think they want may be unsuitable for their needs, especially if they have never used a sex toy before or have a sexual health issue, even if it means we recommend a cheaper product.
In the European e-commerce segment, there are a handful of large companies that dominate the market, e.g. Amazon. What can you tell us about the situation in Great Britain?
Sam & Paul: Lovehoney and Ann Summers are usually the only brands that people have heard of in the UK (although we’re doing our best to change that!). Many don’t know that Amazon sell toys, but we believe it is slowly destroying much of the sector, which is why “do what Amazon cannot do” has become our mantra. We keep offering well written and researched information. Sites like Amazon and eBay find it hard (if they try at all) to keep out the fakes and low-quality retailers – something many people have no idea about which is why we always recommend people buy from reputable retailers and manufacturers.
“Many don’t know that Amazon sell toys, but we believe it is slowly destroying much of the sector, which is why ‘do what Amazon cannot do’ has become our mantra.”
‘Everything was better in the old days’ – is that also true for the e-commerce market? How has the online sale of sex toys changed since you entered this segment in 2007?
Sam & Paul: We have seen so many sex toy retailers come and go over the last 10 years and we are still here. But the entry of Amazon and the money behind Lovehoney certainly makes it a challenge. We also find ourselves behind porn filters on mobile and broadband networks in the UK, something which (unfairly) Amazon does not suffer from and is an issue the industry urgently needs to address collectively.
Do you feel that, as an e-commerce company for sex toys, you get enough support from producers and distributors/wholesalers?
Sam & Paul: We are fortunate to work with some excellent manufacturers and distributors. Relationships have changed over 10 years and the amount of business we now do with certain companies has certainly shifted.
Jo Divine has been online for roughly 12 years. Looking back, what are your fondest memories, and what are the things you’d rather forget?
Sam: Wrapping sex toys on a Sunday evening watching TV when our children had gone to bed.
Paul: I used to man the phone while still working in as a computer programmer in an office. If I got a phone call, I’d run down to a bathroom, write down the order and credit card details and then enter it when I got back to my desk. It was quite stressful at times!
We’d rather forget spending too much money on advertising that didn’t work. Also, our attempt to set up an erotic book store and a male focussed web site didn’t go very well.
A question about the current situation in Great Britain? Do you fear that Brexit – should it happen, and whichever form it may take – will affect your business?
Sam & Paul: We fear any form of Brexit. I think it is fair to say we were somewhat lukewarm on the EU in the past but events over the past few years have made us passionately pro-EU. If we crash out, it will be disastrous for the country and as most of our business is currently in the UK, it won’t be good for our business. In purely financial terms the added delays caused by shipping will make life harder and more costly. We can only hope that a sensible way out of the mess is found.
What can you tell us about your plans for the future of Jo Divine? And how will the e-commerce segment as a whole develop in your opinion?
Sam & Paul: We worry that Amazon will continue to grow in dominance, but we believe there is room for other retailers. We strongly believe that if all you have to offer is a web site listing a thousand products, you won’t get very far as that market is already sewn up by Amazon and Lovehoney. You have to differentiate yourself through product, content or other means such as genuine connection to the public. We intend to continue producing great content, but we will be increasing our social media interaction and we hope to start producing more videos and start on podcasts. We also want to get ourselves in front of the general public and have some great collaborations lined up and we will continue to work with the health sector. We also hope to start producing our own brand products in the near future.