In Troy, Michigan, an affluent city just north of Detroit, there is a 14,000-square-foot warehouse full of hemorrhoid creams, vaginal tighteners, anal bleachers, home enema systems, lots of vibrators, and a special room, where those vibrators undergo what may be the most scientific testing in the world of sex toys.
“Trying to separate out the junk from the nice,” says sex toy vendor/pioneer Tom Nardone (above), the king of this palace. “It’s a weird job, but someone’s got to do it.”
Nardone never intended to get into the sex toy business, but he ended up transforming it. He first founded ShopInPrivate.com in 1998, an e-commerce site for all the things that a person may blush to buy in person.
Then in 2008 he acquired Vibrators.com, which sells around 100,000 vibrators a year. But his real innovation came in 2009, when Nardone — a former test engineer for a helicopter company — founded the Vibrator Institute and developed specialized equipment to measure a vibrator’s properties.
While other sex toy sellers advertised their wares with a manufacturer’s description or personal reviews, Nardone wanted to provide a more objective, standardized way to help customers choose their most intimate of accessories. “As a retailer, Tom is kind of on the front lines,” says California Exotic Novelties spokeswoman Desiree Duffy. “He knows what women and couples want.”
Nardone’s company uses a sound pressure meter to calculate each vibrator’s volume, and an accelerometers to determine the intensity of its pulse.
He then translates the results into customer-friendly labels: sound on a spectrum from “whisper” to “thundering,” vibration on a scale from “gentle” to “unrelenting.”
Sex toy makers have responded. Inspired by Nardone’s research, California Exotic Novelties, one of the country’s largest sex toy manufacturers, came out with a “Jumpin’ Gyrator,” with a deeper and more rumbling vibration. It sold so well that the company’s expanding it into an entire line.
Pickin’ Up Good Vibrations
Few household appliances are advancing at the rate of the vibrator. Just 15 years ago, most Americans would buy their erotic accessories behind the tinted windows of an adult specialty store.
Most vibrators had little science, or sense of female anatomy, behind them, and were often sold with a porn star on the package, to better seduce the usually male buyer.
But in the last decade, designer manufacturers and boutique sellers, many female-owned, have helped the vibrator shed its stigma, and given birth to an industry of innovation. Rubber has given way to silicon, and wall plugs to microchips. California Exotic Novelties is currently investing heavily in toys chargeable by USB.
“Everything you see in the non-sex toy world,” says Anne Semans, who’s worked for sex toy seller Babeland for 10 years, “will eventually find its way to a sex toy.”
Nardone never set out to be part of this movement. His business is privacy, not sex. But after years of retail experience, he says that he wants the customer to get what she wants, and will go to great lengths to do it. Nardone is already braving the next frontier: the personal lubricant.