From Sex Shops To Supermarkets: How Adult Toys Became A Multi-Billion-Pound Industry

With almost every major UK supermarket now devoting shelf space to adult toys, From Sex Shops To Supermarkets chronicles the phenomenal growth of the sector over the last two decades.

As the 21st century began, Ann Summers pretty much had the sex toy sector to itself in the UK. Its high street shops and army of party planners ensured that anyone planning to buy a vibrator would most likely become an Ann Summers customer.

But things changed. Smart ambitious rivals, who traded over the internet rather than from bricks and mortar stores, began making inroads into the market. And there was no one smarter or more ambitious than Lovehoney. It is now a billion-dollar-business, and From Sex Shops To Supermarkets charts its astonishing story.

The book also explains how sex shops have evolved over the last two decades and reports on the mainstream retailers who have tried to muscle in on the market. It also shines the spotlight on the celebs who have contributed to the gentrification of sex toys, looks back at the Fifty Shades phenomenon, and highlights some of the industry’s most innovative products.

From Sex Shops To Supermarkets encompasses elements of business, social history, and popular culture and it is available now in paperback (£9.99) and ebook (£4.99) formats from Amazon platforms worldwide.

To those we leave behind: a trade show is not a holiday, it’s hard work actually…

NEWS_ETOSHOW_BUSYSeptember! How can we be in September? Where has the year gone? I haven’t even booked a summer holiday yet. I’m not likely to now either, with EroFame just around the corner. A number of people I know who have regular jobs in regular industries, and who have never attended a trade show in their lives, tend to think these trips are holidays though: “Jetting off again, are you? Sheesh, you’ve got a life of it! Let me know if you want someone to carry your bags, you jammy bastard!”

The truth, of course, is very different. Trade shows are exhausting. Not because we’ve all been up drinking in the bar until the next day dawns and the first guests start coming down for breakfast, but because they’re bloody hard work. After a day or two of relentless trade show interaction (RTSI), the mouth starts to act independently of the brain. It’s conducted the same conversation so many times with so many different people that, like a Pavlovian dog, it goes off automatically when encountering a familiar face: “What do you think of the show? Doesn’t it seem quieter this year? Have you seen that new vibrating thing that goes up your bum? Where you staying? Going to the party tonight? When you flying back?”

And so many of us live such sedentary lives that the constant traipsing up and down the aisles – interspersed only with sessions of standing around to have the type of robotic conversation alluded to above – provokes unfamiliar physical sensations: “What’s happening to me, Ma? I can’t feel my feet! Ma! Ma! Am I dying?”

And even when it’s over, it’s not over. It always takes at least a few days to reacclimatise to conventional society. Going into a pub is surreal because you don’t recognise everyone stood at the bar. And they’re not all discussing vibrating things that go up your bum.

Then there’s all the extra work you’re faced with. Not just the stuff you need to catch up with which needed your attention while you were at the show, but all the new, additional work you’ve created for yourself while you were there. There’s the pack of business cards to sift through – did you accept that one to be polite or were you actually interested in what they were selling? But, worst of all, there’s that crushing feeling of horror that washes over you when you realise that the scrap of paper left by the phone on your desk contains the details of an appointment you made with a very, Very, VERY important client before you left – and you forgot all about it.

The Kinks, Jethro Tull, and Lovehoney…

BLOG_LOVEHONEYFORUMPAGEI went to a party last month and it was rubbish. Yes, there was food, drink, and Cards Against Humanity, but the hosts didn’t get up once to change the music. In fact, they didn’t play a single CD all night. Instead, they ‘curated’ a Spotify playlist: “No Dale, you can’t interrupt it…”

One of the few good things about socialising in strangers’ houses used to be that you could see exactly what type of people they were, and whether you wanted to get to know them more, by scanning their record collection (I have never failed to gel socially with anyone who is fond of The Kinks’ criminally underrated 1970s’ albums, for instance). And the same result could be achieved by perusing your hosts’ book shelves or DVD collections.

At least it could until fairly recently. “Access is becoming the new ownership,” according to Brian Chesky, founder of Airbnb. He might have been talking about a different sector but a growing number of consumers prefer Spotify to CDs, Netflix to DVDs, and a Kindle to books.

And it’s easy to see why. As well as offering a much wider choice of content, and at a fraction of the price, going digital takes up almost no space – so that’s an end to hellish weekend trips to Ikea in search of storage ‘solutions’ too. Bonus.

