It’s the time of year when love is in the air, but this February is set to have an altogether more lascivious undertone than usual, thanks to the release of the much-awaited movie adaptation of EL James’s best-selling book Fifty Shades of Grey, which hits cinemas this weekend to coincide with Valentine’s Day.
With the trilogy having sold over 100 million copies worldwide, its influence is vast, and one woman benefitting enormously from the sexual awakening of women all over the UK is Jacqueline Gold, chief executive of erotic lingerie and ‘sexessories’ retailer Ann Summers. While flowers and chocolates were once the gift of choice on 14 February, many are now opting for riding crops and handcuffs instead.
“Just like we did back in the 80s, Fifty Shades has given women permission to start taking control and empower themselves in the bedroom,” she says. “We’ve obviously got our loyal customers but the book created a whole new market for Ann Summers and I hope the film will do the same.”
Ann Summers doesn’t hold the rights to produce the official Fifty Shades sex toys – that honour belongs to online retailer and manufacturer Lovehoney – but it sold out of handcuffs and blindfolds as talk of the book first heated up in 2012, while sales of other bondage products including a crystal-encrusted riding crop increased by between 50% and 80% on the day the movie trailer was released, which “just shows how powerful it is”, Gold says.
To take advantage of the UK public’s new-found interest in all things kinky, Ann Summers has launched its Dark Desires marketing campaign, which looks to tie together all channels with a consistent and cohesive theme and incorporate multiple product categories. The retailer returned to TV last week with a steamy ad to get people in the mood for Valentine’s Day, which is running alongside online and in-store activity including masterclasses for women and couples, ‘how to’ booklets with tips on bondage and supporting videos, as well as a shoppable digital look book.
The adult retailer is also set to reveal the winner of its own erotic fiction competition in a matter of days in another move designed to capitalise on interest in the genre.
In order to capture the playful tone of Fifty Shades, Ann Summers has for the first time included a man in its marketing imagery, but unlike the book where he is the dominant character, Gold says it was critical that the woman take control.
“We have always been about the empowerment of women and didn’t want to lose sight of that,” she explains. “I like the fact that we’ve flipped the story on its head and put the woman in control as it aligns much more closely with our brand values.”
From the beginning, Gold has made it her mission to liberate women and remove the barriers associated with sex. She joined Ann Summers – a business owned by her father David Gold, also chairman of West Ham United FC – and recalls that she had no intention of staying as it was a very male-dominated company at that time and just 10% of customers were women.
She came up with the concept for the now famous Ann Summers parties while attending a similar type of event for Tupperware.
“Women at the party were talking about how they wanted to buy sexy underwear and spice up their sex lives but at that time there were only sex shops and top-shelf magazines for men. There I was sitting at this party and I thought I could do something similar but with female-friendly products.”
She took the idea to the all-male board, “which was a challenge in itself”, and although some were reluctant she got the go-ahead to launch the Ann Summers Party Plan. By the end of the first year the retailer had recruited over 500 party organisers and the concept continued to grow revenue at around 20% a year for the next two decades.
Today there are 5,000 dedicated party ambassadors who host more than 2,500 parties each week. But despite the evident interest from women, Gold was met with aggressive criticism, partly because of her decision to make the parties for women only, which she now believes was one of her smartest moves.
“Women wanted to shop in the comfort of their own home without feeling embarrassed, intimidated or uncomfortable, but because men didn’t know what was going on there was fear,” she says. “I think that drove a lot of the adversity that I had to deal with.”
Indeed, Gold has been arrested for exhibiting her products at a trade show, sent a bullet in the post after proposing to open a store in Dublin, and threatened with legal action by Marks & Spencer for parodying its M&S Meal Deal with Ann Summers’ S&M Squeal Deal.
“I couldn’t understand what the problem was,” she says. “It’s only sex. I’m a very resilient person though. I just had so much belief in the concept and what I was trying to achieve that the more people told me I couldn’t do it the more I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Her perseverance paid off, because in 2007 she was invited to Buckingham Palace to an event celebrating women in business. “Being recognised by the Queen is one of my proudest moments,” she says. “[Perceptions] suddenly began to change and I thought: finally, I’ve got the message through.”
Gold has continually worked to create a female-friendly environment, not only at the parties but in store too. Today Ann Summers is a business run by women, for women and 80% of its customers are female. While its primary customers are women aged 18-25, the retailer also attracts a slightly more mature audience thanks to its collaboration with designer Giles Deacon, which Gold says “naturally appeals to an older customer”. She stresses that the brand must also be mindful that there will be three generations of women present at any one party.
This understanding of what women want has resulted in Gold taking Ann Summers from £83,000 in sales in her first year to an annual turnover of £101m today. The business recorded a £3.6m loss for the financial year to 28 June 2014, however Gold remains upbeat.
