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.
Over the last 18 months, about a dozen such ventures have started offering an array of products ranging from condoms, sex games, erotic art and literature, to risqué lingerie and suggestive confectioneries, role-play costumes and aphrodisiac oil.
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.
Products offered: Lingerie, costumes, accessories, hygiene products, inner wear, condoms, literature, aphrodisiac oil and games. Price range: `125 onwards.
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.
Half of the orders come from metros and others from smaller towns; the biggest order so far has been from a village near Patiala. About 20% of the customers are women, says Saraiya.
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.”
Products offered: Baby-doll clothing, bikinis, corsets, role-play costumes, including kitty cat, sailor girl, naughty nurse, stockings and swimwear . Price range: `299-2,999.
Past life: Co-founder Monica Anand was associate vice-president (brand and marketing), Bharti Axa Life Insurance.
Less than a year old, Buyundercover.com is the country’s first costume-play or role-play focused online start-up. Since its launch, it has been growing 50% month-on- month and has proved profitable.
Monica Anand (who co-founded the company White Light Retail Pvt. Ltd with Suresh Gupta) stumbled upon the idea when she and a friend, who was getting married, went shopping for sexy lingerie and couldn’t find anything they liked. “A lot of people shop for these products abroad. Women are more aware now, they are more open to their sexuality and to experimentation,” says Anand.
Their unique selling point, says Anand, is their discretion and packaging. The products are shipped almost immediately once ordered, in elegant boxes. “I don’t think I would see a boy going to an offline store and buying a role-play costume. Online is the best way to reach customers,” she says, adding that they are often requested to send products to office addresses. Orders come from as far as Salem and Guwahati.
This too was launched without much ado and continues to be low key. While lack of an advertising budget is one issue, Anand says they want to grow in a sustainable manner and not be in a situation where orders outnumber availability. “We don’t want to start in the red. We may not grow exponentially but we want sustainable growth. Return on investment is important,” she says.
The typical age group of female customers is 21-35 and of men, 25-45. “About 55% of our customers are men. The most popular product is handcuffs and among costumes, it is French maid, nurse and stewardess,” says Anand.
Products offered: Designer lingerie. Price range:`4,000 onwards for bridal wear.
Past life: Founder Saurabh Dadu has been running an e-commerce company called Livesalesman.com that manages online sales and customer management for online businesses.
“Why don’t you stock edible underwear? Or handcuffs? I get asked this in at least four-five emails every month,” says Saurabh Dadu, laughing. The co-founder and managing director of Strapsandstrings.com, which started two-and-a-half years ago, prides himself on being the only online store that sells luxury lingerie. Though his site sells all kinds, it is the bridal section that accounts for more than 70% of his revenue.
“Brides are high spenders and can blow anything between `50,000 to `1.5 lakh at one go,” says Dadu, adding that corsets, thongs and negligees are popular as well. But he insists that it is not just women who are looking for exciting bedroom wear.
Dadu says men are good at buying racy lingerie too. “The difference is that women want a combination of sex appeal and comfort. Men don’t care so much. It’s all about how sexy it is,” says Dadu, adding that most men buy them as gifts once or twice a year. But the site offers help to first-time users under a tab titled “gentleman’s guide to buying lingerie”, which offers help on size and preferred fabric. It concludes with the expert advice that when in doubt, ask her.
“When we started, we realized that lingerie is about sex appeal. Indian women like being sexy,” he says. Dadu imports all his products, with brands like Damaris being the most popular (`12,000 upwards), while Lise Charmel is more affordable (`6,000 upwards).
But does everything that works in the West work here? “Indian women don’t wear stockings and as a result, no garters,” he says.
Products offered: Adult lifestyle products, lingerie, superstore for bachelor and bachelorette parties. Price range: Not disclosed.
Past life: Founders Raj Ar. and Salim R are both US citizens, serial entrepreneurs handling multiple portfolios.
The India launch of Imbesharam.com will be in the second week of April. “There are only two or three product lines that people associate with adult lifestyle right now,” says Raj, preferring not to use the word sex toys.
The products offered on the website will include US, German and French brands sourced from American and European manufacturers and will be in the category of ultra to mid-level luxury. Some of the brands available will be Baci, Hustler, Lelo, Leaf and Playboy. The company is also introducing a role-play costume line called Fantasy Collection.
They say their prices will be 30-45% less than those on other sites in the US. “Our prices will include custom duty and we already have a logistics solution in place,” says Raj.
Products offered: A gifting site offering flowers, fashion products, games and gadgets, products like the Kama Sutra dice set and naughty cakes. Price range: `200-6,000.
Past life: Founders Rohit Saxena and Nisheeth Srivastava formerly sold hardware with computer firms HP and HCL, respectively.
Saxena and Srivastava started Excitinglives.com three years ago to make quirky products of unconventional use and design available in India. Here you’ll find beer bottle shaped USB drives, card games and experiences like a day in the spa on sale. “Within a year of operations, we realized that if we called ourselves Excitinglives, we would be incomplete without a naughty section,” says Saxena.
Their existing romantic section was a hit, so they added the “naughty” bit. “Sex toys are illegal in India, so we take great care not to cross the line,” stresses Saxena. The company has an in-house legal counsel who researches every product that is imported. More than 55% of the customers in this section are women.
“The most popular products are the card games which have instructions on different sex positions or romantic activities for the loser,” says Saxena. Predictably, they often get enquiries for sex toys. “Even here, it’s mostly women. They seem to be spending a lot in this category.”
About 20% of their entire business comes from the naughty section but this changes on occasion. In February, because of Valentine’s Day, almost half of all sales were from this section.
Products offered: Art Intaglio is India’s first art portal dedicated to prints and multiples. One of the exclusive themes of the website is its nudes. Price range: `2,000 onwards.
Past life: Art print connoisseur Dilip Ghevaria, 62, is a business- man dealing in manufactured plastic tubes.
The Art Intaglio online gallery started in 2007, and Dilip Ghevaria, its CEO, says a typical customer profile is a house-proud, well-to-do, young, Net-savvy woman or young professionals or high net worth individuals. Some are established art collectors and some are new to art but are making a beginning.
“Buying art online requires trust in the portal. For the first three years, we did not have repeat customers, but now we have plenty,” he says.
Ghevaria says erotica is well received in Europe and people do not hesitate to display it at their residences, whereas in India, it is slow-moving. “We see the theme evolving and growing, slowly but steadily, in next couple of years,” he says.
Some of the popular artists on the website are Fawad Tamkanat and Prokash Karmakar.
Launched in 2009, MasalaToys is India’s largest adult toy store and offers dildos, vibrators and sex dolls, among others.
Started last year, Kaamastra.com offers punctured stockings, lacy panties, corsets, bustiers, role-play costumes like a white angel costume, a black latex full police costume, belly and breast jewels.
ToolsofLove.in, started in 2010, offers adult costumes, lingerie, condoms, contraceptive pills, lubes and stimulators.