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The big turn-on
Some entrepreneurs have taken to the web to meet the needs that most Indians would rather keep secret

Sonia Mariam Thomas

It is amazing that in a country where love stories are released by the dozen and the population is 1.2 billion, sex still remains a taboo. Not exactly appropriate conversation for the dinner table, spicing things up in the bedroom has been restricted to something we read about in erotica. In such an environment, it’s only natural to assume that the state of sexual wellness in the country would be dismal.

But surprisingly, according to data collected by Healthkart, a leading e-health site, the Indian sexual wellness market is touted to explode nearly nine-fold from ₹1,000 crore in 2014 to ₹8,700 crore by 2020. With the possibility of such exponential growth and the increasing presence of e-commerce, online sexual wellness stores are milking the opportunity with their offer to keep things discreet.

Samir Saraiya, ThatsPersinalThat necessity breeds invention is best exemplified by the story of Samir Saraiya, an ex-Microsoft employee, who found it a Herculean task asking for a condom over the counter. The awkwardness he felt and the pharmacist’s muffled giggles formed part of a vicious cycle best avoided. So, in January 2013, after returning to India from a stint in Singapore, he started ThatsPersonal, which sells sexual wellness products online.

Saraiya says the focus has been to offer quality products to customers who won’t find them in India and 90% of the products he sells are imported. In fact, he has also managed to bag the franchise for the Fifty Shades of Grey official merchandise for his store. Ranging from condoms — now found on almost every e-commerce site — to vibrators, racy underwear for men and women, foreplay games and even erotica, the idea of the website is to make sexual wellness products easily accessible. 

Saraiya started his website with an initial investment of ₹3 crore from his own savings and with the help of investors, including his friend Lekesh Dholakia, and hit a total revenue of ₹10 crore by the end of FY15. On a daily basis, ThatsPersonal has about 10,000 visitors. While most of its traffic has been generated from the metros, it is interesting to note that some of the top cities that it receives orders from are smaller ones. “We have actually received an order of ₹33,000 from Satara, Maharashtra. It is astonishing how the advantage of not having to deal with human interaction makes the buyers so much easier to capture,” says Saraiya.

Not surprisingly, its revenue appetite has helped ThatsPersonal to break even within two years, December 2014 to be precise. Saraiya feels that as awareness rises, there will be more traffic generated thanks to the quality of his products, and high-margin products with repeat usage, such as foreplay accessories and lubricants will help turn the company profitable soon. On average, the conversion of visitors to orders is about 1.5%, and the average ticket size is ₹2,100. The conversion rate did go up to 3% around Valentine’s Day.

Says Saraiya, “This is not an occasion where you’re buying something for your parents or your distant relatives. When buying something for your significant other, you will want to put some thought into it.” Whatever time of year, the most common products sold online are condoms and lubricants, followed by foreplay games, edible lingerie and the like. 

Bhupendra Jagtap, PrivyPleasuresBut edible lingerie seems far-fetched when the very mention of just wearable, single-purpose lingerie would be considered too bold. That was, at least, what Pune’s Bhupendra Jagtap found in his experience. “Not everyone looks for the same kind of gifts for their partners. When I wanted to buy lingerie from a store, overcoming the stigma was the first problem. And when I did muster up the courage to speak, I found that most of the items available were of poor quality,” he says.

That’s what led to the setting up of PrivyPleasures in 2012. Starting off with racy lingerie for men and women, the website now also offers kinky accessories and sex toys. However, 80% of its revenue still comes from lingerie and 60% of its buyers are still from tier 1 cities. Just like ThatsPersonal, PrivyPleasures also sources its material from brands from the US, Australia and China. While ThatsPersonal has a catalogue of 32 brands, PrivyPleasures has associated exclusively with 5-6 brands. Jagtap started his website with a self-funded investment of ₹10 lakh and business was initially much slower than he anticipated. This year, however, he is expected to hit total revenue of ₹3 crore.

The D-Day 

Having hit break-even point in the first year itself, Jagtap is looking to raise capital for expansion sometime later this year. The first Valentine’s Day in the business made him realise that he wasn’t prepared for the high demand. But once equipped, the ticket size jumped from ₹2,000 to ₹3,000 in February and the sales that time of year alone contributed to about 20% of the annual turnover, thanks to the traffic doubling on his website, allowing him margins of 18-20%.

He says that the number of visitors at PrivyPleasures is 300,000-400,000 per month and he has learnt the hard way that he needs to be prepared for this, in spite of the overhead costs. “We have to keep inventory as we offer next-day delivery for our items as well. Keeping up this promise ensures that our bills for logistics are also high,” says Jagtap.

