Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly sex shops are seeing some interesting coronavirus shopping trends

An app-controlled vibrator is one of the most popular items.

At Condom Kingdom on South Street, business is booming

At Condom Kingdom on South Street, business is booming

Flickr Creative Commons / Terry Robinson
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

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There’s at least one industry that’s mostly resisted the staggering global recession that has many businesses in a chokehold.

Sex toys.

With so many people stuck inside, alone, for six months straight, manufacturers say business is now booming. Some of that is trickling down to small businesses in Philly. A few of the local adult entertainment stores are seeing profits that are actually up from before the pandemic. Even the shops that are struggling say they’ve seen a surge in online sales.

“This is just like a long Valentine’s Day for us,” Stuart Schlaffman, owner of Condom Kingdom on South Street, told Billy Penn. “I can tell you sales are at least 20 to 25% up. It could turn out to be higher when all’s said and done.”

It’s a confusing time for the triple-X merchants. Small sex shops distinguish themselves from big online retailers with customer service, including the experience of touching products before you buy. Both are difficult right now, and many are seeing an overall drop in revenue.

“We are learning,” said Kali Morgan, owner of the Passional Boutique & Sexploratorium. “Every entrepreneur is learning in sexual wellness.You have to improvise and you have to overcome.”

Proprietors are embracing online sales, introducing shopping by appointment, starting curbside pickup and using lots of disinfectant. There’s also been a notable shift in what they’re stocking due to changing customer trends.

Solo toys like vibrators are more popular than ever. So are tools that can be controlled remotely. At one shop, virtual sex ed classes are attracting five times as many students as in-person sessions.

Sidewalk sales, online stores and personal appointments

Globally, sex toy manufacturers and online retailers are seeing a huge coronavirus boom.

International companies like Adam and Eve and the Wow Tech Group (owner of We-Vibe and Womanizer) reported 30 to 200% sales increases in March and April, according to the New York Times.

That’s been the experience of Condom Kingdom on South Street. Since he reopened in early June, owner Schlaffman has seen sales jump by a quarter. He’s started stocking enough inventory to last two months at a time — both because people are buying more, and because there’s a bottleneck at the manufacturing level.

“We’re just thinking ahead,” Schlaffman said. “We’re selling way more of it, and the inventory doesn’t go bad, so why not?”

It hasn’t been quite so glorious for all Philly’s sex shops.

Morgan, owner of Passional a couple blocks down, said online sales have shot up 500% — but they were so low to begin with that it doesn’t make up for in-person sales being slashed about 90%.

Same with the Velvet Lily at 12th and Chestnut, which lost roughly half its usual business. “March was ridiculously horrible. April was horrible. May was horrible. June was horrible,” said shop owner Khara Cartagena. “We did decent in July.”

To rebound, proprietors had to change the game. Condom Kingdom now allows customers to order online and pick up in the store. In addition to their regular hours open to the public, Velvet Lily started offering private appointments and curbside pickup. So did Passional, where there have also been a few sidewalk sales.

Personal appointments likely offer the safest sex shop experience, Morgan said, explaining that during theses visits, Passional customers can touch whatever they want — clothes, model toys — and she’ll drop each one in a plastic bag to be disinfected after they leave.

“We’re still committed to letting people touch and turn on our testers,” Morgan said. “It is a lot of work. Each transaction is very labor intensive.”

Online sex ed classes attract more people than in person

Some products have become way more popular than they were before a pandemic confined everyone to their homes.

For Cartagena, whose Velvet Lily shop specializes in serving couples, customers have shown a renewed interest in bondage toys, harnesses and strap-ons. Throat-numbing spray, too.

“They’re getting a lot more bold,” she said. “I think it’s maybe self expression. Like, ‘Hey, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, who knows if we’re going to die, we might as well try things.'”

At the Passional Boutique, it’s masturbation devices that are flying off the shelves. One toy that’s made an intense comeback: vibrators that can be controlled by a smartphone.

“Technology really expanded the options of sexual pleasure that people can enjoy from anywhere in the world,” shop owner Morgan said. “This thing, which was an adult industry focused item, has now become an item that everybody wants because they can’t see each other.”

Morgan’s online classes have seen the biggest boom of all. She and her employees run a series of “Passion 101” classes — on stuff like BDSM technique, psychosexual fantasy and erotic fine arts. Normally they’re in the shop’s third floor classroom and can’t fit more than 10 attendees.

Now, classes are online, and she often sees up to 50 students register. “There’s not really any limitations,” Morgan said. “It’s better than it was.”

Whenever the pandemic finally subsides, she’s going to keep up the online classes, since they’ve been such a success. Until then, she’s just trying to outlast 2020.

“This year is an endurance test,” Morgan said. “If we can make it work, ’til the end of this year, I feel pretty confident we will survive.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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