A kiss of life for sex toys

By Hu Yongqi and Yang Wanli (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-07-08 08:10
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She is 27, works as an art designer, and browses online for sex products nearly every week.

She started in September 2009 after noticing a sex products store near her home in Beijing's Dongcheng district. "I was curious about what the products can do and if they could really improve sex life."

But she shied away from going into the store, lest a friend see her. (Similarly, she didn't want her name published.)

A kiss of life for sex toys
Ma Ke arranges a product display in the downtown Beijing Juse store where he is sales manager. China has an estimated 200,000 sex shops; Juse is one of the largest chains. [Zhang Tao / China Daily]

A few days later, she typed chengren (adults) into a search engine and was surprised by some of the results - sex products, including vibrators and sexy-looking underwear for women and inflatable dolls for men.

When she found something she liked and clicked on "buy", she joined thousands of people who purchase erotica online.

At the outset, her boyfriend asked her not to buy such "vulgar" products. Then he saw how she looked in the new underwear. In the past two years, they have bought two more pieces of sexy undies and two vibrators.

There are no official statistics on the number of sex product stores in China, but sex experts estimate that 200,000 stores compete for annual sales of at least 100 billion yuan ($14.7 billion).

Over the past five years, thousands of online sex shops have opened as well, said Lin Degang, a council member of China Sexology Association, an academic society focused on sexual health.

Statistics from e-commerce giant Taobao show that sex toy retailers took in more than 14 million yuan (about $2.1 million) in June. How many sellers are there? A China Daily reporter searched Taobao for "sex toy" on Thursday and got about 26,000 hits.

The next boom

With the exception of condoms, sex products cannot be advertised in China on TV or radio or in print media. There is no restriction on websites, however, so that's where Chu Chengxin runs his business.

He is 36, has been selling sex goods for 11 years, and says the profit margin is huge. A pack of condoms made in China costs 1.8 to 2.5 yuan wholesale, he said, but it retails for 10 to 25 yuan.

From 2000 to 2009, Chu ran a bricks-and-mortar store that cost him about 10,000 yuan. He said he earned about 80,000 yuan each year.

The next "booming trend in China" will be selling sex toys online, said Yang Changjing, the 27-year-old boss of Zui-qingfeng, a sex toy shop on Taobao.com.

Search Taobao for "sex toys", and you'll see a gold crown next to his shop's name, indicating 500,000 or more sales since the store opened in 2008. Other symbols indicate lesser milestones; silver crowns, for example, signify 10,000 sales.

"The biggest sex toy shop on Taobao had only gained three silver crowns in early 2010, which showed that its total sales volume was just over 100,000 deals," Yang said. "But now, there are two golden crown stores. It's a big increase."

A kiss of life for sex toys
Goods at the store range from the electronic to old-fashioned. At left is a German product the manager described as "an instrument to help exercise the muscles of male sex organs". The whip at right is easier to recognize. [Zhang Tao / China Daily]

Before Yang started the business, he earned his university degree and worked four years in sales for a Taiwan-based company. "It was just a normal job, which couldn't help me to earn more."

He liked the relatively slim competition in the sex toy business - maybe 3,000 sellers on Taobao in 2008, although he said it had more than doubled by 2010 - and the potential.

A well-managed online sex toy shop took in less than 100,000 yuan (about $15,000) a month in 2008, he said. "But now, my store turns over about 1 to 2 million yuan ($150,000 to $300,000) every month."

Yang said his most popular product is an egg-shaped electronic toy, which both men and women can use. Zuiqingfeng sells 50,000 to 100,000 of them each month, priced from 20 yuan to 200. Women are the primary customers for sexy underwear, he said, and they buy 20,000 to 30,000 pieces a month.

Who buys?

"The biggest consumer group is people aged between 20 and 40," Yang said.

At traditional stores, customers are mainly 35 to 55, said Li Fang, president of Juse Co, one of the biggest sex shop chains in China.

A kiss of life for sex toys

"People from this age group are likely to have a lot of career pressure and low levels of sexual satisfaction," Li told China Daily in a previous interview. But they also "have more purchasing power and a more mature attitude toward sex toys".

Online and in-store customers shop differently. Statistics released last month by Juse showed that online purchasers mostly are random buyers, although Li said they spend about five times more than people who go to traditional stores.