“It has been a challenging year, as it has been for a lot of businesses – particularly those in retail,” she says. “The good news is that we had an amazing Christmas so the processes we are putting in place are working.”
Like-for-like sales were up 10% during the festive season, outperforming John Lewis’s sales boost of 7%, which Gold considers a good benchmark – though in Ann Summers’ case the increase is from a lower base.
In an effort to keep up this momentum Ann Summers will be focusing heavily on global expansion in 2015, driven by the launch of its new web platform next autumn alongside existing agreements with eBay and more recently Amazon, which enable it to sell to international audiences. It is a fresh attempt at overseas growth for the brand, having previously opened franchise stores in Australia, Dubai and Los Angeles, which since closed.
Gold believes that it will be brand penetration rather than competition that will be the biggest challenge for succeeding in new markets. “That’s not to say we won’t have any competition but for me the challenge is more about getting our brand known and getting the message across,” she says.
She admits that competition closer to home from digital brands like Lovehoney has had an impact on the business, but suggests this is indicative of the changing retail landscape in general, because while bricks-and-mortar retail is still Ann Summers’ biggest channel, ecommerce is its fastest growing.
As a result, it is focused on innovation and is set to launch a new product this summer which gives “a whole new meaning to the word intense”, Gold claims – though she doesn’t elaborate on the innuendo. The brand will also be unveiling a new celebrity face to front its swimwear collection in the spring following the positive reaction to its campaign featuring former The Only Way is Essex star Sam Faiers last year.
The change in attitude toward sex and the popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy have allowed the business to engage in more strategic partnerships with other retailers too as sex becomes less of a taboo. Ann Summers established its first wholesale deal with Shop Direct Group three years ago to sell its lingerie through the Very and Littlewoods brands, and not long after struck up a relationship with Superdrug to stock a range of sex toys and lotions. It has also recently embarked on a partnership with online fashion store ASOS.
Although she won’t go into detail, Gold says she is about to sign another contract with a “major high street department store” and has a further international deal in the pipeline.
“Society is recognising that actually women do want to spice up their sex lives and as responsible retailers we need to find the right way to make sex toys accessible,” she says. “Ann Summers played a big part in changing society’s attitudes, particularly in the beginning, and as a result we have gone from raincoat brigade to female institution.”
While she initially thought it was a disadvantage having to gain insight from customers when she came up with the Party Plan concept as a 21-year-old with no retail experience, she now reflects that “it is actually probably our main reason for success”, adding “my customers have taught me everything I know”.
Today Gold describes social media as an “amazing opportunity” to carry on the conversation, ask questions and do research, but she is not convinced business leaders are making the most of the platform. “I think a lot of CEOs are too scared to get involved. It’s a huge missed opportunity because Twitter and Facebook are the new garden fence [for chatting over] so if you under invest in those areas you are seriously missing out,” she warns.
Gold runs a Twitter competition to support entrepreneurs, with her focus purely on women. Each week she asks budding businesswomen to tweet their ideas using the hashtag #WOW – Women on Wednesdays – before she selects the three most promising businesses to promote to her 47,000 followers. At the end of each year she then chooses three overall winners to mentor.
“I’m interested in doing anything I can to help celebrate women, encourage them in business and promote equality in the workplace,” she says (see box, below).
She believes the key attributes needed for success are tenacity, resilience and courage. “It’s so important to get the right people on board,” she adds. “You can then nurture that talent and empower them to do amazing things for your business, their confidence and their own development.”
Empowering women in the bedroom and the boardroom
It is not just in the bedroom that Jacqueline Gold wants women to take control. She also believes more must be done to promote women in business.
“I’ve empowered women in the bedroom; I now want to empower them in the boardroom,” she asserts. “Women are the main consumer so why aren’t there more women in business and on boards influencing products and marketing?”
The Ann Summers board comprises an equal number of men and women, as Gold says she recognises talent regardless of gender. “I’ve got nothing against men at all but in some businesses less competent men are beating very talented women to the really top jobs,” she says.
While all FTSE 100 companies now have at least one woman on their board as of July 2014, Gold insists that FTSE 250 companies and private businesses must also be pressured to do the same. A government report in October found that 28 all-male boards remain in the FTSE 250.
“Business leaders need to wake up and realise they cannot ignore half the population,” she argues. “I’m the mother of a five-year-old daughter and I want her to grow up believing she can be anything she wants to be. Businesswomen out there owe it to themselves and other women to shout about their success and really own it.”
She believes change needs to come from the top down and is encouraged by the “good things” the current Government is doing to promote women in business, singling out home secretary Theresa May and MP Esther McVey as good role models for women.
Gold pledged her allegiance to the Conservative Party last month and will be showing her support in the run up to the general election in May. “All parties have difficulty communicating with women. I think it’s one of the things I do really well so I wanted to reach out as I can talk about politics in a way that women will engage with,” she says.