The only downside is that retailers of these products are left feeling as redundant as agricultural workers in 1701, after Jethro Tull marched into work with a smug grin on his face and said: “Hey guys, come check out my awesome new Seed Drill! It’s the tits!”

But retailers of adult products could benefit from consumers going digital. Because according to Christian Jarrett, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology, around a third of people in the UK collect something – and at this point please follow me in the unlikely direction of Lovehoney’s customer forum. In a thread called ‘Size of your collection’, which was started on 8th March 2016, a user called Sex Squid wondered how big other people’s toy collections were. Discarding respondents who were vague in their replies (“Two bedside drawers full”, “Large”, “I dread to think”, “I’m not going to count” etc), the average figure*, taken from all (17, at the time of writing) users who mentioned a number, was 65.

Yes, these people are real enthusiasts (another thread, ‘What are you contemplating purchasing next?’ has over 4,000 replies) and some might be bragging, but even so… could sex toys be the new record collections? “Oh do come and see, Sophie! James has got the Tenga Flip Hole too!”

* The actual figures, stats fans, were: 17, 80, 20, 40, 50, 111, 16, 14, 24, 28, 70, 15, 7, 25, 25, 370, and 200.

This article first appeared in the April issue of ETO magazine.

Sex toys as investments? 20 sex toys to appeal to tomorrow’s collectors


There is currently an eBay listing for a video game called The Great Giana Sisters, a platform romp released in the late 1980s by Rainbow Arts for the Commodore Amiga. The ‘Buy It Now’ price is £1,199.99. Now this game is not necessarily representative of its era* but there are plenty of other Amiga games for sale on that same auction site at hilariously high prices.


Are you after the old arcade shoot ‘em up, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins? That’ll be £199 please. Mindscape’s knights and dragons epic, Moonstone? It’s yours for £439.99. The Psygnosis sideways scroller, Shadow of the Beast? A snip at £599.99. System’s 3’s ‘rare’ Putty Squad? Let’s call it a nice round £1,500.

Assuming any of these games ever do find buyers, the new owners will receive a cardboard box containing an instruction manual and a floppy disk or two – which may or may not work after all these years. As there are far cheaper ways to play far more advanced video games than those old ‘classics’ it can only mean that the buyers and sellers are collectors.

It’s easy to boo collectors, particularly since Toy Story 2 (boo!) but who else will preserve the output of our pop culture for future generations to marvel and sneer at?

There is already a collector’s market for vintage sex toys (though sadly I was unable to find  any examples of those Victorian steam-driven units which were designed to treat women with ‘hysteria’ on eBay) but which mass produced models will be worth preserving, unused in their packaging, in the hope of a big payday in 30 years’ time?

I took a look back through the ETO archive and selected these 20 examples from the first decade of the millennium (up to 2010) which could be worth hanging on to…


The Cone by Twisted Products:

One of the most talked about products of 2006, The Cone was unlike anything that had gone before it – or since, come to think of it. It retailed at £50 and delivered very punchy vibrations, and its design meant it could be used hands-free by any gender. Jonathan Ross liked it too.


Delight by Fun Factory:

According to Fun Factory, Delight was designed to “combine internal and external stimulation in an innovative way”. The award-winning creation looked very different to anything else on the market, plus it was rechargeable and came with its own case – almost standard now, but not in 2008.


Earth Angel by Caden Enterprises:

It might not have looked particularly swish but Earth Angel was made from recyclable parts, came in recyclable packaging and it was powered by the user. Yes, it was the world’s first wind-up vibrator. A range of sleeves were promised for 2009 but sadly the project never got the backing it deserved.


The Great American Challenge by Doc Johnson:

It might sound like a special at a burger bar but when it was launched in 2004 this 15” tall beast was the industry’s biggest ever vibe. Supplied in patriotic red, white and blue packaging, it is something of an industry icon and is still available. Not recommended for beginners.


Hand Sex Machine by Som:

This 2007 male masturbation device sits between the user’s legs and gives him a robotic hand job. It came with a wired remote control, to adjust the speed of the strokes (up to an impressive 180 strokes per minute). A blow job version was also available.


Hello Kitty Massager by Sanrio:

The legend goes that after the firm which licensed Hello Kitty learned that ‘shoulder massagers’ could be used for other purposes, they tried to stop them being sold. Only to reverse this decision a few years later. They can still be bought online though, in this form and in a keychain version.


