Carnally confused consumers?

In his monthly column, Brian Gray from Glasgow-based erotic marketing agency Lascivious Marketing offers his thoughts on all things marketing. This month he ponders the problem of choice overload in erotic retailing and how retailers should position themselves accordingly.

As you’ll have read in my interview in last month’s EAN, I’m learning to draw. But progress is going slowly. Why? Because there’s too many sources of instruction to choose from. I’ve borrowed half a dozen or more library books. Then there’s the online instructional courses. Let’s not forget every artist and their dog offering YouTube videos showing particular techniques or advice. In the deluded attempt to get me from zero to pencil-clutching wonderkid in the shortest time, the de facto result is confusion and inertia. And I’m wagering the same phenomenon is occurring in the erotic retailing marketplace among customers when it comes to buying all sorts of sexy things.

Various marketing books cite the experiment conducted in an upscale jam shop. Two stands full of delicious jams were positioned for consumers to sample. One stand had a mere six varieties while the other offered twenty four. Each stand offered a money-off coupon for any purchases made. Nearly one in three (30%) visiting the stand with only six jams subsequently bought some jam compared to only 3% of those who’d been at the stand offering the far bigger selection.

Jam’s one thing. How about something more familiar within these pages: lubes and dildos. Now, imagine one of your potential customers looking for these. Some first timers with no brand or retailer loyalty may begin with Google or Amazon. More experienced carnal consumers will invariably head directly to some of the major mainstream erotic retailers whose advertising and PR activities over successive years have generated significant levels of awareness among target audiences.

Either way, the choice of products available is on one hand fantastic, and on the other, absolutely overwhelming. Go onto Amazon and you’ll see over 1,000 different lube products. Dildos or vibrators? Over 3,000 of the things. Something has to give, and if observed behaviour over the years remains concurrent it will inevitably result in some consumers giving up, and either returning later or never returning at all. Has a sale been lost due to too many competing products?

At this juncture, it’s interesting to note that in 2015 the CEO of supermarket giant Tesco ordered the removal of 30,000 SKUs from 90,000 stocked on their shelves. This was partly due to the growing impact of Aldi and Lidl who themselves had only a fraction of the total SKUs that Tesco had. But it was also reportedly due to the CEO’s realisation that his shoppers are time-constrained and arguably overburdened – the sorts of things that presumably make shareholders anxious.

Where am I going with this, you wonder. Am I advocating some draconian limit on how many SKUs should be available? Hell, no. That’s more than just a bit hypocritical for a marketer firmly believing in consumer choice. But haven’t I just been highlighting the plight of overwhelmed and mind-frazzled consumers who can’t make purchase decisions because of too many products vying for their consideration and subsequent purchase? Absolutely. But that’s not the same as limiting the number of products to begin with. Can you imagine manufacturers being told what they can and cannot produce to avoid impeding consumer decision making? Of course not. Moreover, think of all the new artisan and independent players entering the market with new products offering something different and competitive to what’s already out there. They’ve as much right as the big hitters to be slugging it out for market share. And all power to ‘em. No, this is predominantly an issue for retailers to be mindful of.

“Choice overload” has become a bona fide topic in marketing and consumer psychology. And while in overall terms the jury is still out on the validity of the theory, gut feel alone dictates it’s worthy of further scrutiny, and how it can impact erotic retailing.

The esteemed Kellogg School of Management investigated the phenomenon further and in October 2017 highlighted their thoughts. They acknowledge that choice overload can indeed lead to buyer’s remorse if customers are dissatisfied with their choice. It can also lead to behavioural paralysis: in other words, prospects are becoming so overwhelmed they don’t act. That said, the Kellogg team don’t believe that a plethora of products is detrimental, per se. What they have helpfully done however, is identify four factors that will increase a decision maker’s chances of feeling overloaded.

