Good vibrations - the selling of sensory pleasure

Sabrina Earnshaw is a sales professional with experience across two sensory industries. She shares what she’s learned with Felicity Carter.

Sabrina Earnshaw
Sabrina Earnshaw

There came a time when Sabrina Earnshaw suddenly realised she was spending too much time checking out the different wine styles and regions on offer in the Beckford Bottle Shop in Bath.

“I realised that either I joined them on the shop floor, or I spent all my money there,” she says.

She landed a job in the shop on Friday and Saturday nights, for a total of 12 hours a week, and signed up for the WSET Level 1. Eighteen months later, she’s still there, is now up to Level 3, and has discovered she has a flair for selling wine. Then again, perhaps her wine selling ability comes, in part, from what she’s learned in her day job.

Earnshaw is the B2B Sales Manager for Lovehoney, a British company that specialises in adult products — otherwise known as sex toys, lingerie and erotic paraphernalia. And maybe the insights from that business could be of value to wine retailers.

But first, it’s worth understanding how the adult toys business works.

Customer focused

Earnshaw joined Lovehoney eight years ago, just before she graduated from her Masters in management with marketing in Bath. She ignored all the people who told her that having the adult toy industry on her resumé would hurt her career and says it’s a fun, female-friendly business that focuses on pleasure. “Lovehoney see themselves as the ‘sexual happiness people’,” says Earnshaw.

Finding new ways to please people involves plenty of cold, technical research, using insights and data from the Lovehoney retail platform. The company also has a product development team, which works in close collaboration with their engineers. 

Which raises an interesting question — when it comes to sex toys, what does innovation look like? The human body hasn’t, after all, changed much over time. Wine faces a similar constraint because, because if it’s pushed too far, it ceases to fit the legal definition of wine. Skin contact whites, and red wines fermented in qvevri are all just variations on a theme.

“It’s more about making the best product out there,” says Earnshaw. If the market wants a rabbit toy, then “let’s make the best rabbit”, using better materials. It’s also about understanding the competition. “We might see something at a trade show and think ‘we can do this better’,” she says.

Without warning, Earnshaw produces a bright pink sex toy. It’s a Zoom interview, so all Meininger’s has seen so far is the room behind her, not what’s sitting under her computer camera. It turns out she has quite a few Lovehoney products on the table, all in the same three colours.

“We do have the data, so we know what colours sell,” she says. Black, purple and shocking pink, for the record. Orange, green, blue? Nope. Consumers might say they like them, but they don’t buy them. (The impact of label colour on wine consumers isn’t very well understood; the small amount of research that’s been done suggests that it’s not colour alone that’s important, but the combination of colour and image that matters. But that work is more than a decade old and was conducted on a very small group, so it needs more research.)

The remarkable thing about the products Earnshaw is holding, though, isn’t their colour but their size. They are enormous, the erotic equivalent of Jeroboams and Methuselahs. Earnshaw flicks an attachment and watches it wobble. It’s long, thick, ridged with bumps, and designed to be inserted. “I wouldn’t recommend this one for a beginner,” she says.

Earnshaw, who is matter of fact when she talks about the products, is serious about her job and says that Lovehoney spends a lot of time investigating what customers want. The top three desires: Products that work in water; USB ports for recharging; and so much power you could sand a table with it. Unfortunately, says Earnshaw, “there’s only so much you can do with a motor”.  

As in wine, customers are also demanding ever-increasing quality, which means not just better materials, but also more testing and more market feedback. “You want to make sure you’re using the best silicon out there,” says Earnshaw. “Cheap and nasty is out.”

So farewell to the soft jelly toys that used to melt if left in storage too long. Products also require safety certifications.

Product testing is not done by in-house staff. “We have a database of testers,” Earnshaw explains. When a new prototype is ready, the testers are asked if they would like to try it. “Then they come back and say, ‘well, I’ve given it a really good run, and I like this, and I don’t like that’.”

Asked if she’d seen any changes in consumer behaviour during lockdown, Earnshaw says yes — more customers are using remote-control toys.

“They have a range of between three and five metres,” she explains, meaning that one partner can wear a toy and the other can control it from another room, turning the intensity up or down as desired. Or, if he or she uses an app, from the other side of the country. It’s the adult toy equivalent of the Zoom wine tasting.

Relevance to wine retail

Consumers find buying both wine and sex products difficult and intimidating. This was never a problem for the adult industry, because if people wanted their fix, there weren’t many places to get it. “Sex stores used to have sticky floors and shag carpets,” says Earnshaw. “People used to come in to buy DVDs, and it was all very focused on men.”

This gradually changed from the 1980s onwards, when stores for women began to appear, and accelerated after the 1990s show Sex and the City normalised toy shopping. But then came the Pornhub website and online shopping. Men abandoned the stores in droves, while women preferred to shop in the privacy of their own home. 

To survive, the stores had to reinvent themselves as service centres for women and couples. “They had to improve the lighting and make it more of an experience,” says Earnshaw. 

The staff had to improve as well; they now needed to offer reassurance and advice. The best staff often turned out to be middle-aged women, because they are seen as unflappable and sympathetic. Today, there are numerous articles about adult store design and one of the key insights is that clean, uncluttered spaces with good lighting will help reduce the stress of even the most nervous customers. 

Some stores have even become destinations in their own right, like the Fun Factory in Munich, which commissioned New York designer Karim Rashid to transform a drab space into one filled with beguiling curves and organic forms. “I was determined to create a retail environment filled with desire, emotion, and passion,” Rashid later told the website dezeen.com.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for wine retailers — to stop carving up the store with horizontal and vertical shelves and, instead, create a more fluid and interactive space. “In a wine shop, people are just looking at bottles,” says Earnshaw. “In a sex shop, it’s more tactile. People can grab things and play around with them.” She acknowledges that wine shops can’t keep opening bottles for people but thinks there needs to be some way to get customers to engage with the product in a physical, stress-free way.

It’s an intriguing idea. Maybe stores could offer jars of herbs to smell, or vineyard rocks to hold, or Coravins to practise on.

The Zoom call ends, however, because it’s Friday and Earnshaw must get to the wine store. She says she is going to keep up the wine job for as long as possible, because “I’m having so much fun.” Which is, after all, the point. Of both industries.

Felicity Carter

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