Companies are selling role-play costumes, lingerie and other erotic props online, with the promise of confidentiality
Come April and Sunny Leone will be your guide to pleasuring yourself and your partner—through props and accessories. The adult-movie star is the brand ambassador of the yet-to-be-launched, US-based adult Web store Imbesharam.com, which will begin operations in India next month.
Imbesharam.com, which translates to “I am shameless", has a website that’s still under construction. What’s available now is a standard-issue Leone pose (unbuttoned white shirt and panties) and the proclamation of already being India’s No.1 adult lifestyle Web store.
“We believe everyone is besharam, people may or may not talk about it. What they need is the comfort to talk about themselves," says Raj Ar., who handles operations and sales for Imbesharam in India, over the phone from the US.
The fairly out-there attitude of Imbesharam.com is suggestive of a larger trend in the e-commerce market. To cater to what several Indians, it would seem, are seeking—alone, or with a partner—slowly and almost discreetly, several online start-ups are offering erotic, or as some call it, personal, products, catering to the sexually adventurous. Customers need not feel self-conscious while ordering anything, because the sites offer confidentiality.
“A large part of the change includes lifestyles and attitude. It’s a new age in India and the best time to be here with such an offering," says Raj.
Sex sells: Monica Anand of Buyundercover.com says she wants the company to grow in a sustainable manner. Photo: Only Pix
Clearly, erotic commerce is the new e-commerce.
Erotic products are not a novelty in India but buying them can be tricky. In Mumbai, for instance, rows of street shops in the Fort area stock standard erotic fare such as “massagers" (basically, vibrators) but every purchase has to be made publicly.
This lack of privacy was a clear business opportunity for innovative entrepreneurs such as Samir Saraiya.
When Saraiya, chief executive of Digital E-Life Pvt. Ltd, which sells adult products online through Thatspersonal.com, considered moving back to Mumbai from Singapore, where he was the lead (business development) in Microsoft, he was keen to get into e-commerce but felt the space was saturated. There were sites that focused on convenience, cost and choice, but he decided to emphasize privacy. A discussion with lawyer Lekhesh Dholakia gave him, first, clarity on what could be sold legally in India and then, confidence, as the latter decided to become an investor. “I consulted 40 people who said this business makes sense," he says.
According to market research company Forrester, the e-commerce market in India is set to grow the fastest within the Asia-Pacific Region at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 57% between 2012-16. India’s e-tailing market in 2011 was about $600 million (about ₹ 3,000 crore) and expected to touch $9 billion by 2016 and $70 billion by 2020, with an estimated CAGR of 61%. Conservative estimates peg the adult products market in the country at more than ₹ 500 crore.
While other e-commerce firms often burn cash and have minimal margins because they offer discounted prices, online erotica start-ups claim they have margins of 30-50%, depending on the nature of the product.
For instance, a 35-year-old IT professional from Bangalore, who doesn’t want to be named, logs into a website when she needs vibrators and strap-on dildos. She shops for them every three-six months.
“It is better to buy stuff like sex toys online because there is total anonymity. In a country like India, where sex toys are illegal, it is necessary to have online stores," she says.
Yet adult content is blocked by a slew of laws—the popular porn toon site Savitabhabhi.com was shut down three years ago. The government asked all ISPs or internet service providers to block the website, which featured a married woman’s sexual adventures. Sex toys and pornography are illegal in the country and one can’t even buy a Playboy magazine off the racks. So how safe are the operations of these online erotica start-ups?
Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court advocate and an expert in cyber law, says one has to be careful not to publish anything that can be deemed obscene. “There is no law that prevents you from dealing with selling lingerie, literature, etc., but you have to exercise due diligence prior to that to ensure you are covered under the IT (information technology) Act," he says, adding that the moment you start a business online, you come under the purview of the IT Act. “Anything that appeals to the prurient or can corrupt minds is illegal," he says.
None of the entrepreneurs were particularly concerned about firewalls. Saraiya says they spent time on the brand name and URL to reflect the essence of the brand and to find the same URL on both “.com" and “.in". Raj Ar. agrees, saying they wanted to be remembered easily by all age groups.
We surveyed more than half-a-dozen online offerings which not only managed to slip past firewalls, but also managed to be imaginative.
Samir Saraiya of Thatspersonal.com wants to sell the products he distributes cross online retail stores . Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
Past life: Founder Samir Saraiya was leading business development for mobile platform and services (Greater Asia Pacific) for Microsoft, based in Singapore.
Launched on 3 January, Thatspersonal.com offers what CEO Saraiya prefers to call “sexual wellness" products, which “you buy from me and no one will know".
Saraiya has exclusive distribution rights for several international brands, which cannot be sold by other retailers. “We cannot sell anything that can be termed obscene and can’t have dirty pictures," he says.
The site was launched without publicity or any other form of media. Saraiya sheepishly admits he has not even got around to social networking sites. Still, the first order came from Warangal district in Andhra Pradesh, from someone who was aware of one of the brands they stocked, Pjur. Some weeks later, the site crashed as people from 121 countries clicked on, without necessarily buying. On Valentine’s Day, a month later, they were sold out.
The homepage of Thatspersonal.com.
He adds that people who are already aware of his products from their trips abroad are “gung ho" about his site, spending anywhere in the range of ₹ 5,000-20,000 on it. Among the most expensive products in his store is a “Honeymoon Set" (which can be made to order and can have a combination of things including games, candles, lubes, etc.) for ₹ 11,000, which he says is a great wedding gift.
The 42-year-old has come a long way from the time when he was unable to admit what he did, socially. His wife Monali Shah was immediately accepting of the idea and so was his father. But it took a while before he could tell his mother, who wanted to know why he could not choose something with “more prestige". To his friends, for the longest time his standard response to what he was up to was: “Will tell you next month."