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Adult Toys are All the Buzz at Wal-Mart and CVS

Friday, 18 Jan 2013 | 12:35 PM ET
People receive a free vibrator sex toy which was being distributed by the Trojan condom company from their 'Pleasure Carts' on August 9, 2012 in New York City.
Getty Images
People receive a free vibrator sex toy which was being distributed by the Trojan condom company from their 'Pleasure Carts' on August 9, 2012 in New York City.

Only a couple years ago, anyone in search of adult novelties had to brave the local porn store or hop online and hope the packaging was discreet. But times have changed – and quickly.

Today, you're just as likely to find a vibrator at your local drug store, local mall or Wal-Mart. And they're likely to become even more prevalent in the years to come.

Toys have been a growth segment in the adult industry for several years now, with sales topping $15 billion. A large part of that has been because of the rise of high-end toys, which some couples see as an investment in their love life.

Those numbers, though, came before manufacturers hit major market retailers. Now, they say, the sky's the limit.

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"50 Shades of Grey has busted it wide open in terms of mainstream accepted sexuality," says Scott Taylor, founder of New Sensations and NS Novelties. "People just get a little more comfortable, and a little more comfortable, and before you know it, we've got vibrators at Wal-Mart. … E.L. James, bless her heart, she has made a lot of money for us."

The push into drug stores and Wal-Mart is largely coming from Church & Dwight, owner of Trojan Condoms. The company has released two sex toys, which it is selling alongside its other sexual health products in stores – and it's boosting awareness of its move into the market by giving away thousands of the devices in large cities. In New York, for instance, it handed out vibrators to passersby via a converted hot dog cart. At this year's CES, it did the same to show-goers.

"Pop culture hits like 'Sex and the City' and 'Fifty Shades of Grey' have helped ignite a more open conversation about sex and pleasure, making vibrators a part of our cultural zeitgeist," says Bruce Weiss, vice president of Marketing for Trojan Sexual Health products. "Our hope is that by bringing the dialogue about pleasure out of the bedroom and into the mainstream, we'll ultimately break down the barriers to purchasing sexual health products."

But sex toys aren't just entering the market at corner stores. Upscale retailers are starting to carry them as well. Brookstone, for example, has featured products by Lelo in its stores and its holiday catalog for the past two years. The Giorgio Armani store in Milan sells OhMiBod's products. And high-end company JimmyJane has had long-standing deals with several stores, including Nordstrom, Sephora, Sharper Image and Fred Segal.

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"What I have been saying to people is I feel we're in the sexual revolution 2.0," says Suki Dunham, founder of OhMiBod, vibrators that pulse in time with music on people's iPods and other portable music systems.

To further position her company as a mainstream business, rather than one that's part of the adult niche, Dunham skipped this year's porn conventions and opted instead to display new products (including a line co-produced with Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kandi Burruss) at CES, where booth traffic was steady.

Of course, the recent push by Trojan and Durex into the market is helping high-end adult novelty companies raise their profile as well.

"The consumer mindset is a bit different," said Ethan Imboden, founder of JimmyJane. "What's really propelling this is major corporations who cannot ignore the 50 million women in the U.S. who have used a vibrator. They can't ignore this business anymore. It's too close to their core businesses."

Trojan's own research into the market has found that nearly 60 percent of women agree that sex toys are a healthy part of their sex lives. Numbers like that helped the company make the jump into the market.

"As the category is becoming increasingly mainstream, people are becoming more comfortable buying them," says Weiss. "The vibrations category represents a significant growth opportunity for the brand. …. In fact,according to Nielsen,Trojan Vibrations dollar sales were up 25 percent in Q3 2012 … [and the company sold] more than 273,000 vibrators at food, drug and mass retailers nationwide."

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The rise of sex toys in stores could also open the door for other sexual enhancement products. Liberator, a publicly traded maker of sex furniture, was one of the first companies to break through in the mainstream, advertising in Cosmopolitan magazine and appearing in several Hollywood films. But because of the bulky size of its product, the company has not been able to appear on brick and mortar store shelves.

New packaging technology is letting it make that push now to retail partners – like CVS and Walgreen - who sell its products on their websites. That could help boost Liberator's revenues, which were close to $20 million last year.

The prevalence of sex toys in mainstream culture has moved well past retail, though. At the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, for instance, guests can dial room service and have everything from whips and handcuffs to vibrating panties delivered instantly to their room. The products come from a company creatively named Booty Parlor, which also makes romance-themed cosmetic products that have been sold in retailers like Victoria's Secret in the past.

Despite the presence of adult novelties in neighborhood stores, there's still a line of discretion that manufacturers must maintain.The packaging of toys is demure and doesn't alert non-interested parties as to what the consumer is buying. And none of the products that are sold in drugstores or high-end retailers is the standard bullet-shaped vibrator that many people imagine.

OhMyBod's ClubVibe, for example, more closely resembles a computer mouse, while JimmyJane's just announced Hello Touch is worn on the user's fingertips.

"We can market these products very discretely as a massager and that has been met with success," says Taylor. "You're not seeing phallic objects on the shelf – and you likely never will. If these products don't scream 'I'm a sex toy' they're going to succeed."

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