Lovehoney co-founder Richard Longhurst talks to Kat Slowe about his burgeoning erotic accessories and lingerie business, discussing the progress of new subsidiary companies Coco de Mer and BeCheeky.com, as well his successful bid to become the international distributor of the official Fifty Shades of Grey accessories collection – launching this month.
“It is an impossibly exciting task,” exclaims Lovehoney co-founder Richard Longhurst, as he attempts to describe his feelings on winning the international contract to manufacture and distribute the official Fifty Shades of Grey accessories collection. “I read the first book and I was overcome. I had to have a very long lie down. My Kindle melted.”
Lovehoney and Fifty Shades sounds like a natural fit. Both are British, both focus on sexual pleasure – Lovehoney’s catchphrase is ‘the sexual happiness people’ – and both are extremely lucrative; it is a match made in a very kinky heaven.
The Lovehoney group, which is currently one of the leading companies in the world for erotic accessories and lingerie, was founded in 2002 by former IT journalist Longhurst and his web developer buddy Neal Slateford. The pair started the business after realising that there was a massive gap in the market for a technically strong website, selling good quality products and offering proper customer service.
“Basically, we were internet nerds,” reveals Longhurst. “I worked at Future Publishing. I was Editor of .net, an internet magazine. And, my friend Neil, who became my business partner, worked on Future Publishing’s websites… We left Future Publishing in about 2000 and had already decided that we wanted to launch an e-commerce store.”
The idea to enter into the erotic accessories business struck Longhurst after perusing a variety of adult stores… The entrepreneur takes the time to explain that, at the time. he was already running an online shopping directory and it was in the course of developing this business that he first came across the e-tail sites.
“I was thinking, firstly, they were all technically very poor,” he says. “The sites didn’t function very well, they weren’t designed very well. From a customer service point of view, they were awful… They would say things like, ‘well, we have got this stuff for sale. If you order this thing and we don’t have it, we will send you something else and that’s tough t***’. There was no photography. Things were just shown in their packaging. You couldn’t see what you were buying.
“The descriptions were very poor. If there was a description at all, it was all along the lines of ‘ooh yeh, go on. Shove this up her, she’ll love it.’” Longhurst says this last statement in a funny, piratical accent – reassuringly, his ‘bloke down the pub’ impression doesn’t appear to be aired too often.
Pertinently, according to Longhurst, the business launch took place a year or two after a famous Sex & the City episode aired, ‘the one where Charlotte gets addicted to her rabbit’. On the one hand, Longhurst realised that such accessories were designed for the female market. After all, it was mostly women who were buying vibrators. However, on the other hand, all he could see were technically bad websites with no customer service, designed by men for men.
“So that was really it,” Longhurst says. “We said ‘okay, let’s do a female friendly sex toy website.’
“We have grown every year. I suppose in the vernacular now, you would say that we bootstrapped it. We put in £4,500 each, back in the day – 2001 money.”
Ten years down the road and Lovehoney has gone from a two man project, operated out of Longhurst’s bedroom, to a multi-million pound international business. Today, the group not only runs e-tail sites Lovehoney.co.uk and US equivalent Lovehoney.com, but it also owns notorious luxury retailer Coco de Mer and e-tailer BeCheeky.com – both businesses which it took over last year in an attempt to make inroads into the mainstream market.
Longhurst explains that the biggest battle to developing the business is the attitude of the mainstream market to his company’s products. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to heightening brand awareness, a process that Longhurst claims is usually hampered by many media outlet’s unwillingness or inability to run its adverts at peak times.
“When we were doing our TV advertising last year, it was just a big battle to get an advert to show at all,” Longhurst says. “We are in a conversation with Offcom, ongoing, about when it is acceptable to sit on a sofa, on a TV shopping channel buried in the Sky programme guide, and show a vibrator. Turns out, they won’t let you do that at 5pm in the afternoon. They won’t even let you do it at 8pm in the evening. But, at midnight you might be alright until 4 O’ clock in the morning.”
Lovehoney’s purchase of Becheeky.com formed part of an attempt by Longhurst and his partner to get their adverts into the mainstream media. The pair decided to buy the ailing business and use it as a vehicle to carry their considerable range of lingerie products which, at the time, were retailing through Lovehoney.co.uk.
Longhurst says: “We thought okay, we have this big lingerie collection, let’s do a lingerie website that can be a softer site for consumers. We can then advertise in more mainstream media, try and build an audience around that, and then softly, softly, softly, introduce that audience to other products that we sell.”
Sales through the site have reportedly been steady. But, despite all his early and no doubt good intentions, the business hasn’t been a huge focus for the erotica boss. This is because, three months after the partners bought BeCheeky.com, they were handed the opportunity to purchase something even more exciting.
“Be Cheeky was really elbowed aside by Coco de Mer,” admits Longhurst. “Because that is obviously a fantastic brand, unrivalled in its market, the original luxury, erotic boutique – often copied, never bettered. And, Sam Roddick had a fantastic vision for it and made its name. But, it just needed some expertise, certainly online and just in running the business, as well.”
