Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium, UK

By on February 6, 2017

No prior experience in retail or adult! I just went shopping for a vibrator way back in 1992 and it was such an alienating and intimidating experience for a woman. Back then, ‘adult’ essentially meant ‘men’ so the whole experience from store atmosphere to toy design was male-focussed (or at least what the sex industry decided men wanted!) I had, however been brought up as a liberated woman, so, burning with the inequality of what I’d experienced, I stomped home, determined to change things and 3 months later, on £700, Sh! was born.
The name ‘Sh!’, was a playful comment on society’s silencing of women’s sexuality – with the exclamation mark sticking its tongue out to all that!

Sh! Women's Erotic Emporium lo

Sh! was the UK’s first sex shop for women, and it was also the UK’s first-ever boutique-style erotic shop.
A well-lit, welcoming and relaxed environment, staffed by an approachable all-female staff, highly trained to give personalised advice and to make matching the right toy to the customer their goal. Interaction and questions were encouraged and cups of tea, whilst browsing, offered.

Demonstration toys were laid out on tables, all with batteries so customers could handle the vibrators in order to feel intensity and listen to volume before making their decision. In those days, this was unheard of.
Before a customer left the shop with her new purchase, the staff religiously battery-tested each vibe to ensure it worked. This made Sh! the first shop to offer guarantees on all electrical toys, and to return faulty vibes to suppliers (much to their horror!). At the time, it was very much assumed that a customer would be too embarrassed to bring back a faulty toy to a sex shop.

What are your store trading hours/days and how many days or hours a week do you work in your business?
The store is open everyday 12-8pm. I work at our HQ in east London, where our offices, warehouse, web/mail-order service and strap-on studio are situated. I tend to work Mon-Friday, but not massively fixed hours – it will depend on my workload. For instance, I was recently on R4 Women’s Hour & LBC Radio, which meant trollying off to London’s West End, for evening recordings. When there’s a big project to be finished, I’ll often work weekends and when not, I’ll skip off to yoga during the working week.

What do you love most about your adult retail business?
How it blows people expectations of a ‘sex shop’ and how a visit to Sh! often changes lives.

What are some of the best things your business has done/ What is your business especially proud of?
The cherry on top of our proudest moment has to be opening the UK’s first ever women’s sex shop and shaking up the sex industry with our newfangled feminist ways.

For its sheer silliness and camp value, I’m pretty proud of taking a toy through all the security scanners and into Downing Street, as a present for the Prime Minister’s wife (my lips are sealed on what kind of toy it was.

But what really warms the cockles is the work we do around empowering invisible sexualities. Long before it was ‘on trend’, we’ve always been inclusive. It’s easy to focus on those who’ve been given permission to be sexual in this society – the young and the beautiful basically… We believe when you’re dealing with something as personal as sexuality, you’ve got quite a responsibility to do it right! That means ensuring each is given equal importance and treated respectfully. So, you’ll find us hosting events around sex & menopause for older women, Café V for survivors of sexual violence and we’ve even instigated a vaginismus awareness day.

What are a few of the key variables in order of importance to ensure the best chance of success in adult retail?
There are only 2, – amazing service & top quality toys

What variables define a great store location?
I chose to open the shop in an unknown area of London, Hoxton, for one simple reason; I could pay the weekly rent of £80 in cash directly to the landlord, who usually rocked up to collect the cash in his Ferrari. Hoxton has since become one of the most fashionable and expensive areas of the capital.

In general, easy to get to, not too ‘high-street’, with a lovely bar locally in which to celebrate purchases or have lunch after spending a lot longer in the store than you thought possible!

What size are your stores and how are the fitted out?
About 42 sq meters (I think) of light, relaxed ambience where there’s always coffee brewing for our customers and knowledgeable, totally un-scary and un-pushy staff on hand to help. When we started, and for the next 20 years, our policy was men were welcome as guests of women. This ensured that Sh! was always 100% female-focussed and totally welcoming to women. Then in 2014 we had a brand refresh and we decided our work was mostly done – that, in the main, women felt empowered to come and explore their sexuality. Times were changing in terms of gender-fluidity too, so our policy is now the ground floor is open to women and couples, with the lower ground floor open to all.

How often would your business change a store layout or re-merchandise?
We don’t have massive store layout changes but we are constantly refreshing – new products, new promos, new seasons – it’s important to make sure the shop looks fresh and inviting to everybody, regulars as well as new customers.

Does your business target a specific customer demographic?
All, and we mean ALL, women (and any men who love them!)

What proportion of your sales is repeat business vs new business?
We have a very loyal fan base. In store, we’ll often see a new customer returning several times with various friends …

Are your sales staff/store staff trained? How do you train? How do they present themselves to a customer?
Team sh! are highly trained and they always have the Sh! bible (a manual we’ve put together over the last 24 years) and our library to refer to. They have to be a pretty special individual to get through the job interview in the first instance (not that it’s a tough interview!), as they’ve got to be warm, welcoming authentic, honest, interesting, interested etc. and then there’s 6 months’ probation where we go through one-on-one training, group training, on shop floor etc.

Even then, we’re not done because the learning never really stops….

What do staff most love about their jobs at your business?
The job satisfaction. Because we create such a comfortable atmosphere, customers often share their lives and tales.

If we look at your adult retail business 5 years ago versus now, what changes did you see and how have you responded to them?
Toys for men are finally getting away from ikky ‘realism’ and porn-star replicas and becoming stylish, playful and right for the 21st century, so we’re stocking more of these. We’re also upping our range of trans-toys and, in direct response to customer feedback and requests, we making our own Silicone Dilators for Vaginismus.

What are some of your best selling brands?
Glad to say Sh! products are amongst our best-selling brands. We are famous for our strap-ons, hand-made leather harnesses & silicone dildos that we produce, here in London. Lube is the highest turnover product, and again it’s the Sh! Lube – they’re all paraben-free and there is a move away from chemicals in erotic products, as in the rest of the world.

What makes a great brand?
As equally designed to fulfill the brief of enhancing pleasure, as to look good. We’ve rejected as many toys because they don’t work anatomically as we have because they are all style and no substance.

How do you view the trend toward online shopping and the changing role of the physical shops?
There’s clearly a move towards the convenience of online shopping but that is pretty much all online has to offer; easy, speedy shopping without the hassle of leaving home.

BUT –There’s also a clear move towards people getting offline and gathering to share a common interest; sewing bees, ted-style talks, book groups, art classes – you name it! People are coming out of their houses and gathering to share experiences and physical stores with imagination can offer appealing events too.

What advice could you give someone intending to start in adult retail today?
Be different and be passionate about your difference.

Trading Name : Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium
Established : 1992
Founder/Managing Director: Ky Hoyle
Head Office : London
Staff : 14
Store(s) : 1

A Synergy Magazine interview with Ky Hoyle, Founder and MD, Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium

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