NEWTON, Mass. >> Last year, Jamie Leventhal, chief executive of Clio, a small company that makes devices like personal hair trimmers, got a call from a buyer he knew at Walmart.
“What do you think of sex toys?” Leventhal said the buyer had asked him.
It was a bit of a surprising question from a retailer known for its buttoned-up corporate culture. But Leventhal knew that Amazon and other retailers were having success selling adult products and that there was money to be made. So did Walmart.
Now, 45 years after feminists started selling vibrators by mail-order catalog, 20 after the Rabbit toy was praised on “Sex and the City” and in a moment when brands like Goop are espousing “sexual wellness” to women, Leventhal’s company has created a line of sex toys that are being stocked and sold by Walmart, the largest retailer in the United States.
Clio’s PlusOne line started appearing in 4,300 of Walmart’s roughly 4,700 stores and on Walmart.com in October. Walmart sells the items in stores in every state in the United States except Virginia and Alabama, because of laws in those places. The retailer plans to begin carrying four more PlusOne products in August.
“This is not a new category for us,” Walmart said in a statement, noting that it carries vibrators made by the condom companies Trojan, Durex and Lifestyles. But PlusOne is a much bigger move into sex toys.
The products are designed to be high end. They are waterproof, rechargeable and made with body-safe silicone, features once found only on products sold at sex shops and online. Yet they are priced between $10 and $35, far less than “designer vibrators” from companies like Lelo, which can cost $75 to $200.
The PlusOne line is also more identifiably sexual than the other devices on Walmart’s shelves. Clio will release a clitoral stimulator as part of its August expansion, along with a mini personal massager, cleaning wipes and a lubricant.
Although Clio developed the products for Walmart and the retailer is its top customer, the company’s vibrators are also carried by Target and Amazon. In the last eight months, Clio has sold over a million PlusOne units. The company now has more than 26% of the sexual massager market, according to Nielsen.
“I want to become the Kleenex of sex toys,” Leventhal said, “the brand that you associate with sex toys.”
Clio is hoping to appeal to women who have never bought a sex toy before, particularly mothers over 25, but are embracing the idea that “sexual wellness” is good for you and can be empowering.
“It is like bringing a mini-sex toy store to every small town in America,” said Hallie Lieberman, author of the sex toy history “Buzz.” “It is very revolutionary in a quiet way.”
“This feels like the tipping point,” said Chad Braverman, an executive at the sex toy manufacturer Doc Johnson, which was founded in 1976, when sex toys were still an underground business. “It is another step toward normalcy.”
When developing the line, Clio considered various factors, including price and aesthetic, but especially, Leventhal said, “how do we do something that Walmart shareholders won’t be offended by?”
Leventhal, 46, also has to figure out how to market a device that some in the public still view with suspicion. It was illegal to sell sex toys in Texas until 2008, and still is in Alabama. This year, at CES, the largest consumer electronics show in the country, an innovation award given to a sex toy was revoked; a rule prohibits products that are “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane” or do not reflect well on the show’s image.
Still, sex sells quite well. The “femtech” market, which includes the category of sexual wellness, could be worth $50 billion by 2020, according to a 2018 report by Frost and Sullivan. The adult store industry made $9.5 billion in 2018, and sex toys account for nearly 80% of that revenue, according to a 2018 report from Ibis World.
Trojan began selling vibrators in 2005, and they soon appeared in drugstores like CVS and Walgreens. By 2008, Walmart carried objects like vibrating rings, which are primarily designed for men.
Leventhal founded Clio in 2002. At the time, he saw an opening in the market for less expensive grooming products. The company now has five departments: grooming, nail care, skin care, cosmetic appliances and sexual wellness devices. Sex toys will soon become the majority of the products that Clio ships.
Leventhal admits he is a novice in the sex toy industry. Lieberman’s book on the history of such devices is in the office, but he hasn’t read it.
“I’m curious, but I’m also busy,” he said.
He goes to hot yoga at lunch when he can, and drives an 11-year-old Toyota 4Runner he named Whitney, after Whitney Houston. He plays tennis with his two young children and spends time thinking about innovative retail products like EOS’ spherical lip balm and Method’s teardrop soap bottle. And he’s not sure why selling sex toys in a major retailer would be a big deal to anyone.
“I don’t see it as taboo,” Leventhal said.
He recognizes that not everyone feels the same way. “I think there’s a group of men that definitely do see a sex toy as a threat to the intimacy in their marriage,” he said.
Clio’s competitors are watching closely.
Alexandra Fine, chief executive of Dame Products, thinks Walmart’s investment in PlusOne could make it more likely for her company to attract investors, which has not always been easy, she said. Dame Products sued New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority in June for refusing to place advertisements for the company on subways.
“It’s challenging to get people to see the value and the importance of female sexual pleasure,” Fine said. “It can be frustrating to be fighting for that and then to see men more easily profit from it.”
Leventhal grew up in Sharon, Massachusetts, and his father and uncles all bought and sold merchandise for retail companies. He studied at the Florida Institute of Technology and Hofstra and went to work for a company in Chicago that made fans.
Leventhal thinks Walmart approached him because his company is small and works quickly. There are only about 20 employees, including two product designers.
PlusOne’s designers, several of them women, are also new to sex toys and take inspiration from specialty shops, items on Amazon and premium products made by companies like Lelo, WeVibe and Womanizer. One of the female designers said she also got ideas from pornography, though Stephanie Trachtenberg, Clio’s marketing director, said the company wanted to distance itself from that world because of negative associations consumers might make.
“We’re not kinky,” she said. “This is good for you.”
Jason Cornaro, 28, one of PlusOne’s designers, often thought about how he could make the products feel accessible and inviting to a first-time buyer. He wanted to make them attractive, not vulgar, but also immediately recognizable and easy to use.
“It has to kind of appeal to everyone, or at least not turn anyone away,” Cornaro said.
Clio is already working on a new product that looks like a vibrating silicone feather. Employees are calling it a “tickler.” It was Trachtenberg’s idea.
“It’s amazing,” Leventhal said, as the product buzzed. “We’ll launch that in the first quarter of 2020.”