Richard Longhurst has been making a buzz in the world of online shopping for over a decade. In 2002 he co-founded Lovehoney with friend and business partner Neal Slateford, and has since seen the company become the biggest online retailer of sex toys in the UK, and a major player in the online market worldwide. Its annual turnover has risen from just over £10 million in 2010 to £16 million in 2012, and its campaign to boost British sex lives shows no signs of slowing down. In an age where commercial businesses everywhere are folding prematurely, how has Lovehoney kept it up for such a long time?
The path to running a successful online sex toy retailer was uncharted when he and Slateford set up shop. These were times when it was still seen as an embarrassing, deviant habit to use a dildo, a vibrator or, much worse, a sex toy designed for the male market. This is something Longhurst strongly believes has changed. With the pervading emphasis on customer service and creating an online community of buyers, he sees Lovehoney as catering to a market of people who are now much more comfortable with the idea of spicing up their sex lives.
So what exactly has changed? The ‘Sex in the City factor’ is frequently cited as a catalyst in the relaxation of women’s attitudes to sex toys in particular, but there must be other forces involved in the boom that the industry has seen since 2000. Asked if Lovehoney has mainly contributed to or benefited from the change in attitudes, Richard is equivocal:
“I think we’d be flattering ourselves if we thought that Lovehoney had been a big factor in changing people’s attitudes to sex over the last ten or so years. I mean, Fifty Shades definitely did change that last year; it showed that – well it’s kind of stating the obvious – but it showed that there’s an enormous appetite for sex.”
His reference to E. L. James’ omnipresent work of kinky erotic fiction is more than a passing comment. Last year, amidst a storm of competition for the rights to market a range of official Fifty Shades sex toys, Lovehoney secured the deal and have lucratively transferred the work’s medium from paper to plastic. What made them stand out from the rest?
“Our boyish charm and winning smiles,” Longhurst jokes, but he’s clear about what actually secured the deal: “We understood what Fifty Shades of Grey was really about: you know, the romance and the excitement, not just straight bondage. Plus, we involved E. L. James in the product development, which is important; we made it clear that the range would reflect the books; we wouldn’t just be sticking labels on things.”
In the short amount of time since then, The deal has had a predictably massive impact on the company’s fortunes. He has nothing but praise for the effect that James’ book has had on public attitudes to sex: “It showed that people aren’t really that bothered about it, you know, aren’t embarrassed about it. You could see that by the way women were just reading it on the train and weren’t self-conscious about it or anything.”
Another signal of the increasing acceptability of sex and sex toys in public discussion, and of the continuing success of Lovehoney, is the documentary on the company that aired on Channel 4 last year, More Sex Please, We’re British. The show documented the running of the business from its warehouse in Bath, and followed employees as they packaged toys, chatted to customers over the phone, and dealt with a returns system that made for television gold. Longhurst was pleased with the result: “The best thing for me, apart from the massive interest and sales, was what people who watched it said about Lovehoney employees, which was that they seemed happy and to be really enjoying their jobs, which I think is really important.”
This emphasis on happiness, in both employees and customers, is a recurring theme in the conversation, and at first the idea of a sex toy company having such a virtuous social mission seems slightly comical. But if the sales figures aren’t sufficient evidence, customer feedback on the Lovehoney website truly does belie cynicism, and Longhurst is confident in his claims: “To me the best thing is genuinely making a difference to people’s lives. We get emails from people every day about how Lovehoney and the products they have bought from us has rekindled their sex lives or even helped them discover sexual happiness for the first time.”
What’s the future for the company? “We would like Lovehoney to be the best regarded sexual well-being company in the world. There’s a lot to do still, but that’s the joy of it, because every day there’s something new, a new challenge. We’ve been doing it for 11 years now and it’s never stopped being great fun.”