Is Recession Sex Even Better Than Makeup Sex?

Or Could Analytics, Marketing Be Behind Rising Sales of Personal Lubricant, 'Sexual-Enhancement Devices'?

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- The recession hasn't taken any edge off the sexual-accessories trade and may well have helped: Data show that such things as his-and-hers lubricants and mass-market sexual-enhancement devices are producing fireworks in supermarket and drug-store aisles.

K-Y Intense is the first major mass-market female-arousal gel.
K-Y Intense is the first major mass-market female-arousal gel.
First-quarter sales of personal lubricants soared 32% to $41.2 million, according to Information Resources Inc., led almost entirely by continued strength from last year's launch of Johnson & Johnson's K-Y Yours & Mine his-and-hers lubricants. That was even before ads from Mother, New York, launched last month behind K-Y Intense, the first major mass-market female-arousal gel, which has gotten major end-aisle displays in such surprising places as Walmart stores this spring.

Meanwhile, the small but suddenly booming "sexual-enhancement devices" category in food, drug and mass-market stores is growing even faster, albeit off a very small base, up 74% to $10.1 million for the full year ended April 19, according to IRI, with Church & Dwight's Trojan and Durex products leading the way.

"When the economy goes down, sex goes up," said a J&J spokesman by way of explanation, but he and the brand team declined to elaborate on why their products seem to be booming when the economy isn't.

Jim Daniels, VP-marketing for Trojan at Church & Dwight, has some more-developed theories about why what he describes as the "sexual health" business is so healthy these days.

Opportunities for the marketing and media industries in an otherwise bleak year

For one thing, he said, he believes package-goods analytics and marketing are potent forces when applied to sex, something that, at least from a product standpoint, the industry really hadn't paid that much attention to until recent years.

Classic CPG research
"These are areas where there are unmet consumer needs," he said. "So what you're seeing is that companies like Church & Dwight, Johnson & Johnson, are investing in classic CPG research, and bringing that research and skills to bear in the sexual-health category, which really hasn't had a lot of classic CPG activity. ... Once those insights are uncovered, package-goods companies move very quickly to meet those needs with products, as well as advertising to make people aware of them."

The other theory is that recession actually helps.

"These seem to be products people are actually gravitating toward in a recession," Mr. Daniels said. "I'm not a psychologist, so I don't know why that is. We are seeing people spending more time at home. We're seeing people's relationships being stressed. We're seeing people looking for means to reconnect with their partner and invest in relationships. In some cases, people may have more time on their hands if they're not working."

But the reality is that some of this was always a pretty big business, just not one conducted in grocery, drug or mass-merchandise stores, where it's still illegal to sell some of these products in seven states.

Church & Dwight estimates sexual devices are actually a $1 billion business in the U.S., not the tiny $10 million measured by IRI in food, drug and mass stores. While the business overall is growing too, it's up by more like mid- to high single digits than the double digits IRI can see, Mr. Daniels said.

Most of those device sales today come online, through adult stores or through home parties organized by direct sellers such as Pure Romance, he said. Much of the business done to date by Trojan Vibrating Touch, a product launched last year that fits on the fingertip, has been through TV and online direct-response advertising.

Mainstream activity
Use of some of these products is remarkably mainstream, Mr. Daniels said. Church & Dwight is preparing to release a study conducted through Indiana University and Knowledge Networks of more than 3,000 U.S. adults showing that half have used a "vibrating product" at some point in their lives and a third have used one within the past year. Of those, Mr. Daniels said, 80% have used it with a partner.

All of this seems to bode well for future growth -- maybe for the U.S. population, too. Sales in Trojan's main business, condoms, aren't growing nearly as fast as in other areas of "sexual health." IRI data reported by Deutsche Bank show sales flat last year and down 2.1% in the first quarter, though Mr. Daniels said sales are up slightly in all channels. And IMS Health reports that contraceptive prescriptions last year were flat for the second year in a row.

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