Sex Toys and Puzzles: Two Sides of the Same CoinCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Sex toy sales are booming — here’s why, according to Lisa Finn of Babeland in NYC. Published: May 22, 2020
On a socially distanced walk last week, my friend and I were divulging our weird online shopping behaviors in quarantine. She was late to our walk because she had fallen down a Brooklinen.com rabbit hole in pursuit of the “perfect” sheets — a product she never gave much thought to pre-pandemic. For my part, I recently paid a ridiculous amount of money to order a 10-pack of juice boxes found only in Canada, my birth country. No regrets: the taste of my childhood has transformed my WFH desk lunches. The fact that both of our splurges elicit direct physical pleasure — soft sheets enveloping the skin, sugary juice unleashing dopamine into the blood — is telling. We are shopping for visceral bodily comfort at a time when the health and safety of our bodies is acutely threatened.
I think the recent surge in sex toy sales is evidence of a similar impulse. Since social distancing effectively cancelled interpersonal intimacy, people are filling the void with products to elicit the warm-and-fuzzies: cozy sheets, sweet treats, and yes, sex toys. To get more insight into this trend, I called up Lisa Finn, Brand Manager of Babeland in NYC. (She’s been featured on Quiddity here and here.) Read on to discover how Babeland’s web sales track against COVID-19 closures, why sex toys are kind of like puzzles, and the importance of pleasure, even in a pandemic.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You closed the four Babeland storefronts on March 17th, which was five days before Cuomo mandated the closure of non-essential businesses. How did you make that call?
People were endangered. Our New York workers are unionized, so we had a conversation with their union and we decided that it was in everybody's best interest to close early.
What was that conversation like?
I can't speak 100 percent to this because my position doesn’t oversee that, but from what I understand, we had staffers [starting] from [March] 12th that were like, "I don't feel safe coming into work today. Can I use sick hours?" or "I'm immunocompromised" or "I live with my parents who are older." We didn't want to push somebody to come in, and we had to restrict some of our hours before we did the full closing because we didn't have enough staff.
On a business end, it was definitely a hard decision to make. We have a web store, but [closing the brick-and-mortar locations] has taken a huge toll on us financially, especially because we're still paying rent, security, and utilities on them. But keeping our staff and customers safe takes priority over all of that.
What was business like in the days leading up to your full-on closure?
As soon as there were rumors about potential lockdowns, we saw a lot of people rushing in to stock up on things like safer sex barriers. When we closed the doors, we saw a lot of that shift to the web.
How are web sales going?
When new places announced lockdowns, we’d see web sales coming in [from those same places]. It was interesting, you almost saw a map lighting up to see which areas were being told, "Hey, you can't leave the house.” We also saw a slight spike when people started getting their stimulus checks. But it's hard being on the web, especially in the era of Amazon. We're doing well, but it's not making up for our closed stores. The thing that hurts me personally is that we don't have the ability to talk one-on-one with our customers, which is so much of the heart of what Babeland does. Our customer service line is open and we have folks running our social media that are able to answer some of those questions one-on-one. I don't know why I said, "folks” — it's me. It's me by myself right now [laughs]. You can DM [the company profile] and I'll talk to you as if we're talking in the store. But a lot of folks don't know that they have that option. And as much as we've tried to promote it, a lot of folks are still going to big box stores. Even Walmart sells sex toys now. So it's difficult, because we're losing that in-person community and the face time that [makes us] a trusted source.
Are you considering bringing any of your educational workshops to Zoom or Instagram Live?
We have considered it. The unfortunate reality is that we can't do something like Facebook Live because our business has been flagged as “adult.” On Instagram, we're trying to find ways to do little clips and such. But if we were to be doing something like that, it would most likely be me with my cell phone in my own home, and I don't have access to our store props. I don't think it would be appropriate for me to use my personal collection to show people how to use sex toys.
We are moving our education aspects to blog posts, just to protect the privacy of our staff so that if they don't want to be on video, they don't have to be on video. We're in the process of getting those written. But the reality is that we're on such a limited staff, and that's one project of a hundred that are going on right now. And some of the other projects are a bit more essential to keeping our business afloat.
Right. And let's talk about the staff — how many have you had to cut?
So unfortunately, our retail staff less the management team is currently on furlough. We are covering health insurance to make sure that people are still protected. And when we do reopen the stores, everyone will be welcomed back to take their jobs.
How has your job description shifted during quarantine?
So much of what I was doing was based in the store itself, working with our education and events team. My role has shifted 100 percent to the web now. I'm also working on initiatives for when we do reopen the stories. I've been doing so much research on safety protocol and watching the news to see how things are shifting. One of the things that's been the hardest shift for me is that I'm so used to marketing at a time when people are more comfortable, and when I use the word “comfortable,” [I mean] emotionally as well as financially. How do we promote without being too in people's faces? It's hard to market when you know that people are losing their jobs every second. As much as I would love to be like, "We don't have to tell people to buy our products," we do, or else we're not going to be able to reopen our stores. It's hard to find the balance.
How are you working to safeguard your retail locations?
We've been trying to talk to our landlords about potentially differing rent and paying interest on getting rent back later. Thankfully, we are seeing a boost in web sales… Chad Braverman, the COO and CCO of Doc Johnson, had this wonderful quote about how the industry of sex toys is becoming a “really interesting non-essential essential.” We are depending on doing well on the web to make sure that everything can go forward.
How do you feel about the prospect of reopening?
As much as I would love to reopen from a business perspective, I would not want to put my coworkers, friends, or our customers at risk. We're trying to figure out if we can do things like curbside pickup or appointments so that we only have so many people in the store at a time; these are all things that we're imagining. But it's so hard to say because everything is uncertain: When will tests become available? When will we have a vaccine? Right now, it's all speculation.
What do you think this moment in history will mean for the sex toy industry long-term?
A very thin silver lining is exposure. A lot of people were like, "Hey, I'm going to be stuck in the house. Why don't I buy this?" I mean like puzzles, right? Who bought puzzles before this? I maybe knew one person that did puzzles before, and now all of a sudden all of my friends are doing puzzles. Sex toys are kind of the same thing. People that didn't have an interest in us or feel like they needed [sex toys] before are discovering that sex toys are really great. That exposure is really nice, not to mention normalizing it. I can't count on one hand how many tweets about masturbation I see a day, and that's from accounts that aren't associated with sex toys. People are becoming more candid about what they do when they're alone in their house. The conversation is becoming a little bit less taboo. It's shitty how we got here, but it's nice that this conversation could happen.
At a time when we're all stuck at home and feeling isolated, what do you think the role of a sex-positive community like Babeland is?
I think reminding people that taking a break to focus on pleasure is important. There are a lot of people that feel guilty right now taking part in things that make them feel good because there's so much shit going on outside. But you can watch the news and stay informed and [also] do something that makes you feel good, whether that's having sex, using a sex toy, or lying face down on the floor and listening to Fiona Apple's new album three times. Whatever it is that makes you feel good, make sure that you're taking time to do it.
How to help Babeland:
- Follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (and DM Lisa with your questions!)
- Order online or buy a gift card to shop in-person when it’s possible
Until next time,