You don't have to be a child to play with toys. Specially if you're playing with yourself.
One day in December 2014, Balaji TV, a Mumbai boy with a background in gaming, met Ute Wiemer, a Berlin girl who worked for Fairtrade, at a party in Bangalore. Each discovered, strangely, that they both shared the same dream: to sell sex toys. "She didn't believe me, and I was afraid that maybe she thought it was a pick-up line," says Balaji, but the two clicked and became friends. They decided to set up their dream business together, and by October last year they’d begun operations. Balaji had seen sex shops in Europe and the US that were female-led and “not gross”, like the Good Vibrations store in San Francisco. He wanted to offer something similar in India that was sex-positive and female friendly, and so did Ute; and so Lovetreats was born. We asked them about the craziest things they've discovered selling sex toys in India.
How do people react when you tell them you sell sex toys full-time?
Bala: A lot of people think it's a joke at first, like we're mocking them. For us it was important that we tell everyone about our work, we didn't want to do anything we couldn't talk about. When I first told my father about it, he didn't talk to me for a couple of days. Then he asked if it was a joke. He was okay with it once I explained my larger reason – most sex-related stuff available in the Indian market is aimed at men, who buy the stuff for themselves and expect their partners to use them too. Lovetreats is not just about sex but intimacy as a holistic concept, and we want to sell products that look classy.
Soon, my father had questions about the logistics of our business, and put us onto a friend of his – a 68-year-old man who had been importing goods for years. Now, my father regularly asks how business is going, and some of my cousins ask about it too. They're some of the most conservative people I know. But they're also genuinely curious and want to know more.
Ute: At first this older friend was a bit awkward about it, but then began to ask really technical questions, like, 'Is it battery operated?' and 'What material is this made of?'
Bala: I have friends who are silent when I tell them what I do. Then a few days later, they call and ask if I have this particular item from page 2 of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Ute: Really often, when we tell people what we do, they say oh, okay, and you feel like they're a bit awkward about it and they don't ask any more questions and go away. But then they come back a couple of days later with loads of questions. A common question we get is: Is this legal? Yes it is!
You don’t just sell your products online – you take them with you to stalls at events too. But do people prefer the anonymity of the internet? Is that where you’re likely to make the most sales?
Ute: In the first couple of months, we sold more offline, actually – we thought it would be the other way round, but people seemed happy to come up and talk, and we got really positive responses from people and follow-up orders from visitors and their friends. The cool thing about the physical events is getting to see so many kinds of people. We had aunties buying stuff for their nieces who are getting married, for wedding nights, or bridal showers.
Bala: A lot of couples buy together. We have some who say that they recently had a baby and need something to spice up their sex lives. It's really encouraging when couples talk openly about things, like saying to each other, ‘I like this flavour, do you?’
Ute: Sometimes a couple will come up and look at a blindfold, and say, ‘Do you want to try it?’ And the other may not want to. It gets the conversation going – what can we do together, what do we not want to do together. It's really nice to see healthy, positive conversations. We still do physical events, like toy parties and around two pop-up stalls every month, but our online sales have picked up a lot so, now, it's far more online (around 70 percent) than offline.
Who tends to be the bigger buyer of your products, men or women?
Ute: At first, it was women. They seem to be primarily buying for themselves. Usually at the physical events, the women come first to look, and then they get their partners.
Bala: That was one thing we didn't expect to find – that men are more shy. The women talk about it more.
Ute: Since our online sales picked up so much, we’ve seen that it’s changed – it’s around 50-50 now in terms of who’s buying. We see a lot of men buy toys for their partners now (and women buy for their partners as well, by the way), and many of them ask for advice and guidance on our support chat before they buy. But men buy a lot for women, whereas women still mostly buy for themselves. So most of the products are bought for women.
Are the orders coming in only from big cities?
Ute: Our clients aren't just from big cities. We have online orders from all over India, including small towns, some of which are so small that the big courier companies like FedEx and BlueDart won't even go there, so we have to send it with India Post.
You sell a wide range of items, from lighter stuff like body ribbons, edible underwear and massage oils to down-to-business sex toys like G-spot stimulators and rabbit vibrators. What’s your bestselling item?
Ute: The body ribbons, aphrodisiac soaps, massage oils etc. used to form about 75-80 percent of the products we sold. Our bestsellers used to be massage candles that melt into massage oils, and chocolate body paint. They’re still a big hit, but things have changed immensely: now our absolute bestsellers are toys for both women and men. The bestseller for men is called "Lip Lock", it's an oral sex simulator. And the bestseller for women is a high-end rabbit vibrator called "Miss Bi”.
Your sex toys look pretty cool and fancy, and not like the usual toys at all. Is that deliberate?
Ute: We found that the global trend for sex toys is to focus is on design. It should look modern and stylish and beautiful, right? People should be comfortable using them. They should be objects you personally find appealing. Not like a 90s flesh-coloured dildo that looks like a penis...
Bala: We felt that design is a good way to overcome the awkwardness and intimidation that usually people experience while exploring or buying sex toys or for that matter most sexual wellness products. So we not only wanted our website to be classy in terms of design, but also made it a point to choose products that look classy and have a cool design, so that they make people curious and comfortable, rather than intimidated or awkward.
Do people take the fact that you sell sex toys as license to ask you gross stuff?
Ute: I do tend to get uncomfortable questions from strange men. Sometimes people misunderstand what we do and think we sell sex. On two separate occasions, men have asked me if they can "buy" women from us, thinking we’re some kind of online brothel. Then there are people who ask if I do product testing (wink-wink) all the time.
Your website also has a chat function. What do folks usually want to know?
Bala: People ask what products are suited for a particular occasion, and they also ask for recommendations. Once a guy asked what kind of product he could use to have sex with his girlfriend. I asked him more specific questions to figure out what he was looking for, but the more I asked the more it became clear that there was no girlfriend – he was trying to buy something to make someone he didn’t know have sex with him. A date rape drug, basically. I was horrified and told him not to do that. And I referred him to our counselor, who is part of our team. Sometimes the questions are out of our bandwidth and need some kind of expertise. We don’t want to say, 'We don't know and we don't care,' so we partnered with a professional who could answer such questions for us.
Women sometimes ask questions about sexual health or sex ed, because they say they can't speak to their gynecologists about it without being judged. Some people also want to talk about their relationship problems. But we’re keen not to make it seem like we can solve a problem like a failing relationship with our products.
What’s the funniest interaction you’ve had with a customer?
Ute: We thought that our customers would be mainly young people – people in their 20s and 30s and newlyweds. But we’ve had middle-aged people buy from us too.
Bala: There was this woman in her 50s – we thought she'd pick up soaps or something mild, but she went straight for the handcuffs and a blindfold. We asked if she was buying them for herself, but she said she was past the age for fun – it was for her niece getting married.
Ute: Or at least, that’s what she told us. Lots of people tell us they’re buying for ‘friends’.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Naveen Mallik
Cover photo illustration by Eshna Goenka