Cashing in on sexual wellness as a self-care category
Are mass retailers prepared to compete — at least to some degree — with adult novelty stores?
That is the question many in the industry are asking as more affordable sexual wellness products, including toys and gels, are hitting the marketplace and taboos on selling these items in mainstream stores fade away.
The result is that more and more traditional retailers have been updating their sexual wellness sections to include not just family planning and contraceptive products, but also sex toys, devices, lubricants and other items that consumers might otherwise buy online or at competing retailers. The products available at food, drug and mass retailers tend to be lower priced than those in adult novelty stores, with more discreet packaging and an emphasis on self-care and enjoyment.
Retailers are looking to these new products to drive growth in an otherwise uneven category. According to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, for the 52 weeks ended July 14, sales of sexual health products in U.S. multi-outlet stores — grocery, drug, mass market, military and select club and dollar stores — totaled roughly $1.05 billion, an increase of 3.9% compared with the same period the previous year.
The subcategory that saw the most gains was sexual enhancement devices, with sales of $35.8 million, an increase of 20.6% compared with the previous year. Sales of personal lubricants increased slightly at 0.6% to $243.5 million.
Manufacturers said retailers are beginning to realize they can attract an audience that sees the products as not being taboo. Instead, they are something consumers are adding to their shopping lists, and often picking up as impulse buys. Some retailers still are calling the sections family planning and stocking mostly condoms, while others are using signage that says sexual wellness and carrying several devices by more than one manufacturer, although some are covered in anti-theft gadgetry that must be removed by a staffer.
Part of the change in thinking is due to a demographic shift. Millennials’ attitudes about sexual wellness are different from those of the baby boomers. The Atlantic, in a December 2018 article about millennials and sex, pointed out that “shame-laden terms like “perversion” have given way to cheerful-sounding ones like “kink,” and that has opened some doors. Women’s magazines from Cosmopolitan to O, The Oprah Magazine offer not only sex advice, but guides to buying the right vibrator, or using current parlance and personal massagers. Perhaps, most importantly to retailers, Amazon has many products under its sexual wellness banner, and even offers a list of 100 best-selling items — among the top 10 items are five condoms, four lubricants and one toy.
“Millennials are the new driving force in sexual wellness,” said Michael Trigg, owner and CEO of Las Vegas-based Trigg Laboratories. “Fun products that appeal to them are the fastest rising segment of the category.”
Trigg Labs makes the Wet brand of lubricants, including its premium Wet Platinum Silicone Lubricant and its newest product — Wet Desserts Frosted Cupcake Flavored Lubricant. “Consumers love something new, fresh and fun,” Trigg said. “Features like taste are a big change with growing sales.”
Expanding the set
Others agreed that flavored lubricants are a segment that can help retailers increase sales in the sexual wellness category.
“Retailers are dipping their toes into more alternative categories than in years past,” said Catherine Corsaro, director of marketing and product development at United Consortium. “For example, on a shelf crowded with a variety of standard personal lubricants, our flavored formulas and arousal gels are receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from buyers and consumers.”
The company’s Muse brand added new flavors to its edible, water-based lineup of personal lubricants. The new flavors include creme brûlée, mint chocolate and salted caramel. A new foaming toy cleaner and a rebranded lineup of arousal gels also are available.
Consumers want to be able to purchase these products in the retail stores that they frequent. “The growing acceptance of big- box sexual wellness is now an expectation, not a surprise,” Corsaro said. “As such, we’re seeing buyers recognize that instead of fighting stigma. The best option is to leverage the white space categories that will attract consumer attention without negatively impacting their brand image.”
The new products reflect a shift in the sexual wellness products from need to want, which can help drive incremental sales in the aisle. “Consumers immediately know what these are for, without explicit explanation, leading to an impulse buy,” Corsaro said.
Last year, Newton, Mass.-based Clio, a personal care company, launched its plusOne line of high quality, affordable sexual wellness devices. “PlusOne entered what’s been essentially known as the ‘adult novelties’ category as a sexual wellness brand, and ever since then, we’ve seen other vibrator brands adopting a similar language,” said marketing director Stephanie Trachtenberg. “While the taboo around the subject still exists, it’s much more inclusive for brands when you position yourself in terms of wellness and self-care, as Americans are increasing their spending in this area.”
Not only has the language changed, with words like massager, arouser and stimulator to describe the devices, but more products now exist. “There’s also been a surge in lotions, creams, etc., for a more expanded feminine wellness offering extending beyond simply hygiene,” Trachtenberg said.
Clio is focusing on the connection between self-care, health and beauty, and is pursuing independent studies on the topic. “We’re excited to be pioneering a bit of a self-care revolution in beauty as well,” Trachtenberg said. “Positioned under self-care for both wellness and beauty, we’re reframing the context of how we relate to ourselves.”
The brand is launching four new products this fall, including two devices — the Air Pulsing Arouser and the Mini Massager — as well as toy cleaning wipes and a personal lubricant. “We will continue to grow with the increasing demands of the female consumer in all aspects of self-care,” Trachtenberg said. “The feminine health aisle and family planning aisle have the potential now to merge into one self-care/wellness aisle to be more inclusive of the consumer need state, so she knows exactly where to find the products she’s looking for.”
Another shift taking place is how the sexual wellness category reflects the health demands of consumers. Products were once solely focused on preventing pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections.
These days, consumers have different health goals and want other benefits, and seem less interested in contraception and family planning than previous generations.
That change in thinking presents a challenge to manufacturers and retailers. According to IRI, sales of male contraceptives totaled more than $348.9 million, down 1.3%. Unit sales are down 4%, to 38.46 million. Meanwhile, sales of female contraceptives are up 9.4% to $421.9 million.
The decrease in condom sales is not due to a lack of sex. Although some media stories have indicated that millennials socialize in groups and tend not to date or have sex as often as expected, a r