Sex sells. You?ve heard it a million times, and you?ve seen proof of it in every form of media, from movies and magazines to television and billboards. But what about selling intimacy products in your natural foods store? If, like Tracy Reezer, health and beauty aids buyer and merchandiser at the Whole Foods Market in Boulder, Colo., your personal lubricant sales ?don?t make up more than 1 percent or 2 percent? of your personal care sales, then you?re missing out.
The American public doesn?t shy away from sex—they?ve helped it become a ?multibillion-dollar industry. Some put the figures as high as $9 billion per year,? according to a May 2004 article in the New York Times.
The time is right for natural foods stores to add very personal care to their personal care section. Naturals companies are grabbing hold of the idea that pleasure heals and running with it. Don?t be left behind.
Very personal care
Why go natural with intimacy products? These are personal care products that go on—and in—the body, so customers should be extra wary of potentially harmful chemical ingredients like the ones found in conventional personal care merchandise. ?There are four kinds of personal lubricants on the market: water-based, oil-based, silicone-based and petroleum-based,? says Andrea Sanzo, founder of Sensuous Beauty Inc., a natural skin care and pleasure products company based in Sebastopol, Calif. ?Petroleum-based products are very dehydrating to sensitive tissue and should never be used in any personal product, let alone a personal lubricant,? she says.
Melissa Jochim, founder of Bliss Lube, a water-based lubricant company in Geyserville, Calif., agrees that petroleum-based products should be avoided. According to Jochim, ingredients such as ?mineral oil, petrolatum, propylene glycol and butylene glycol are derived from crude oil and are occlusive in action. They are used in the majority of [mass] personal care products and are known irritants, causing skin irritation, eczema, inflammation and photosensitivity.?
Most conventional lubricants and some natural ones also contain preservatives, such as parabens or phenonip, which are formed from benzoic acid. A 2003 study conducted at England?s University of Reading and published in the January 2004 Journal of Applied Toxicology found that 18 of 20 breast tumors studied contained significant concentrations of parabens.
Another factor that makes natural pleasure products a must is that a woman?s genitalia are highly sensitive to foreign substances. ?It?s very important for women to use products with healthy ingredients because the walls of the vagina do not have an outer epidermis and are very permeable membranes—the ingredients of the product a woman uses will go right into her bloodstream,? Sanzo says.
Jochim agrees. ?A woman?s pH level is 3.9, which is very acidic. A lot of lubes are ?pH neutral,? which is a 7, and too alkaline for women?s bodies. Messing with pH levels can cause problems like yeast infections for women, which is why Bliss Lube has a pH level of 3.9 and is very nourishing to the female system,? she says.
Another controversial ingredient in the lubrication world is glycerin. Wendy Strgar, president and founder of Good Clean Fun Inc., makers of Sacred Moments, a natural pleasure-product line, claims that ?glycerin is sugar-based and can cause yeast infections,? and does not use it in any of her products. Sensuous Beauty makes the same claim and also does not use glycerin.
Bliss Lube?s Jochim supports glycerin use, however, and believes the ingredient to be a natural alternative to chemical preservatives. According to Jochim, ?Glycerin is most commonly produced from the soap-making process, which involves the hydrolysis of sodium hydroxide and vegetable oils. These hydroxyl groups make glycerin a preservative by nature. Glycerin actually destroys bacteria. Glycerin can also be synthesized from petroleum oils and the fermentation of sugars with sodium bisulfite. In all processes, the glycerin derived is not a sugar, but an alcohol. It cannot feed yeast, but will most likely inhibit its growth. Glycerin is a natural humectant and moisturizer. Unlike petroleum derivatives, glycerin allows the surface of the skin to breathe.?
According to Cheri Neveu, founder of The Soap Meister LLC, ?True glycerin is a naturally occurring byproduct of the handmade soap-making process. It is excellent for your skin, as it attracts and holds moisture to your skin. The glycerin in most of the commercially produced products is not true glycerin, but is made with chemicals, hardeners and scents to cover the actual odor of the compounds used.?
While clean ingredients in intimacy products are, of course, important, another huge question is, how can natural personal products be effectively marketed in your store? Sex is a sensitive topic, and above all, retailers want to avoid offending their customers. At the same time, sex is a natural and healthy human occurrence. According to Strgar, ?Making love is good for you, as shown by hundreds of major medical studies, which suggest that an active sex life may lead to a longer life, better heart health, a healthier immune response, reduction in chronic pain symptoms, lower rates of depression and even protection against some cancers.?
While some stores may not have a problem selling personal products, others do. ?Lubes are hard to purchase; people don?t want to take them to the cashier because they?re embarrassed and don?t want to be perceived as having [sexual] problems. Natural sex products don?t sell very well because of this,? says Whole Foods? Reezer.
Strgar agrees that some stores have a hard time selling natural pleasure products because customers lack the education about sex that would allow them to be more open about it. She suggests retailers ?focus on the healing aspects of sex. People who shop in natural foods stores are there because they care about their well-being, and so they?ll be interested to learn about how sex can improve their health.? She also stresses the importance of educating store employees because ?If the employees aren?t comfortable talking about sex and offering to help the customer, how can the customer be expected to feel comfortable buying the product? Retailers who do the best with my product are those that are comfortable having a dialogue about sex, and who offer shoppers brochures about the benefits of the products,? says Strgar, whose sales of Sacred Moments products have quadrupled in the past year.
But not all stores and not all customers are created equal. ?Something that works for one store may or may not work for another,? says Reezer. ?It all depends on your customers and what they?re willing to accept.? Reezer says some stores merchandise sex products in a prominent place ?because it?s part of human nature and we don?t want people to feel ashamed or to hide it.? But Whole Foods? weak sales may point to a need for a change.
Strgar admits that while she believes that sex is ?natural, beautiful and totally human,? others might not. ?People don?t want to be watched when they?re buying these products. They should be placed in a private area, or at least in an area of the personal care aisle that doesn?t draw a lot of attention,? she says.
Another marketing approach is to play up the romance aspect of personal products, and offer customers more than just a personal lubricant. ?Have fun with it,? says Jochim. ?Place the lubes along with massage oils and other romantic items with fun, friendly packaging.?
Sanzo, whose company is averaging a 45 percent to 50 percent growth rate every year since 2000, agrees that customers ?respond to beautiful things,? and are less threatened by romance than sex. She suggests that retailers create a libido section that?s ?fun, plush and inviting? and sell intimacy products in gift sets that can include ?lubes, condoms, candles, incense, oils and libido-enhancing supplements.? Offering a selection of natural pleasure products is as important as making sure you stock organic milk and paraben-free lotion. Natural intimacy products benefit your customers? health, and selling them will benefit your store?s profit margins. Find the marketing approach that works for you and your customers, and just as sex sells in Hollywood, so too can sex products sell in your natural foods store.
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 98