Horny Hopper by Crown Designs:

It sounded like an inspired idea: reviving the Space Hopper, which appears in every ‘I Love the ‘70s’ nostalgifest, and adding a dildo to it. Another sex toy that was showcased by Jonathan Ross in 2007, the Horny Hopper also appeared in adult feature films from Dreamlight Studios.


I Rub My Duckie by Big Teaze Toys:

The iconic vibrating duck heralded a revolution in sex toy packaging and non-phallic vibrators, and it still looks contemporary, despite being launched back in the early noughties. There have been many variations on this theme, some limited editions, so a complete collection would be most desirable.


Intimate Massagers by Philips:

The consumer electronics giant shocked us all in 2008 when it unveiled a range of three sex toys aimed at couples. Selling for up to £90, High Street stockists including Boots and Selfridges took them on, but Philips seemed to shy away from promoting the devices. And they quietly vanished.


Phoenix by Magma Toys:

Out of the box, Phoenix was just a conventional looking phallic vibe but with a rather flaccid shaft filled with liquid. Inside this was a silver disc and when it was clicked it set off a chemical reaction that crystallised, hardened and heated the liquid – similar to hikers’ hand warmers.


Rock-Chick by Rocks-Off:

It’s 2003 and a new product has been launched by a new UK firm. It looks unlike anything else on the market, it’s packaged unlike anything else on the market, and it works unlike anything else on the market. A still-sealed example of the toy that launched a company must be worth keeping hold of.


Sasi by Je Joue:

One of the stars of Venus Berlin 2008, Sasi was claimed to be the world’s first intelligent vibrator. It featured a smooth massaging ball which moved randomly under a soft silicone skin until the user hit the ‘don’t stop’ button – the device then stored that pattern for future use as a ‘favourite’.


Solar Sensations by California Exotic Novelties:

Solar Sensations was claimed to be the world’s first solar powered sex toy back in 2004. The solar cell, once fully charged, offered up to two and a half hours of power (at low speed) for the supplied micro bullet. With the march of the green movement, why wasn’t this more successful?


Throbbing Hearts by Doc Johnson:

Throbbing Hearts was a conventional looking rabbit but it boasted a shaft that expanded outwards and contracted again at three different speeds, making a novel putt-putt noise in the process in a no doubt unintentional nod to those early steam-driven contraptions.


VibraExciter by Vibrafun Products:

It looked a little like a Samsung phone, which was no coincidence as its bullet vibe was designed to be activated when the user received a text message. This was cutting edge stuff for 2004: so much so that Jonathan Ross featured it quite extensively on a Friday Night with… BBC1 programme.


VibraPhone by California Exotic Novelties:

It’s 2005 and firms are starting to bring out ‘discreet’ vibrators, which won’t embarrass their owner if they drop out of a handbag. This was a great example of the trend, with the vibrations delivered through the nub-like aerial. It offered three levels of power and ran off a single AAA battery.


Vibrating Hair Brush by Pipedream:

This raised the bar for a ‘discreet’ sex toy back in 2007 as it not only looked like a hair brush it also functioned as one too. However, a quick twist of the slightly phallic-shaped handle was enough to set this brush a-buzzin’. One of many Pipedream novelties worth hanging on to.


Vido by Infinite Business:

Vido was one of the first rechargeable vibes when it emerged in 2004 but its main claim to fame was its use of two motors, one in each end, which ran in opposite directions. The silicone shaft then throbbed, rather than vibrated, and this was said to be “in tune with the body’s electrical system”.


Waver by Orion:

Back in 2007 this was state of the art technology. Apparently a German engineering graduate approached Orion with his idea, which was originally designed to be a new drive mechanism for cars, and the firm lost no time in turning the unique ‘rippling’ movement he developed into a sex toy.


We-Vibe by Standard Innovation:

The product that raised the bar for couples’ toys to a whole new level back in 2008, We-Vibe has become an industry icon. Although the later versions are far more advanced, I think the collector of tomorrow will value the original – with its lavish big box packaging – over its predecessors.


* The Great Giana Sisters was withdrawn from sale, allegedly due to pressure from Nintendo, who considered it was inspired rather too much by Super Mario Brothers. And Rainbow Arts didn’t exactly help themselves here, opting to go with a coverline of ‘The Brothers Are History’.