Charles Darwent discovers there has been a sea change in the customer profile of Anne Summers, purveyors of personal products and racy novelties.
Deep in leafiest Surrey a resolutely coiffed woman picks up a Royal Doulton teapot, looks you meaningfully in the eye and opens her mouth to speak. You are mentally rehearsing the expected response, 'Just milk, please', when the woman in question casually says, 'It looks like a condom ad, don't you think?' This renders your mooted reply suddenly and singularly inappropriate. 'All pouty lips, massive boobs and not much else,' continues the woman, pointing at a framed catalogue cover and blissfully unaware of the confusion she is causing. 'Typical male image of what "sexy" means.' You are yourself male. You cannot instantly recall what a condom ad looks like, and you do not expect demure women in cream linen jackets with mother-of-pearl buttons to be able to do so either. Especially not in Surrey. So you stutter, 'Just milk, please', anyway, blush furiously and watch Jacqueline Gold's eyebrows - for it is she - form themselves into a circumflex of mingled amusement and pity. For any readers recently returned from outer space, Jacqueline Gold may still be more familiar under her long-time professional pseudonym. For the last 14 years, Ms Gold has played the highly lucrative role of eminence grise behind the corporate throne of Anne Summers Limited: purveyor of egregious lingerie, racy novelties and an extensive series of battery-driven objects euphemistically referred to by both Gold and the Anne Summers catalogue as 'personal products'.
Of late, however, Gold (the real Anne Summers was actually the long-suffering secretary of the man who held the curious distinction of having opened the first sex shop in Bristol) has emerged from anonymity to become almost as famous as her nominal alter ego. Last year, the one-time family firm, now with Gold at its helm, turned in sales of £43 million. This year that figure will top £50 million, and its profits - 'I don't normally give them,' notes Gold, genteely picking an imaginary piece of fluff from an unbesmirched sleeve, 'but let's just say that last year's were up 41% on the year before'-will put Anne Summers in the top 200 earners among registered British companies.
As in so much else, however, it has not simply been the size of Gold's achievement that has counted. What has caught the media's eye is the fact that Anne Summers' success confirms a truth long denied in polite society: that is, that women are possessed of an active sexual desire of their own. As might have been expected, this revelation has been greeted with growls of 'phwar' by some journalists (male), with ragged cheers by others (female). Gold's consequent media stardom recently culminated in her nomination - she was eventually runner-up - for Options magazine's Businesswoman of the Year award. Both subsequent chauvinist double entendres about column-inches (of which there were many) and feminist adulation leave the apparent engineer of this sexual revolution equally unmoved. 'I do think it's brave of Options to have chosen me,' purrs Gold, with only the faintest whisper of acidity in her voice. 'When I first joined the company, respectable magazines wouldn't even handle our ads.' Now, those among you who are not regular habitues of Soho and its environs may be asking just how the sale of even £50 million worth of crutchless knickers and prosthetic phalluses to men in ill-laundered mackintoshes can hasten the sexual liberation of British woman-kind. The answer is that Anne Summers' customer profile has also undergone something of a sea change in the last decade. 'When I first joined the firm,' Gold recalls, 'we had 12 shops and a clientele that was almost entirely male.' Now, the firm's customer base - nearly three million strong at the last count, and rising - is almost exclusively female. So, too, are 246 of Anne Summers' burgeoning staff of 267. The only vital Summers statistic that has actually decreased since 1980 is the number of shops owned by the company, at present down to just four. If this strange concatenation of numbers conjures up images of glint-eyed women queuing around the block at each of the company's few remaining outlets, however, then precisely the opposite is the case. 'In 1981,' explains Gold, 'a couple of women came to me and asked if they could buy some knickers to sell at parties. One of them said "You should do something like this," and I thought, well, yes, we should.' Thus was born Anne Summers Party Plan, a network-selling programme that has currently overtaken giants such as Tupperware and Avon to become the single largest operation of its type in Britain, and whose proceeds now account for some 96% of company turnover. 'What we've done', suggests Gold, 'is to create the right environment for women. Customers who wouldn't dream of going into a sex shop feel safe looking at our products in their homes. The parties are run exclusively by women for women, and they're fun.' Some 75% of sales at the 5,000-8,000 Anne Summers parties held by the company's 7,000-strong ad hoc sales team every week are in lingerie and assorted clothing. (Current favourite is a T-shirt adorned with skeletal couples in coitus and called 'Boney Love'). Sales of personal products - the current catalogue includes one called 'Black Adonis' that looks like an artificial leg and is alarmingly described as 'life-size' - are (in this respect at least) relatively small scale.
