Stores started to notice the Fifty Shades of Grey effect last spring.
In New York, hardware stores reported selling 10 times the amount of rope as usual— most of it, they discovered, to female customers. In San Francisco, women in their 30s and 40s walked into Good Vibrations stores asking for riding crops and erotic Ben Wa Balls, a relatively obscure sexual stimulation toy. And at Babeland’s four stores—the original in Seattle and three in New York—women came in asking for Luna Beads at an unprecedented rate. The stores sold hundreds. At Babeland.com, Luna Beads outsold two of the site’s best-selling vibrators.
The reason quickly became clear: Fifty Shades of Grey, the first novel in a trilogy about a college student, Anastasia “Ana” Steele. She is seduced by a fantastically wealthy, 27-year-old Seattle businessman named Christian Grey, who introduces her to bondage and sadomasochism. Fifty Shades sold one million paperback copies in 11 weeks, breaking a record held by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Worldwide, the trilogy has sold more than 20 million copies, digitally and in print. (The other titles are Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.)
Retailers and entrepreneurs are now tapping into the erotic zeitgeist to drive growth. At Babeland, sex educators started workshops titled “Fifty Shades of Hot Sex.” A banner on its website promises “everything you’ll need to reenact the kinky pleasures of chart-topping erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey” and directs customers to a list of items including a $184 Indulge Your Fantasies Kit, which features a copy of the book by E.L. James, a set of silk-and-suede cuffs for wrists or ankles, and several other toys utilized by the book’s main characters.
In June alone, sales at Babeland increased about 20 percent—significant for a company that has annual sales around $10 million. Babeland cofounder Claire Cavanah says e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle have allowed women to read the book privately. “When I see a woman of a certain age with a Kindle,” Cavanah says, “I know exactly what she’s reading.”
Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington who studies sexuality and relationships, credits stores like Babeland, Good Vibrations, Lovers and Eve’s Garden with allowing Fifty Shades to transition from the Kindle to the bedroom. Women-owned sex stores, which position themselves as feminine, safe and intellectual, have made erotic toys less taboo, Schwartz says.
“Ten years ago, vibrators would have been seen as though there was something pitiful about you,” Schwartz notes. “Now they’re seen as erotic augmentation of sexy people as opposed to something that’s wrong with you or something that’s wrong with the relationship.”
Vibrators constitute a $500-million-per-year industry, according to a report in Scientific American. Even Walmart and Walgreens carry them. Revel Body, a Seattle startup, recently raised $825,000 from angel investors to develop a vibrator that uses sonic vibration like a Sonicare toothbrush to offer users “better control and satisfaction.”
Other women-owned sex stores also benefited from the book’s success. At Auburn-based Lovers, which operates more than 30 stores under the names Lovers, A Touch of Romance and Condom Revolution, sales are up about 15 percent. This is welcome news to cofounder Phyllis Heppenstall. “Being in business 30-some years, people say that your business is recession proof. Pretty much it has [been],” she says. Until the Great Recession, that is. “Our primary customers are blue-collar workers,” Heppenstall notes. “We’re the pocketbook that got hit.” But Fifty Shades, she says, has helped bring in new customers.
At least two Seattle hotels have capitalized on the success of Fifty Shades of Grey and its local setting. The Edgewater Hotel on Seattle’s waterfront is offering a Shades of Romance package that includes a bottle of Anastasia Steele’s favorite bubbly (Bollinger Rosé), a drive around Seattle in an Audi roadster and a sailing excursion on Puget Sound. Hotel Max in downtown Seattle has a 50 Shades of Seattle package, which includes a helicopter ride, a four-hour sail, a gourmet picnic from Kiss Café and the requisite bottle of Bollinger. Both promotions run through September 30.
Carol Queen, a sexologist with San Francisco-based Good Vibrations, says the book, although maligned by critics for the quality of its writing, has assumed a cultural currency of its own. Queen points out that people “got snooty” about Harry Potter books until they saw how their kids devoured them, and parents said, “‘Anything that gets the kids to read.’ There’s a total parallel here,” Queen says. “Someone like me would say, ‘It’s not the best-written book, but anything that gets the lady fantasizing.’ The vast majority probably won’t be into BDSM; they’re probably just going to be friskier with their husbands.”
Making people comfortable with sex is what prompted Cavanah and her business partner, Rachel Venning, to open Toys in Babeland in 1993. The store’s name was later shortened to Babeland. The eureka moment that led to their opening the store came when Venning spotted some lubricant on Cavanah’s nightstand and asked why she used that particular brand, and Cavanah replied, “I didn’t find anything that I wanted.”
They were in their mid-20s, without business experience but with a vision. “It was one of those moments—they come once or twice in your whole life,” Cavanah says. “We basically had to borrow money from friends.”
They opened the Seattle store on Capitol Hill with $18,000 and decorated with furniture they found in dumpsters. Cavanah describes it as a lesbian barnraising—women from as far away as Canada drove down to help paint walls and buy products. Cavanah and Venning took the vibrators and dildos out of their packages and placed them on homey shelves alongside books, harnesses and movies. “We were afraid we’d sell a dildo to every lesbian in Seattle and that would be it,” Cavanah says.
The opposite happened: They became more mainstream, or as Cavanah suggests, the mainstream became more them. Now Babeland has 50 employees and four stores, and it intends to open more locations in other cities. Babeland.com, still based mostly in Seattle but supervised by Venning in the Bay Area, accounts for 45 percent of total sales. It distributes products across the country and around the world.
The story is similar at Lovers, which Heppenstall founded as Lovers Package in 1980 with her daughter, Kris Butt. They began by hosting in-home parties featuring lingerie, lotions and gifts. “Our shopping experience is targeted at women and couples,” says Heppenstall. “Our concept is to put every customer at ease and give them a comfortable, safe place to shop.”
As for the Fifty Shades effect, Heppenstall believes it will sustain itself. After all, she notes, the Rabbit Pearl vibrator, popularized in 1998 by Sex and the City, still attracts people to her stores.
NO GREY MATTER HERE
Alas, Seattle’s exclusive Escala condominium tower at 1920 Fourth Avenue, where Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele get busy in Fifty Shades of Grey, is not offering a Fifty Shades promotional tie-in. According to Zillow.com, Escala’s 5,200-square-foot penthouse units run between $4 and $6 million, handcuffs not included.