A German sex invasion is storming the UK from the unlikely bridgehead of Sutton in Surrey, the site for a new sex shop chain called Beate Uhse. The German chain hopes to capitalise on a change in attitudes towards sex in the UK. Once renowned for being sexually repressed, the British are now seen as ready, willing and able to welcome a new chain plying risqué underwear and adult objects. So much so that the German chain has positioned its first UK outlet opposite McDonald’s on the high street of suburban Sutton.
Beate Uhse, which operates 200 shops across Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, has no doubt noticed the Brits’ insatiable interest in sleazy tabloid-style sexual revelations, the likes of which have recently catapulted Sven Goran Eriksson, Angus Deayton and former prime minister John Major into the spotlight.
The German chain is not alone in promoting an acceptable face for bedroom naughtiness to consumers. It joins veteran sex shop chain Ann Summers and purveyors of upmarket lingerie Agent Provocateur. But the very nature of the business automatically attracts, and in some cases cultivates, sensational headlines.
When Ann Summers was forced to recall the Rampant Rabbit vibrator – sales of which had been boosted by an appearance in the racy television programme Sex in the City – it made national news. Agent Provocateur benefited from extra national press coverage when its raunchy cinema ad promoting its mail-order service, featuring Kylie Minogue, began to circulate on the Internet long before it broke officially on screen. And newcomers such as Myla and Coco de Mer, run by Anita Roddick’s daughter Sam, have also used advertising to create column inches.
But Beate Uhse’s core business is more than sexy lingerie and a few sex toys. In mainland Europe, Beate Uhse – named after its female founder – is a byword for pornography. The business operates telephone sex lines, porn websites and even “live performances” in addition to its 200-strong chain of shops.
Entry into the UK retail market is the next step in an international expansion strategy that the company has been pursuing since its flotation on the German stock exchange in 1999.
But the Sutton store is very different from Beate Uhse’s usual fare. It is aimed at women, unlike the majority of the company’s activities which in the past have tended to have a strong male focus. Michael Vaughan, Beate Uhse’s UK retail executive, says the shop is a new format targeting women, and that only four others of this type exist. He shirks away from describing it as a sex shop, instead preferring the less snappy moniker “a high street store selling lingerie and club wear with a discreet area for toys”.
Vaughan says the company would not have considered this kind of venture as recently as two years ago, but a seismic shift “in sexual attitudes has made it possible”.
“Attitudes have changed enormously in the past five to ten years, and even more dramatically in the past two. There are some broad factors, such as more divorces meaning more single women, more women living alone and more equality, that account for this. Women generally have greater control of their lives.”
Margaret Thatcher, who is not the first person that naturally springs to mind when it comes to sexual revolution, is named by Vaughan, along with the Spice Girls as people who have showed that women can be in control. He adds that racy TV programmes such as Sex in the City and Ally McBeal, which feature the sexual exploits of successful women, have also shaped people’s thinking.
Even family food brand McVitie’s has entered into the spirit. Earlier this year it launched a sampling campaign for its new biscuit brand Cookies through Ann Summers parties (MW October 3). Its marketing manager Matthew Warmsley says: “McVitie’s is moving with the times, reflecting the attitudes of modern adult snackers.”
Duncan Janacek Hendy, assistant managing director of adult media group K-os Publications, agrees that attitudes have changed and says that ten years ago access to items of a sexual nature was limited. But the advent of the Internet, which he claims was built on the back of the sex industry, has increased accessibility, as has the relaxation of film classification laws and rules allowing more hard-core pornographic magazines to be sold through newsagents.
“Now we have a situation where 49 per cent of adults have tried sex toys with a 50 per cent split by gender. It’s a little known fact that vibrators were last year’s biggest selling electrical item,” he claims.
Janacek Hendy points out that mail order via the Internet and interactive TV are growth areas for the sex industry. “There is still an incredible taboo around visiting high street stores. People still scurry in and scurry out looking embarrassed – mail order solves that problem.”
Vaughan is coy on plans for Beate Uhse’s UK expansion, which could bring the chain into direct competition with Ann Summers – the undisputed leader of sex retail outlets in the UK.
Michael Parker, chief executive of Team Saatchi, an agency that has in the past worked on branding and advertising for Ann Summers, believes that Beate Uhse will find it difficult to make a mark. “There’s only space for one of these type of shops on your average high street,” he says.
Ann Summers has opened more than 50 stores in the past three years taking its UK total to 72. During the same period its turnover doubled to &£85m. But over the past year growth in its like-for-like sales has slowed to 3.8 per cent in the three months to September 30, down from 19.1 per cent for the previous quarter.
If Rebecca Franklin, Ann Summers marketing and brand development executive, is worried by Beate Uhse’s arrival, she’s not showing it. She says Ann Summers has “no rivals” and is “unique”. Mention Agent Provacateur – which in another sign of the times, creates the Salon Rose collection for middle England’s favourite Marks & Spencer – and Franklin quickly points out that there are only three stores in operation, all of them in London.
Whatever the future for Beate Uhse, at the moment the British infatuation with sex shows no sign of diminishing.