First things first, the Lovehoney team made tweaks to the website, ‘just things like the checkout’ and brought stock levels back up to scratch. They also took out some of the site’s more ‘esoteric’ features, such as campaigns that founder Sam Roddic was involved in, which at the time were carried out under the Coco de Mer umbrella.
Over the past year, they have started the process of producing new, own brand lingerie lines, which will be released by the luxury retailer, each season. They have also developed new luxury bondage and toy lines, which will sell exclusively through the Coco de Mer boutique and website.
Once the in house and own brand product mix has been ‘sorted’ and further refined in store, the next step will be to look at the best locations around the world to launch a second boutique. This could, however, still been some distance off.
“We are not losing money anymore,” Longhurst says, “but Fifty Shades of Grey is the main focus now.”
And, it is Fifty Shades that may finally provide the solution to the original problem of mainstream attitudes to erotica.
“That’s what Fifty Shades of Grey has shown to these mainstream retailers,” says Longhurst, “that they see more than 40 million books sold worldwide, so more than five million books sold in the UK and they see companies like us reporting a boost in sales because of it, so they are all rubbing their hands thinking, how can we get involved in this market? And, they can get involved with it by selling the Fifty Shades of Grey official range with our help, essentially.”
Lovehoney first became acquainted with the Fifty Shades of Grey book earlier this year. The team, who always try and keep abreast of what is happening in erotic fiction and the ‘market generally,’ noticed when the self published novel – which started as a piece of Twilight fan fiction – hit the New York Times bestseller list. And, then, they continued to watch in amazement as the phenomenon rapidly gained pace.
“When it crossed over into the mainstream, it really took on that virtuous cycle of the more media coverage it got, the more people read it,” Longhurst says, “so the more media coverage it got, so the more people read it.”
It was apparently at a relatively early stage that the team realised that the book was actually changing attitudes and perceptions towards sex and sex toys. On grasping this trend, the company attended a licensing show in Las Vegas, where Longhurst met with the licensing agents for Fifty Shades of Grey and introduced them to Lovehoney. A pitch was made and six month later Lovehoney was appointed international distributor for the official Fifty Shades of Grey accessories range (excluding the Americas, the distributor for which has yet to be announced).
“I am sure they received pitches from dozens of companies for different product ranges,” says Longhurst, “and I am sure that adult products was one of the key areas. We were delighted that they chose us…
“I think what Lovehoney offered was to take the Fifty Shades of Grey name and work with E L James to design the products so they match exactly what was used in the books. And, then, expand upon that and make Fifty Shades of Grey this brand, this touchstone name, that people can instantly recognise and have faith in so, when they see a product with that logo on it, they know that is the one they can trust and they can buy, and enjoy.”
The range currently encompasses twenty different products, consisting of both soft and harder bondage items. The items, which feature names inspired by passages from the books, include the ‘Inner Goddess’ Silver Pleasure Balls (£24.99), the ‘You. Are. Mine.’ Metal Handcuffs (£14.99), ‘Submit To Me’ First Time Bondage Kit (£44.99), ‘All Mine’ Deluxe Satin Blackout Mask (£16.99), ‘Sweet Sting’ Riding Crop (£16.99) and ‘Twitchy Palm’ Spanking Paddle (£19.99).
The breadth of the product range is designed to ensure that there are elements for every intimates retailer, no matter its ‘type’ of clientele. Longhurst is aware that while some stores may wish to take everything – including the vibrating ring – others might wish to start more sedately and test the waters with a feather tickler or blindfold.
“I think the ones that will do the best will be the blindfolds and the keggle balls because they are the main focus in the books,” says Longhurst, “but the one that I particularly like the most is the small vibrating bullets, which we call ‘we aim to please.’ It is a really simple toy, just very, very powerful.
“You see in the market, obviously, a lot of these really fancy rabbits. They swirl and they twirl, and they do all these amazing things, with features and functions, and so many buttons. But this is really simple, straight forward and powerful, and it really does what women want and enjoy – strong vibrations, no messing around.”
The Fifty Shades of Grey products will be sold through Lovehoney’s wholesale arm, which already distributes the company’s own brand product range – first started to provide a point of differentiation for the Lovehoney.co.uk website – to retailers outside of the UK.
Lovehoney recently re-branded this part of the company Omora, in a bid to differentiate between the wholesale and retail sides of the Lovehoney business. Omora will still operate under the Lovehoney umbrella, but the new name will hopefully make it easier for customers at trade shows to know which part of the company they are dealing with.
“We have got far too much to do,” reveals Longhurst. “Lovehoney.co.uk is still growing incredibly fast and we have got huge ambitions to make that even better known than it already is, and enhance its position as the leader online retailer in this market. We already have Lovehoney.com, the US retail site and other international sites will follow. I shouldn’t tell you where, because someone might copy us, but there will be more next year…
“Omora and the trade side of our business, particularly Fifty Shades of Grey, is a massive opportunity – not just for us, but for all the retailers that we want to supply. The Fifty Shades of Grey name is instantly recognisable now… It’s gone totally against the stereotype, which is you use a sex toy because you don’t have a love life and you are sad, and you are lonely, and you masturbate in your garret. In fact, the opposite is true, the people who use sex toys have the best sex lives.”