Mayur Masrani, BlissBasketAnd then there is Mayur Masrani, whose entrepreneurial venture was born out of less serious needs. Masrani was on the lookout for the perfect gag to pull at his friend’s wedding. “We were looking for a naughty gift idea. The only things we found were outside India and I knew that was my chance to do something here,” he says.

And thus, BlissBasket was born in Pune. With an investment of ₹80 lakh-85 lakh from his end, the venture kicked off in 2012 and is expected to rake in ₹5 crore by the end of FY16. The website generates traffic of 5,000 people daily with ticket sizes rising from the usual ₹1,400 to ₹2,100 this year. Its edible lingerie category brings in maximum buyers, contributing to 18% of its revenue. But with 100% of his products coming from abroad, Masrani says that supply is his biggest issue, and overheads (thanks to inventory) his greatest cost.

Virile appetite

While most of his buyers are from metros such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, BlissBasket is gaining more customers from tier 2 cities as well. The rising number of consumers from tier 2 cities is not surprising. If it is difficult to be expressive about your sexual needs in the metros, then in smaller cities, it is a nightmare.

And this is where online sexual wellness stores become very attractive, since they offer discreet packaging. While mainstream online marketplaces such as Flipkart and Amazon write down the names of their customers on the package, these companies allow for the customer to remain anonymous. And it only helps that they also offer the cash-on-delivery option as well. BlissBasket, for example, ensures that at no step of the delivery process do the employees know all the details of a customer.

“We have ensured that the packaging department does not know more than the address, the customer care does not know more than a name, and so on. Our customers trust us because they are offered the secrecy that they seek when they order our products online,” says Masrani. He adds, “We just mention the category as being either health, novelty or clothing items to be able to maintain the privacy of our customers.” And then there’s Jagtap’s PrivyPleasures, which takes privacy to the next level. “We keep the package small enough to fit into a briefcase or a woman’s bag,” he says.

ThatsPersonal works on a similar principle and it also offers the customer a self-pick-up option. Says Saraiya, “Privacy is central to the industry. We have to have tamper-proof packaging so that no one is able to open the package easily. There are people who live with families or are apprehensive first-time customers, so we have to Indianise the way we sell things.” ThatsPersonal has also tied up with special courier partners to ensure that the customer’s privacy is not compromised at any stage of delivery. 

More than 50 shades of grey

While it may seem that way, not all is hunky-dory for these companies, which tend to lurk on a blurry line. While the novelty of their offerings works as an advantage, the very same products also bring a host of problems to the table. For example, Telangana has threatened to ban companies selling sexual wellness items in the state after some products were found to be offensive. But they’ll cross that bridge when they get there.

Dholakia, who is also a lawyer, says, “As long as the products are not perceived to be phallic or shaped like genitalia, the items can be brought into the country and sold here. So, while it is a thin line to walk on, we’re on the safe side as long as we don’t explicitly display the product in the form of genitalia.” He adds, “The law on obscenity is very subjective and these days, anything and everything prompts offence. A vibrating toothbrush can serve the same purpose as a vibrator but no one will fight that.” Masrani has also refused investors because of this issue of legality. “Since there is still no clarity on what can offend the sensibilities of the audience, I have told investors to wait before they put their money on the product,” he says.

And the online model, while being the growth-driver, throws up its own issues. Says Saraiya, “This is not an easy business. Educating the consumers and the market about the use of the product is still very difficult. With the self-serve model, they don’t have anyone to guide them to help satisfy their needs.”

Jagtap agrees: “There is difficulty in marketing and advertising as websites don’t allow racy pictures and we have to depend on search engine optimisation (SEO).” Masrani, too, chimes in. “With products as personal as lubes [lubricants], not many people know how to use them or even realise that they might need instructions when using these products. That is what the industry needs,” he says. Marketing, for all three companies, has mostly been possible only through ads on social networking sites or via SEO tools. 

Despite these minor bumps, the prospects for the industry remain bright. Says Dholakia, “This industry is about adult entertainment. It has only recently made it to India and regardless of sexual orientation, it is something people would be open to as it enhances the sexual experience. Health and sex will never go out of fashion and if a company is ready to provide for people’s sexual needs, why will it not succeed?”

Retail sector experts agree with the industry’s prospects, in spite of the problems of access and acceptability. In India, while brick-and-mortar stores may not solve this problem, an online market is slowly trying to dispel the taboos associated with sex. And whether or not they liberate the consumer, they’ve erected a solid business for sure. 

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