The first of these is labelled “Choice-set complexity”. This concerns how product options are organised. Are they all presented in a very egalitarian manner, or are there some standout options, perhaps? Also, how much information about each is available? This is an important point because the Kellogg researchers opine that complexity isn’t so much about the sheer number of SKUs, but rather how complex it is to choose from them. For instance, if you have five dildos to choose from each with an absolute bucketload of product information and bullet points, or fifty dildos but with just one or two key points for each, it’s actually the first scenario that’s more likely to cause choice overload.

So what does this mean in practical terms? While it may seem natural to provide as much supporting information as possible to help consumers, this appears to be counter-productive – at least in the first instance. For physical store owners, by all means have some typed or written card descriptions beside products, but limit it to the brand, product name, price and just one or two bullet-points highlighting key features, perhaps just a couple of keywords for each. Underneath these however, highlight that your well trained sales associates are only too happy to provide further information – thanks to their excellent product training you’ll have given them, of course!

The second factor is called “Preference-uncertainty” and is relatively straightforward. If customers don’t have a clue where to start when presented with a bewildering array of choices it’s obviously a more likely opportunity for choice overload to rear its head. If however they already possess some key purchase criteria (a vibrator of a certain length and girth, which is USB chargeable and within a certain price range, for example), things will be easier from the get-go.

The third factor refers to “Decision-task difficulty”. In short, how difficult is the act of deciding? Are there additional time pressures adding to the equation? Or perhaps if it’s a first time visit to an erotic retailer, there are social pressures too that have to be considered. All in all, a ripe environment for choice overload to rear its head. This is where great staff training and customer service skills are invaluable, by helping minimise customer apprehensions, showing empathy, demonstrating superior product knowledge and answering key questions.

The final potential choice overload factor is classified as “Decision goal”, namely: what is the goal of visiting the store or website? Is it for an initial low-pressure browse, or has a purchase to be made there and then on that particular visit? Choice overload is obviously more likely in the latter scenario.

So, considering all of the above, how should erotic retailers strike a practical balance between offering the best choice of products while minimising the risk of overwhelming potential customers?
While not necessarily advocating a Tesco-esque product purge, it’s obvious that not all products in a given category are equal. Some will fly off the shelves while others hardly move at all. Look online, see what the renowned sex toy bloggers rate – and don’t rate – accordingly and assess whether these products can be stocked. Go through your sales data, ditching the poorest performers: it will be cathartic to say the least and show your customers that you stock only the best or most popular items.

For online stores, it can be tempting to offer a huge product range, especially if in a drop-shipping arrangement. There’s also potential SEO benefits depending on how well the pages and descriptions have been set up. Online store owners should also seriously consider – if not already doing so – helping web visitors by asking them outright what features are important (size, vibration level, different modes, price?) then directing them accordingly to the most appropriate products. This is in addition to a “refine by…” tick box menu (in which retailers such as Ann Summers do pretty well), once arriving on the appropriate pages.

In conclusion, it’s important to be realistic about the previous points. Canny retailers know there’s generally three strategies to – wait for it – choose from, when it comes to how they compete. They can either differentiate in a whole host of ways as per the marketing mix, or they can focus on a particular niche or product category, or they can concentrate on cost. Consequently, it’s going to be rare for an erotic retailer to be offering thousands of SKUs in any given sector. Even for a retailer proclaiming to be for instance a dildo specialist with the ‘biggest selection available’, there’s the matter of price to consider. Manufacturers of high end, premium products will not be overly keen on having their wares (and equally important, their brand values and positioning) cheapened due to the company being kept on the same website. High-end consumers wanting high-end products look for a high-end purchase experience – even when online.

Nobody is denying the huge number or different sex toys available for purchase. And at a superficial level, theoretically it could be an immensely confusing and overwhelming experience for someone new to adult pleasure products. But in practical terms, a whole host of other factors come into play that effectively reduces the SKUs held to more manageable (for everyone) levels. Add great staff training, an equally good working relationship between marketing and UX staff into the mix, as well as consistently good and informative content marketing, and everyone should be fine. It’s what markets – and marketing – should be about. So let’s raise our glasses to choice; long may it thrive.

Brian can be contacted at, found on Twitter @LasciviousMktng or phoned on +44 (0)141 255 0769.