The global sex toy industry has been heating up for years, with projections calling for the global market to more than double to $72 billion by 2029. And while that valuation tees up an easy “that’s a lot of vibrators” joke, the point here is that the very ubiquity of these products is nothing to blush about. This shift is the latest in the years-long evolution to destigmatize pleasure. The growing understanding that sexual wellness is a component of general health isn’t just reflected in year-over-year industry growth and personal-nightstand inventories: In 2023, you can expect a normalization of in-store shopping for sexual-wellness products. With inventory increasingly available at mainstream retailers like Target, Rite Aid, Walgreens, and Neiman Marcus, you’ll be able to snag a vibrator with your mascara, prescriptions, and grocery haul.
“Consumer demand, appetite, and comfortability with sexual health and wellness, including devices [is there], and we've seen it shift really quickly in the last two years,” says Mitch Orkis, founder of sexual wellness brand Cake, which was founded in June 2020 as a direct-to-consumer (DTC) online retailer and expanded into big box stores (both online and brick-and-mortar) for the first time in 2021, first launching at Walmart and then this year in Target and CVS. “Retailers are acknowledging [the need for an in-store presence], and they understand that there's a lot of money to be made bringing in products that people actually want to be buying,” Orkis says. Thanks to in-store success (Orkis says Cake products often sell out), Cake will further expand its shelf space in 2023.
Sex toy brand Satisfyer, meanwhile, launched in-store at Rite Aid in late 2020. Since then, the brand has increased its distribution at the pharmacy by 150 percent and dollar sales have increased by 80 percent, Stephanie Trachtenberg, Satisfyer’s director of marketing and public relations, tells us. Satisfyer currently has five products available at Rite Aid and is looking to grow—at Rite Aid and elsewhere. “We certainly believe there’s opportunity here [to expand product offerings in-store], and are continuing conversations for potential new mass retailer partnerships and expansion,” says Trachtenberg.
The increasing ubiquity of a wider range of sexual wellness products, including vibrators, lubricants, and anal-play toys, on store shelves has been a long time coming. While condom use was popularized during World War I in order to prevent the spread of venereal disease, the legality of selling condoms in the U.S. was murky until the 1930s (thanks to the Comstock Act of 1873 that made it illegal to sell “immoral goods” like contraceptives and sex toys through the mail). In 1937, the FDA mandated national standards for condom testing, which legitimized the industry and gave larger companies the green light to produce products en masse. Lubricants would come later—they only hit pharmacy shelves in the 1980s, says Carol Queen, PhD, Good Vibrations sexologist and curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum.
According to Queen, the drugstore “family planning” aisle that houses sex-related products, with a focus on contraception and disease-prevention, has only been around for about 15 years. As we head into 2023, that outdated term—and emphasis on reproduction—is getting a modern makeover. “The term ‘family planning’ is essentially a conservative one, especially when we use it today,” Queen says. “And accessing sex toys has zero to do with family planning. Reproduction and sexual pleasure aren't the same thing.”
Sexologist Rebecca Alvarez Story, founder and CEO of sexual wellness brand Bloomi, tells us that Target is swapping its “family planning” aisles for “sexual health” ones nationally in order to reflect its customers’ range of needs. In April 2022, Bloomi became available in 1,200 Target locations. “Target wants to open [its offerings] up to this broader category [of sexual wellness] and make it more inclusive,” Alvarez Story says.
“Gone are the days where we’re going to see more products in pink and blue, for women or men. The whole concept of full-body pleasure is something that more big box retailers will lean into as well." Rebecca Alvarez Story, founder and CEO of Bloomi
Merchandising is incredibly important for brands that want to stand out from the competition on store shelves. And in the new year, this increasingly means sexual wellness brands will move away from stereotypically gendered marketing and packaging. “Gone are the days where we’re going to see more products in pink and blue, for women or men. The whole concept of full-body pleasure is something that more big box retailers will lean into as well,” says Alvarez Story.
In this vein, Orkis attributes Cake’s traction with customers, in part, to its gender-neutral approach. The brand’s color-coded “sex care system” guides buyers to the products that are right for them based on anatomy and pleasure, rather than gender identify. “All of orange means penis play, all of blue means vaginal play, all of pink means backside play,” Orkis says. Across the industry, Orkis says he’s seeing a big shift towards “the systematization of sex and just making it easy to understand and convenient.”
Big name department stores are also giving more floor space to sexual wellness products. Retailers like Sephora, Bloomindale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom have been offering sexual wellness products online (stocking products from sleek direct-to-consumer brands like Dame and Maude) since 2021; Nordstrom was the first with its Valentine’s Day online “pop-in” shop. But they have their sights set on a brick-and-mortar presence as early as 2023.
Need more proof? Vella, a pleasure serum brand, will be launching as part of a sexual wellness pilot program in-store at Neiman Marcus in early 2023. Vella is currently available online and in 45 Bluemercury stores (the partnership began in June 2022). The Neiman Marcus launch is something Carolyn Wheeler, Vella chief operating officer and co-founder, is excited about, because she believes shoppers want to invest in sexual wellness—and they’re not ashamed to purchase in-person.
“Discoverability and education in-store is easier than it is online. The category comes with a lot of shame and the way people get over that is to have conversations out in the open,” Wheeler says. Vella has projected in-store sales to quadruple in the next three years—and predicts that shopping IRL will become the most dominant way Vella customers will buy the product. In the beginning of 2022, the ratio of DTC to in-store sales was 90:20. Wheeler projects the ratio to be 40:60 in 2023. And by 2025, she expects in-store to massively outpace DTC with a ratio of 20:80.
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Beia, a new sexual wellness brand that focuses on pre- and after-care for sex, is also looking to expand its customer base through partnerships with big retailers. During a founder pitch competition at Create & Cultivate’s October Small Business Summit in New York City (which Beia won), Beia founder and CEO Brittany Lo announced that she was approached by a luxury retailer to launch their sexual wellness category in 2023.
The bottom line is that there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing more sexual wellness in our favorite stores IRL. And as Wheeler says, the more we see pleasure-focused products integrated into the scenery of our daily lives, the more normalized buying and using these products will become. “I think retail is going to be another place to help us destigmatize toys and similar products,” says Alavarez. This shopping type of environment will “make consumers feel comfortable buying everyday household items that they need, and then grabbing an intimacy product.” Now that’s something to get excited about.
According to Cindy Deily, vice president of skin-care merchandising at Sephora, the sexual wellness category is going to continue growing for the beauty retailer in 2023—online and eventually in-store. Currently, Maude and Dame are only sold by Sephora online; however, “We are looking forward to bringing these products in store [to Sephora] in the future,” Deily tells us. And that’s because the response to the accessibility of sexual wellness has been overwhelmingly positive from shoppers. “Sephora clients are actively shopping the category…We look forward to continued growth and expansion as we strive to meet the evolving needs of our clients,” says Deily.
Maude founder Éva Goicochea, thinks there’s reason to believe other luxury retailers that currently only sell sexual wellness products online will follow suit with in-store availability. “[UK-based department store] Selfridges has built out holistic wellness in-store.” she says. She sees this as a healthy indicator of what’s to come here in the States. “As more retailers bet on sexual wellness, [Maude] anticipates a larger retail presence in 2023,” Goicochea says. ✙
Shop Buzzy Sexual Wellness Brands at Your Go-To Retailer
Opening Photo Credit: Maude, Hero Photo Credit: Dame
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