Traditional shoppers are aware of what to buy that is suited to them. In 485 Juse chain stores nationwide, more than 80 percent of visitors buy something, the Juse report said.

Ma Ke is sales manager of a franchise Juse store in Beijing that Chai Hongguo bought in May 2010. His store on Dongzhimen Inner Street is stocked primarily with imported goods, from regions and countries such as Hong Kong and Germany.

Ma said 50 to 60 people come in every night and half of them make a purchase. "Many people come here with a clear idea of what to buy, and we'll tell customers about products in detail."

People who find that too embarrassing can find the information online, Li said. Juse has an online outlet, www.x.com.cn, which Li said also has been useful in promoting the brand. More than 60 percent of potential buyers in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Changsha know about Juse, she said.

The 'shabby' factor

Stores without an online presence are feeling the pinch.

Wen Jingfeng thinks that is why sales declined slightly in the past five years at the Adam & Eve Health Center store he opened in Beijing in 1993. He said he will probably develop an online outlet to promote sales.

That also might counter a type of problem he encountered in the past: "People would feel very embarrassed to come into our shop and would even leave their change after buying something, as they wanted to get out quickly."

In some cases, going into a sex goods store is the stumbling block. Many of them look shabby, Li said, and that image discredits the quality of the products.

Her company's public relations officer, Leo Jiang, believes the grungy stores, many in residential areas, will fade away because they won't meet the demands of the younger generation.

For about 10 years, a man who identified himself only as Mao, 45, has been running a sex shop for extra income in his neighborhood in Beijing's Chaoyang district. He figures that about 70 percent of Beijing's 1,000 or so sex shops - including his own - fall into the "shabby" category, and that hurts sakes and drives customers to online shops.

He does aim to provide service, though. His mobile phone number is written on his store's glass door, and customers can call during the day to place an order. He promises to deliver the goods within six hours.

'It's modern'

Some younger Chinese have moved beyond shyness and are delivering the goods in their own way. "Sending sex toys to new couples as a gift is so cool," said Tang Yang, 28, who works for a public relations company in Beijing.

One of her best female friends got married last year, and Tang's wedding gift was a selection of condoms and a sexy purple dress. "Her husband saw the gift and said it was quite interesting and useful," she said.

"Of course, it's modern to do that. Some of my friends appreciated my idea and followed my example. It's not a shameful thing to have better sex. The toys give more chances for lovers to both be involved."

Tang said it's reasonable that a new bride would hesitate to choose a sex toy on her own, "so her female friends should take the responsibility to give the bride what she wants".

A 33-year-old woman in Shanghai, who declined to be named, told China Daily that she and her husband have no qualms about buying condoms in public. They are, after all, available at hospitals, supermarkets and convenience stores.

"However, picking up sex toys is still shameful, especially when you need to ask the sellers for some details about the products." They overcame their initial embarrassment about using toys, she said, and started buying online two years ago.

"They are exciting and bring us a higher quality of sex life," she said. "Moreover, online shopping helps protect our privacy, which encourages us to bravely seek greater happiness."

Not everyone is sure toys are the healthy choice.

Xia Xueluan, a sociology professor at Peking University, said the public, especially the younger generation, should develop a good sex life with their boyfriends or girlfriends, or their spouses.

"Indulgence in sex toys will be harmful to people, physically and psychologically, as they should have a natural sex life," Xia said.

Back to potential

China's first major government-licensed manufacturer of erotica calls the industry "delicate".

The door to the market in China has opened only a fraction, said Zhang Chi, sales manager of Lover, and total sales on the Chinese mainland are no more than those in Japan, which has less than 10 percent of China's population.

He said that from 1994 to early 2000, the factory's gross profit margin was just 20 percent. Lover's products exceeded demand. But in 2000, the company received a $200,000 investment from a Japanese company and gained its technical support. The new products coming off the line and the foreign market turned things around, and in 2006, Lover's sales reached $8 million.

Now the company claims 70 percent of the sex toy production on the Chinese mainland. More than 90 percent of its products are exported, for sale in 27 countries.

"Sex toys are taken as evil things by many people," Zhang said. "We are doing something meaningful, which brings new ideas to people's sex and helps them have better sex.

"The potential of the market has not been stimulated yet."