All this has had a curious effect on Anne Summers' product line, as evidenced by the chronologically-hung series of Party Plan catalogue covers in the corridor outside Ms Gold's office. Early examples of these - so potently described by their author above - clearly approach the idea of women's sexuality from the aesthetically enlightened viewpoint of the Sun's Page Three. By the late '80s, however, a new mood has crept into their iconography. 'Do you know what colour our market research told us women think of as being erotic?' inquiries Gold. 'White. It's men who think that red and black are sexy.' Deservedly enough, these same men also begin to creep onto catalogue covers, although - witness the anxious looking fellow apparently about to be kicked to death by a model dressed as Bizet's Carmen - with the sexual tables neatly turned. 'These later ones are directly influenced by Madonna,' says Gold, pointedly. 'They try to give the impression of women in control.' This undercurrent of what Californian sociologists would doubtless refer to as 'empowerment' is also useful as a defence against those various critics unkind enough to suggest that Gold's sexual entrepreneurialism is merely a new form of female exploitation. 'The whole thing was brought about because it was what women wanted,' counters Anne Summers' MD. 'They tell us what they want, they dictate the product range. Increasingly, they buy to please themselves, not just to please men. We've also tried to get away from the myth that every woman is a perfect size 10 with our Twice As Sexy range. So who's being exploited?' Indeed, this would seem a fair enough observation, although there is commercial danger in it too. Readers of the contemporary Party Plan catalogue will, for example, search in vain for the crutchless knickers of yore. Response to customer demands means that - Black Adonises apart - the bulk of Anne Summers' products are increasingly mainstream: Gold's new desiderata are things like 'natural fibres' and 'obvious quality' rather than the quondam 'phwar' factor. This is all very well, but it does mean that the company is edging itself - or is being edged - towards a far more competitive High Street market. (Indeed, Gold's immediate future plans include the creation of a chain of lingerie-only shops). Whether women will want to buy their night attire from a firm whose corporate identity is historically associated with the sale of vibrators is a matter of debate. Gold points out that one of her top-selling current products is a sweat-shirt boldly emblazoned with the legend, ANNE SUMMERS GETS YOU FIT, which suggests that such delicacies may be a thing of the past. The company's newly-revamped sex shop in London's Charing Cross Road is also attracting an increasing female clientele. But the prospect of a clientele that demands straightforward lingerie and then elects to buy it elsewhere nonetheless remains a worrying one.
The same potential problem attaches to Gold's other new venture, a recent foray into women's magazine publishing. Modestly billed as 'the first magazine to redefine sex', Bite is, in spite of its name, aimed firmly at the middle shelves. Like Party Plan's newly cleaned-up lingerie, the magazine was inspired by client demand: 'Our customers told us that they really wanted something that would approach sexual issues head-on,' Gold asserts.
In a time when Crochet Week will happily run articles on the joys of simultaneous orgasm, however, Bite's excursuses on chocolate-flavoured condoms can scarcely be counted as a unique selling point. Like the company's lingerie, too, it may well find itself in the right place but slightly after the right time. The irony of all this is that Anne Summers has probably done as much as any comparable British institution to re-tune women's attitudes to their own sexuality: but removing the concept of the naughty has also destroyed naughtiness's potency as a marketing tool, which leaves Gold's products without an obvious place in the market.
Nevertheless, Jacqueline Gold's vision of the future remains a resolutely rose-tinted one.The recession has done her bottom line no harm at all - indeed Gold's own sanguine observation is that 'more people want to buy when times are good, more people want to sell when times are bad' - and there are interesting mar-kets overseas yet to be fully tapped. (Curiously, two of the most promising are seen as Denmark and the Netherlands, which sounds faintly like the erotic ver-sion of sending coals to Newcastle. 'The Danish and Dutch are actually very reserved,' says Gold. 'We've had to remove our personal products from their catalogues altogether.') A weather eye is also being kept on the American market. 'When I started Party Plan 12 years ago,' says Gold, pouring another cup of tea, 'friends all said it was a fad. I feel better about that now.
You know, we'll often get three generations at our parties - grannies, daughters and granddaughters - and they all enjoy it. I don't think that's going to change. Everyone in the world is interested in sex.'