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Amazon Killed the Book Store, but It Can't Kill the Sex Store

It might be easier to order sex toys online, but consumers are resisting the urge to buy intimate products sight unseen.

Sex toys at the sex store SHAG in Brooklyn. Photo by Gabriella Lewis

E-commerce has ravaged industries more robust than the sex shop over the past decade—look to the grave of Borders (and bookstores more generally), or the woes of once-thriving retailers like Gap or J.Crew, or the decline of the American shopping mall for just a few examples. And it's easy to imagine that brick-and-mortar adult stores, traditionally a class of retailer where taboo products like dildos and pornography are purchased behind veiled storefronts, might be ravaged by the anonymity and purchasing ease offered by the internet, too.

But it hasn't been, as it turns out. We may live in an age when you can buy everything and anything from the comfort of your bed, but sex shops are one industry that will not be put down by digital convenience.

"Online's the best thing that's ever happened to us," Lolita Wolf, manager of Chelsea fetish store Purple Passion, told VICE. While it's true that the sex-toy industry is evolving in response to pressure from online retailers, like any other, it turns out the brick-and-mortar sex-toy industry as a whole is weathering the storm.

A March 2015 report on the adult-store industry by market research company IBISWorld found that brick-and-mortar adult stores, of which just under 2,000 stood in America last year, were projected to continue growing at an annualized rate of 2.6 percent over the next five years—roughly in line with our nation's GDP, an indicator of economic stability found in other retail industries like bridal stores and pharmacies.

The report points to the gradual proliferation of sex-positive entertainment over the past two decades as a key driver of the industry's steady growth, including the flogger-filled Fifty Shades series of books and films. David Keegan, general manager for the Adam & Eve Franchising Corporation, which oversees the 46-year-old adult goods retailer's 62 brick-and-mortar stores, pinned the shifting tide even further back, on a 1998 episode of Sex and the City, in which Charlotte (Kristin Davis) becomes intimately acquainted with a bunny-eared Vibratex rabbit vibrator.

"[That's] where the rabbit first got its introduction to mainstream America," Keegan told VICE, citing the scene as driving curious women to seek out a rabbit of their own in stores. "You now have infomercials that have adult products, you now see adult products and themes in television shows. All those definitely help across the board and help [our business]."

Another important factor driving these gradually rising figures is, believe it or not, online shopping itself. While the internet has effectively killed the offline market for pornographic magazines and video, customers often use e-commerce websites to research unfamiliar products before popping into local stores to make purchasing decisions.

The reason is simple, says Wolf: If you're going to spend a lot on something that you plan on becoming very intimately acquainted with, you're going to want to "see it, touch it, [and] feel it" first. Ordering books and video games online is one thing; with products that you put on and in your body, things have to fit, and look and feel comfortable enough for intimate use. (That said, unlike clothing stores like the Gap, you're generally not going to be able to return a sex toy after you've purchased it—but having the ability to hold and see one firsthand, to scale and with physical perspective, may be a valuable experience in and of itself.)

Claire Cavanah, co-founder of Brooklyn-based sex toy retailer Babeland, points out that brick-and-mortar stores have something e-commerce sites almost never do: "a knowledgeable staff" with a bit more authority than anonymous online reviewers. Informed, sex-positive customer service at adult boutiques not only ensures customer satisfaction, it destigmatizes the entire sex-toy-purchasing process. As a result, retailers can often feel more like community gathering points than cold capitalist affairs; a store like Purple Passion offers a wide range of fetish workshops and support groups for loyal customers and curious beginners.

That's why Keegan and Wolf are unconcerned about the impact of sex toy e-commerce on their stores. Their brick-and-mortar shops, and others like them, won't be going anywhere anytime soon, and the reality of their industry in the age of online shopping is far from grim.

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