SOCIAL distancing put the kibosh on Ann Summers parties which traditionally involve a group of friends passing around sex toys and trying on saucy underwear.
But in the true entrepreneurial spirit of the brand, party planners have found ways to adapt — moving the fun-filled get-togethers from living rooms to Zoom, while also becoming influencers.
Party planners are now called ambassadors, and the Ann Summers Party Plan has, for the first time in 40 years, rebranded — it shall now be known as the Sisterhood.
“The name change has happened because we are like a sisterhood — women are joining as ambassadors, loving supporting each other,” says CEO Jacqueline Gold.
“We just thought: this is the right time to rebrand. The ethos will be the same — you will still have three generations of a family at one party, which is great.
“But the pandemic changed things for us, instead of sinking us, the parties were thriving.
“Enhanced by lockdowns, ambassadors can sell in so many ways now — like Zoom parties, on social media, by becoming influencers and even personal shopping for couples.
SPICE UP SEX LIVES
“Many women have been uncertain about their job future, but as ambassadors they have suddenly found a way to earn money.”
Sisterhood ambassador Jade Greenwold, from Southgate, north London, earns £1,000 a month from hosting parties.
“It fits around all my other commitments and allows me to have an extra income,” says Jade, who is engaged.
“I earn over three quarters of my wage from Ann Summers,” says Jade, who is also an office administrator.
“It’s more than a job, as I love the fact I get to change women’s lives.
“The fact I am helping women feel more confident in the bedroom is so rewarding.
“With Covid my wages have definitely gone up a lot. Lockdown for most has been awful, but for me it has been a life-changer, as my customer base grew.
“I worried about how I would grow without parties, but everyone being at home made me reach out to people I wouldn’t normally.”
Jade, 30, says grew her customer base from advertising on social media and by word of mouth.
She started doing Facebook live quizzes and getting people involved in fun activities during lockdown.
Once she’d found new customers, Jade adds: “I was going ‘live’ online more, whereas before the majority of my income was from hosting parties in people’s homes.”
For the Ann Summers brand, the switch from hosting in homes to online was a natural progression as the ethos of the parties has always been to make “sex shopping” accessible to women.
KNOWN AS THE SISTERHOOD
Jacqueline, who is also Chief Executive of Knickerbox, adds: “It’s been almost four decades since I started the Ann Summers parties, which came about because I wanted women to reclaim their sex lives.
“The idea occurred to me when I was invited to a fashion party when I was 21 and was doing work experience at Ann Summers.
“I was invited to a lady’s flat, and the point was to sell us Pippa Dee clothes.
“We started playing party games — including drawing a picture of my husband’s meat and two veg. I was a little shocked.
“The women at the party were saying to me, ‘Why don’t you do parties like this at Ann Summers?
“They wanted to spice up their sex lives, but were too embarrassed to go into a sex shop.
“And that was the moment I realised there was an amazing opportunity here.
“At this time in 1981 Ann Summers was frequented by the ‘raincoat brigade’. Stores were very clinical inside, with lots of magazines and sex dolls.
“The toys were hard and phallic shaped and the lingerie was awful see-through nylon babydolls with harsh black lace edging.
“It wasn’t very female- focused at all. These parties could give women the freedom to talk about their sex lives and even buy lingerie in a comfortable, unintimidating setting.
WE CAN HAVE A LAUGH
“I took my idea to the all-male, middle-aged board of directors. One of the bosses stood up, threw his pen on the table and said, ‘Well this isn’t going to work is it? Women aren’t even interested in sex!’
“Which said more about his sex life than it did my idea. But I managed to get the funding, then I advertised in the London Evening Standard to recruit women to throw the parties and I personally trained them.
“Incredibly I got 500 party hosts in a year.”
Since then, Ann Summers sales have grown exponentially.
In the first lockdown, sales of sex toys were up 200 per cent on the previous year.
Both erotic lingerie and rabbit vibrator sales rose by 110 per cent. And from November to March this year, toys were up 160 per cent year on year.
Jacqueline, 60, says: “We’ve always been for all women, but to have society embrace the parties like they have, it just gives us so much more scope.
“VIPs are keen on the parties too — Zara Phillips (now Tindall) held a party that was amazing and one celebrity said to me, ‘I conceived my second child wearing your nurse’s outfit.’
“It’s not transactional, it’s a great way of girls getting together and having a laugh and there has never been a time we’ve needed it more.
“Our ambassadors bring so much more to a party than a bag of sex toys.
“Their training is very good so they have become experts at what they do.”
Jade adds: “I have so many amazing memories from parties — they are the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
“It’s a safe space where women can have a laugh, catch up with friends and shop at the same time.
“The response after parties is touching.
“Ladies have said I helped them to grow in confidence, feel comfortable in their own skin and even changed their sex lives.
“I didn’t have many girlfriends when I was younger but most of my customers have become friends who I would invite round for dinner.”
It’s the female friendship and camaraderie that Jacqueline says is at the heart of the brand.
She says: “One of the things I love about what we are doing is that diversity and celebrating all women has become a huge focus.
“We have a culture change committee. We have an Asian lady who is working to liberate her community, we have women who are disabled and trans people.
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“We have ambassadors who have been with us 24 years — everyone belongs.”
She adds: “Since I was that 21-year-old at my first party, there is still the same feeling of camaraderie and of it being a female institution.
“Behind every woman is a successful group of women supporting her — women are always stronger together.”