Prague may be in the running for the title of sex capital of Europe, but it can still come as a shock to see an Erotic City on every other street corner. We investigate the rise (no pun intended) of this Czech retail phenomenon.
You’re in Palladium, one of Prague’s busiest shopping malls. You’ve trailed around C&A and are wandering past the Apple Store when you spot a shop which you’re surprised to see in this location. In the window there is a close-up shot of a scantily-clad woman with her head thrown back in orgasmic ecstasy; below her, a pair of long latex gloves is draped over a black lace corset.
Welcome to Erotic City.
With over 20 branches in Prague alone and more than 70 countrywide, Erotic City is the most prominent sex shop in the Czech Republic. After starting out in the nineties as a porn video rental chain, parent company City Realex eventually decided to offer customers the chance to buy the equipment they needed to act out their fantasies. The decision to branch out into lube, love eggs, and dildos twelve years ago proved to be a smart one: City Realex now employs over 250 people, and in 2010 the company reported sales figures of 175 million Czech crowns. Just in case you were in any doubt, sex really does sell.
For those of you who haven’t ventured inside, Erotic City stock all manner of sex paraphernalia imaginable from fishnet body stockings to ball gags and of course, their biggest-selling item, vibrators. In the Palladium store there’s even a table with dummy models out on display for you to handle, just like buying a mobile phone. They come in every size, shape and color imaginable and have catchy brand names like Joystick. “Premium quality,” says the box reassuringly. “Made in Germany.”
However, spicing up your love life with intimate instruments doesn’t come cheap. While the famous Rampant Rabbit sex toy, with its strategically placed ears, will set you back £40 (around 1200 CZK) if you order online from Ann Summers, most of the vibrators at Erotic City weigh in at the 3000 CZK mark – hardly a drop in the ocean when you consider that the average Czech salary is 24,000 CZK (source Český statistický úřad) per month. Livening things up with a little role play is just as pricey: a Vixen Pirate Wench costume costs a whopping 4000 CZK.
While Erotic City’s Palladium store isn’t exactly seedy, it’s more a sex aid supermarket than alluring boutique: there’s none of the sumptuous décor or objet d’art dildos you’d see in an erotic emporium like Coco de Mer. However, the unimaginative merchandising doesn’t seem to be affecting the store’s footfall. During my recent visit, there were a steady stream of browsers, mostly couples in their twenties and thirties rather than lone men in raincoats. According to staff, the shop has between fifty to a hundred visitors a day, around half of whom make purchases. Refocusing their brand on the retail mainstream is one of Erotic City’s core strategies. In 2011 they opened branches in malls in Liberec and Olomouc as well as in Prague’s Fénix shopping centre.
Although Erotic City has expanded considerably since its early days – in 2008 they opened 14 stores in Slovakia, which has since increased to 24 – tough economic times means it faces increased competition from internet websites. According to a report in E15.cz, sales decreased by ten percent in 2010 compared to the previous year (down to 175 million crowns from 192 million crowns in 2009). Buying online is not only less costly but anonymous. Why bother to make a trip to a store to pick up your clitoral stimulator or Racy Red Riding Hood outfit?
When it comes to shopping for sex toys, nothing beats getting hands on says Hana Kotenková, Erotic City’s Product Manager. “Buying in-store versus online has many advantages,” she says. “You can find out what the real material is like, touch it, and hear whether the product is quiet or not.”
When it comes to everyday communication, men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but about in the world of erotica? Do men and women tend to make different purchases?
“Women buy all possible sex aids […] but also cosmetics,” explains Hana. “They usually buy gifts for themselves but also to play games with their partners.
What about men? “They want to surprise women, so they are likely to buy vibrators and underwear along with massage oils and candles,” Kotenková adds.
Has Erotic City faced opposition from those who would prefer not to have a sex shop in their neighborhood ?
“We met those kind of objections more in the past,” says Kotenková. “Now our stores have a pleasant, modern design, so we haven’t faced much hostility towards our businesses.”
However, not all of Erotic City’s stores have received a makeover. The I.P. Pavlova branch is the more old school sex shop you imagine being frequented by dirty old men, with the front section consisting of vibrators locked away in glass cabinets, while the rest of the store is filled with X-rated DVDs. However, despite the seedy setting, sales assistant Monika still loves her job. “It’s the contact with people I like the most,” she told me. “Working here is much more interesting than selling rohlíky.”
The popularity of TV shows like Sex and the City may have made having a ‘goodie drawer’ full of erotic aids next to your bed appear the norm, but is working in a sex shop still taboo? “I usually tell younger people after I’ve known them for a while,” says Bára, a shop assistant in the Palladium store, “but my grandma still doesn’t know.”
And the strangest customer she’s ever encountered while working at Erotic City?
The man who wanted to test out an artificial vagina before buying it.