Germany makes no secret of its love affair with sex shops located in shopping centers and transport hubs up and down the country. But the age of broadband Internet is forcing erotic retailers to rethink their strategy.
Beate Uhse's retail operations are undergoing a facelift
Beate Uhse has long been synonymous with erotic retail, and the company to which the ground-breaking woman first lent her name back in 1962 has enjoyed decades of great and expansive success.
But the times, they are a-changing. In recent years, the queen of erotic chain stores has begun to lose its touch and its customers, who have gradually been turning elsewhere for their satisfaction. Most notably the Internet.
When Beate Uhse chief executive Serge van der Hooft presented the company's accounts in Hamburg this week, he was forced to concede significant ground to virtual pornography.
The publicly traded company's 2009 turnover was 231 million euros - 10 percent less than in 2008. Its operating profit fell 300,000 euros to a disappointing 2.8 million euros.
"The DVD business was once our most reliable source of turnover," van der Hooft said, adding that even 10 years ago 50 percent of company profits came from DVDs. "Now the business is as good as dead."
The wrap-around package
Beate Uhse bed sheets stray somewhat from the norm
This reverse digital dividend is bad news for the company, but if the cloud has a silver lining then in this instance, it comes in the form of shimmering home textiles. To try and attract more women and couples into its stores to compensate for DVD losses, Beate Uhse has launched a range of all-round domestic erotica including towels, lamps, bed clothes and even ironing boards.
"For us, erotic starts in the morning with the fitting dressing gown and ends in the evening with a candle-lit dinner," Beate Uhse spokeswoman Assia Tschernookoff told Deutsche Welle.
It's quite a departure for a company which is known for kinky underwear, sex toys and pay-as-you-go video cabins. But this fluffier side of erotica is deemed the best way forward and the chain, which has 55 of its own shops and another 55 franchise stores, is in the process of restructuring to reflect its new strategy.
"We are opening premium shops in city centers and fun centers on town outskirts," the spokeswoman said. "The fun centers are bigger and more geared towards film and entertainment, while the inner city locations are more boutiquey and offer a wellness range."
Goods on display
Tschernookoff says the resonance so far has been very good, but over the road at Beate Uhse's main competitor, Orion, management sees no need to venture down the path of holistic erotica.
"Our customers expect a certain degree of product variety," Orion spokesman Jens Seipp told Deutsche Welle. "But they don't come to us to buy towels and sheets."
Underwear is an important source of revenue for erotic shops
By all accounts, Orion's DVD sales have been equally hard-hit by the abundance of free and cheap pornography available on the World Wide Web, but Seipp says the company has weathered the storm well.
"We have a large selection of sex toys and underwear on offer and one way that we have made up for our losses is to restructure our shops to better present these other products."
The chain, which boasts 150 shops Germany-wide, has always made brightly-lit spacious premises part of its concept, but has now gone even further and introduced a exhibition table - a presentation area where customers can feel and smell products before heading to the check-out.
"It's been a big hit because ultimately customers want to know what they're buying," Seipp said. "Our biggest advantage over the anonymity of the Internet is that we can advise our people so they get what they want."
The Orion spokesman believes that the erotic desires of the German public are gradually changing. Whereas a few years ago, customers might have been happy to buy a standard sex aid, they are now looking harder at the products on offer and becoming more choosy about what they put in their top drawers. And that applies to both men and women.
Managing Director of the Novum chain of erotic shops, Lothar Schwier, says he has seen German attitudes towards sex change greatly in his two decades in the business.
"The right to sexuality has evolved," Schwier told Deutsche Welle. "It's not only about what men want, but what women want. These days it is often women who drag men into our shops."
Beate Uhse says the quickest way to give your man a flat belly is to iron him
Theories about why that is vary. Some attribute a female openness about sex to the advent of the Internet and mainstream television shows such as Sex and the City, while others say it's simply inevitable social development.
Ultimately whatever it is that has allowed women to feel more confident about frequenting erotic shops is secondary, because now that they have been lured in, company managers are keen to keep them there. Even if it means resorting to the not so exciting business of ironing.
Reporter: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Sam Edmonds