Sex toys sell: The business of ball gags

Bondara is about to appear in an ITV documentary - featuring founder and ex-investment banker Chris Simms dancing with a blow-up doll.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 22 May 2015

Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph

In 2007 Chris Simms, a former investment banker, was selling off his suits on eBay in preparation for taking a year out of the City. As his most expensive – and unworn – three-piece languished with no bids at 99p, he spotted a listing for a small leather ball attached to a leather strap, already topping £37 with days to go.

‘I thought, that must have barely cost £1 to make,’ he said. ‘I found the manufacturer and said, "I’ll have a box of ball gags please."’

Today, Simms’ fetish wear and sex toy business turns over £10m and dispatches 1.5 million products to UK consumers each year. Bondara – so-called because of its original focus on bondage products – is now the third biggest adult toys retailer in the UK.

It’s kept a low profile since inception, but is about to come out of the shadows. ITV has filmed a documentary about Bondara’s Christmas party, and the programme is airing next week.

‘I jumped at the opportunity to let our customers see behind the scenes,’ says Simms. ‘That’s where being a discreet online retailer has its downsides – we never meet the shoppers.’

The show’s highlights include the Bondara blow-up doll dance off, Simms reveals, where several members of staff battle it out for a £300 grand prize. ‘I will probably regret agreeing to take part for the rest of my life,’ he says. ‘I had to go first and was dancing with Hungry Hannah, which isn’t exactly the most attractive doll.’

The staff also built a ‘slip and slide’ using Bondara’s intimate lubricants. ‘It’s all a bit of fun,’ says Simms.

Staff were strangely reluctant to take part in the filming, however. ‘I think many of them became a bit paranoid about appearing on TV and telling the world that they work for an adult retailer,’ admits Simms. Only half of the firm’s 50 staff turned up for the actual Christmas party.

It didn’t help that Bondara was refused entry to two venues for the party proper. Simms approached two local golf courses but, despite being initially keen, the managers of both locations grew frosty when they looked at his business card.

Simms understands that there is still a taboo about sex toys. For one, his own mother has no idea what he does for a living. ‘She lives in the mountains in Switzerland,’ he says. ‘She knows I sell toys, clothing and cosmetics - I just haven’t specified what kind.’

Simms may struggle to keep his profession a secret much longer, though. As well as the documentary, Bondara is in the process of bringing out its first proprietary sex toy. The SexFit will be launched by summer next year, aimed at men who are looking to improve their performance.

The hi-tech cock ring comes with its own app, which sends information to the smartphone about the speed and motion of the wearer’s performance. It will feature LED lights that will tell them whether their performance is too fast – all the lights will blaze – or too slow - the SexFit will go dark.

‘The idea is to improve endurance,’ says Simms. ‘The phone can then send signals back to the SexFit to help slow down the user.’

Engineering the product is proving more challenging than Simms expected. ‘I really want to keep the price point below £60, which is difficult when you want to include all the bells and whistles,’ he says.

Sexual performance is a national obsession, according to Simms. ‘Many of our bestselling products are aimed at restricting blood flow in that area,’ he says.  ‘People are too embarrassed to go to their GP about problems like that, so they look for solutions online. We sell an awful lot of pumps, rings and delay sprays.’

Another growth area for the business is soft-core bondage toys, as featured in the hit book series 50 Shades of Grey, the film of which is being released on Valentine’s Day next year.

Fifty Shades of Grey 'opened up the market'

‘In the summer of 2012, I thought the business had plateaued,’ says Simms. ‘Then those books took off and we sold thousands of feather ticklers, handcuffs, and harmless toys. The effect is wearing off now but 50 Shades definitely opened up the market.’

Simms is hoping to double the size of his business within the next five years. Market share is proving easier to acquire – it’s too expensive for new players to compete in sex toy retail online.

Simms started Bondara with £60,000, which was mostly spent on new stock. Today, that wouldn’t cover a month’s worth of Google advertising. ‘When I started, it cost a few pennies to buy words on Google,’ says Simms, talking about the rising costs of the search giant’s pay-per-click (PPC) offering. ‘Now I spend £2m a year on Google. That’s three times the size of my wage bill.

‘For someone starting out now, the costs are just too high. Your products won’t get seen and if you’re brand new your site won’t rank highly on natural search.’

Online retailers have a love/hate relationship with Google, according to Simms. ‘I’m grateful that it’s given me the opportunity to market my business in a targeted way, but it makes much more profit out of Bondara than I do,’ he says. ‘There are 200,000 possible keywords in our account now. It’s becoming unmanageable.’

Like many other ecommerce players, Bondara is slowly reducing its reliance on PPC advertising, preferring to rely more heavily on natural search, email marketing and social media. Five years ago, 80% of Bondara’s traffic was generated by PPC. Today, that figure has dropped to 50%.

The upcoming ITV show should also help to boost traffic to Bondara’s website, and Simms hopes the company will come off well. ‘You can never tell how something will be edited, though,’ he says. ‘But from what I understand, the other two parties featured on the series were far worse than us.

‘I’ve heard shocking stories. Well, the kind of stories you’d expect to happen at our place, only we were the most well behaved!’

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today