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Retail Royalty Heirs Focus on Sex

Sex shops, in general, aren’t places you’d take your daughter. Walls are typically lined with all manner of pleasure devices in roughly the same fashion that wrenches are displayed at a Home Depot – and they’re hardly a place most people want to linger.

Things are a bit different at Coco de Mer. Antique cabinets showcase goods and many people often don’t immediately realize they’ve walked

Coco de Mer
Source: Coco de Mer
Coco de Mer

into a shop specializing in adult novelties and lingerie. Founded nine years ago by Sam and Justine Roddick, daughters of Dame Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop retail chain), the line of boutique stores specializing in upscale products has found a way to make sex less intimidating to an often prudish public.

“I have had a surprising number of mothers that bring their daughters into the store in Los Angeles,” says Justine Roddick, who oversees the company’s U.S. stores. “Their daughters are going to college and it’s like a rite of passage. I hear [the mothers] talking to them about buying a sex toy and how it’s better to pleasure yourself than just going out and having random sex.”

The chain, with four locations (a New York shop just opened), was founded nine years ago – and it’s decidedly different than most stores specializing in erotica. Showcase cabinets highlight everything from the expected pleasure devices to R-rated china and dinner table accessories to jewelry that also has sexual functionality. Dressing rooms have a two-way confessional-style door letting one partner model lingerie and other fashions for the other. The Manhattan location even plans a 24-hour delivery service for customers.

The sisters say they never planned to follow in their mother’s retail footsteps. They had planned to concentrate on activism.

“We were bought up by feminist mother and father, and we wanted to bring a new message to the world of sex and sexuality that included love and kindness, but also included naughtiness and humor and filth - and it wasn’t until the doors opened that we realized [the best way to do that] was a store,” says Sam Roddick.

It proved to be a store that was a celebrity magnet. Ringo Starr, Deepak Chopra and Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart attended the 2006 opening of the L.A. location. And the Roddicks say Angelina Jolie is a customer.

Coco de Mer sells everything from lingerie from Stella McCartney to 18K gold pleasure devices costing more than $10,000. It’s not for everyone, but demand for high-end sex toys has climbed in the recession.

And few adult novelty store owners have the retail pedigree of the Roddicks.

“Our mom was our university,” says Sam. “We learned the best bits from her. … She taught us to have a passion about what you do – and to inject yourself into that. And she taught us to keep your business close to home and know your suppliers. These were the foundations our business was built on – because it makes sense.”

There are challenges, of course. The fact that the store specializes in adult novelties, some of which might shock the general population, can

Sam and Justine Roddick
Source: Coco de Mer
Sam and Justine Roddick

generate controversy. Each Coco de Mer also hosts regular workshops on everything from oral sex techniques to bondage education.

The classes (which cost $65 to attend) generally sell out – but the unflinching focus of the stores on sex still scares many people away.

“[Coco de Mer] is not porn – but the mere mention of the fact that we sell vibrating toys is enough to have people running in a different direction,” says Justine.

While Coco de Mer has a Web presence, the unique nature of the stores has proven to be a bigger draw for customers. Brick and mortar sales vastly outpace Internet sales – though the Roddicks don’t expect that to be a permanent phenomenon.

“The website is gaining ground,” says Justine. “What we’ve found is … once you open a store, your web sales begin to grow. I suspect, in a few years, the Website will overtake the stores.”

Not surprisingly, the odds of Coco de Mer reaching the level of success of The Body Shop are pretty low. That’s fine with the Roddick sisters, who joke they only want to open stores in locations where they themselves like to shop.

Ultimately, they could see as many as 20 locations worldwide – but no more.

“It’s pretty difficult to fake it when you’re not enjoying your job,” says Justine. “Sam and I don’t have to work, but we choose to because we love it so much.”