Wendy Lee, D.Vice founder on sex toys, silicon and sales in the post-internet age

Following on from our previous journey into sex toys with a toy designer, we talk to D.Vice, the women-friendly, pornography-free sex toy stores.

Founded in 1997 by Emma Lyon, Wendy Lee, and Nick Mercer, the adult toy manufacturer, exporter and distributor now has stores around the country, a thriving online business and a loyal following online and IRL.

Now that Lyon and Lee have sold up (Mercer bowed out of the business several years ago), Idealog sat down with Lee to talk about sex positivity, internet disruption, and the little Kiwi sex toy store that could.

How did you get your start in this industry?

We started in '97 and at the time there wasn’t any sex-positive sex shops in New Zealand. It was very porn-focused, it wasn’t couple-friendly and it wasn’t at all women-friendly. The products were made of toxic materials, the quality was low and in order to buy you had to 'push through the cowboy doors', walk past all this porn, and deal some often quite sleazy person behind the counter. You'd point to something and take it home and that was the end of the story – no guarantees or warranties. You wouldn't get to turn on the product or check it out in any way and it was quite an embarrassing, uncomfortable experience for both men and women.

So you started manufacturing your own toys?

We did. When we started we had made this decision that there were a few issues that we wanted to address, most of all the quality of the products. We wanted to make them safe - silicons rather than latex for example - which a lot of people had allergies to. A lot of lubes had colours and sugars in them, so, right from the start, we wanted to manufacture or source products that were good quality.

We did a little research and purchased products from overseas, then Emma and I did a nightclass in mold making. Everybody was making garden gnomes and fun things and we were furtively in the background trying to make dildo shapes.

So we got some rudimentary builds from that, then managed to source the materials. It took a while to get it together, but once we'd started trading the majority [of the products being sold] were our own.

Given those origins, is D.Vice fundamentally a women's store?

No, but I think it's a very women-friendly store. Our target market is couples and single women who want to have a really positive experience when they're buying sex toys. It's very female friendly in a lot of ways, but we've never pitched ourselves as 'women only'. We're pitching it for women to feel comfortable and for men to feel comfortable, because there's obviously men who don't want that kind of sleazy experience that's out there.

How has the digital revolution affected the business?

Well, the adult industry as a whole has been a really early adopter. In the beginning there was a lot of manual work – the manual processing of credit cards for example – but now the whole thing is seamless and secure. The development in payment technology for instance has been amazing.

We're really interested in the reporting side of online. Because it's a very competitive industry, so you can end up spending a lot of money on things that don't result in actual income generation, so over the years we've gotten a lot more sophisticated with our Google AdWords and search optimisation.

You're very focused on the content side of marketing, with a branded magazine, active blogs and a podcast? Has that been the winning formula for D.Vice?

As part of our philosophy we've always provided a lot of free information. We we have a free online magazine which we've been running for many years, we have a blog on the website, and that now creates income value because it's good for Google search, but that's something we were doing before we really even understood the importance of it.

We have to be careful about newsletter content of course. If we send out a newsletter that's got too much sex – and by that I mean clean sex-related words – they tend to go into spam filters. We have issues with companies not allowing our newsletters to run through their servers. We can’t advertise on Facebook, we can’t do promoted posts or paid advertising. We’re shut out of all that stuff. Even though we’re not in the business of porn, we’ve always been categorised along with every stinking, filthy website that there is, so that’s a rally frustrating part of the business.

Is that a sign of the times? That we're socially liberal, but when it comes to business, the old conservatism still rules?

Absolutely, and a lot of the companies that run that stuff are incredibly conservative, and, I suppose, risk averse, so they’re not at all interested in looking at our the point of difference. They’re interested in the blanket rule and that’s difficult.

That must be a fine line to walk.

It definitely is. You need to take a lot of care with every aspect of it. We’re fortunate though. We have a very loyal customer base and we can market to them directly.

And you still have several bricks and mortar stores around the country as well…

Yes, it’s still an important part of the business. People still want that ‘hands on’ experience. We have a demo model of each product in every store, so people can come in, turn it on and touch it, and for a lot of people, that's really important.

Do you foresee a time when those stores won't be a part of the model and everything will move online?

Umm, it's really hard to know. I think that could happen. Certainly in Australia that's what's been happening, in retail generally. If that trend happens across the board then it could happen to D.Vice as well.

What's business actually like through the store?

It varies. There are definitely different times of year, and it has its ups and downs. Wellington in particular has a really loyal base.

That must be a reflection of an actual commitment on your part, right? You guys were a winning finalist in the Retail NZ Top Shop Awards after all...

I guess part of our philosophy for the brand is around the customer experience. It's always been really important for us to ensure a really good customer experience, both online and instore – an experience that's friendly, an environment that's really clean and welcoming, products that look really nice, like going into a boutique or a gift store, except the products happen to be adult.

Have you ever come across a devices and think 'Oh hell no, that's revolting – We won't stock that'?

Well, we're looking at toys rather than porn, so it's really about quality.

What's your most successful product?

Well, in retail sense, the most successful product - called the We-Vibe. It's like the iPhone, it's onto the version 4 plus.

What does it do?

It's a c-shaped couples toy, quite small, that a woman wears during lovemaking that stimulates both partners. When it first came out it was rechargeable, made with medical grade silicon and had a switch that went 'fast', 'slow' and 'off'. The second version had a push-button that had a few different vibrations and pulsations, and the third version had a remote. By version four, they changed the shape and it had a remote that charged on a docking station. You can even download an app that lets our partner can turn you on from anywhere in the world. That kind of evolution is very cool.

That sounds better than an iPhone.

Yeah, they're great.