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Cover Story

Bare accessories

Hugh Oram profiles Jacqueline Gold, the woman behind the Ann Summers brand

The Rampant Rabbit vibrator, as featured in the hit drama series Sex and the City, is one of the hottest in-store properties in Ireland, ramping up phenomenal sales, yet backed by no advertising. Its success is largely down to one woman, Jacqueline Gold.

Jacqueline Gold
COUNTER PRODUCTIVE: Jacqueline Gold has hands-on experience in running in Ann Summers. Gold is now regarded as the second most influential woman in British retailing, just behind WH Smith chief executive, Kate Swann.

Gold is chief executive of the Ann Summers chain, which has given the retailing of sex products high street respectability, not just in the UK, but here in Ireland, where women are buying up her lingerie and sex toys. The brand is as well known as Nike.

Not surprisingly, Gold, 45, is completely open about sex and says that she has always wanted to empower women in sexual matters. She says of herself that she is enthusiastic, approachable, meticulous and understanding - all valued traits in an entrepreneur.

Ad for Elle Macpherson's Intimates range
MODEL POSE: Magazine ads for supermodel Elle Macpherson's Intimates, available in Brown Thomas, play to the upmarket lingerie buyer. Ann Summers largely ignores advertising as it records sales of 155 million.

Armed with a sense of humour and a twinkle in the eye, she admits that the one characteristic she lacks is modesty. Her father, David Gold, and her uncle, Ralph, founded the Ann Summers chain on porn-think Daily Sport, which brags being "Britain's sexiest newspaper".

Today, the Golds have property and publishing interests and an executive airline called Gold Air International. They co-own the Premiership club, Birmingham City FC, along with David Sullivan.

The Gold family fortune is estimated at around 800 million and Jacqueline Gold is set to become chairman of the family empire.

But her lead role is as chief executive of Ann Summers, the chain of sex shops which she has headed up since 1987. The shops were a low profile operation when she joined as a junior at the age of 21.The first Ann Summers' shop opened in Bristol in 1972. In year one of business, turnover was a modest 80,000.

In those days, sex shops were dark, seedy affairs, with men in grey macs searching out X-rated videos. Gold had other plans and sought to change things with an emphasis on females and lingerie and sex toys.

The idea was to launch Ann Summers hen nights, where women could host parties for friends and neighbours. Gold says they are a mix of Tupperware and pyjama parties, a place where women can have a laugh and buy underwear, toys, oils and lotions.

Ann Summers now numbers over 120 high street outlets in the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands and Spain - with more planned. With the house parties and online sales, the business is expected to have a turnover this year of over 230 million.

Here in Ireland, over 300 party organisers are doing 1,000 parties a month. Each generates on average about 360 in sales, of which the organiser receives about a quarter in commission.

"Not bad for a couple of hours of fun," Gold said. That works out at a party turnover of over 4 million annually in Ireland. The average sales per head in Ireland are about twice the UK average.

The parties had been going for a long time in Ireland before Gold decided to open the first Ann Summers shop here. Ireland could not be accused of being a nation of Holy Joes and Holy Marys. Sales figures for Rampant Rabbits and the open crotch knickers point to that.

The first store in Dublin opened in O'Connell Street five years ago, right opposite the Holy Grail of the Republic, the GPO. The then Dublin Corporation took Gold to court, claiming that the shop was inappropriate and unsuitable for the capital's flagship street.

The corporation's complaint was made forcefully despite the fact that a characteristic of O'Connell St at the time was the number of fast food restaurants with loud neons adorning both sides of the street.

Gold was surprised by the corporation's reaction. "I'm used to controversy but I never imagined it would be like this. I think it was down to one or two individuals who were against Ann Summers and had never been in one of our shops".

She fought the case and won. On the first day the O'Connell Street shop was open for business, 10,000 customers filed through the doors.

At first, the store did not stock sex toys but such was the demand they soon had them piled up on the shelves.

Online, Ann Summers runs special promotions. There is the Platinum Rabbit, said to be "the best bunny ever with 40 orgasmic/pulse combinations". In order to get consumers to order there and then, they were offered free Raspberry Willy Drops worth 5.
The site's Madame Fifi promised "the ultimate in boudoir seduction" complete with bow and pearl drop. The message from Miss Massage is a sensual rubdown and consumers are assured that Lady Chatterly can make them "feel good and look stunning as a lady doll".
Gold said Irish consumers are open to the Ann Summers' proposition. The fact that within weeks of opening Irish women were crying out for sex toys shows just how liberated they had become.

Around 70 per cent of Ann Summers' customers are women, while at weekends, women and men interested in spicing up their sex lives shop together. The hen parties are totally female - no Full Monty members.

Gold says she is surprised at the cross-section of customers. She has seen three generations of women in the shops. She refused to say whether any nuns in official dress have ever been observed in the shops, no doubt sneaking a peep for research purposes.

Last year, Ann Summers opened in Cork and Limerick. One can almost sense the regret in Gold's voice that while the new shop in Cork got abundant media coverage, there was no controversy aroused.

Ann Summers has well and truly entered mainstream retailing. The next new shops are likely to be in Galway and Waterford. Overseas, Gold has franchises in Iceland and Greece.

She has been eyeing up Russia and the big prize, China. They even gave Saudi Arabia a try, but to no avail. The company also took over the Knickerbox shops in the UK, competing with the likes of Marks & Spencer and Elle Macpherson's Intimates brand.

As Ann Summers spends little or nothing on advertising, agency executives may be wasting time knocking on Gold's door. If there is a shop opening branded vans, rather than ads, will get the nod.

"We prefer to invest the money in PR," Gold said. "We've a good internal creative and marketing team and we rely a lot on humour." The Ann Summers website features a revealing air hostess uniform, urging consumers to join the Mile High Club.

Some ideas have caused upset. During the Queen of England's jubilee celebrations, shop windows had a poster showing her reading the Ann Summers Guide to Wild Sex with the words: 'Phwoaarr!, must get one'.

No action could be taken as the posters were confined to Ann Summers' shops, but Buckingham Palace did lodge an official complaint. No doubt, Gold was of a mind to tamper with the spelling of the palace.

Ironically, Zara Phillips has hosted Ann Summers sex parties at the Gatcombe Park home of her mother, Princess Anne. These days, Gold is more low-key, even co-presenting a business show on the BBC.

Of course, controversy and the sex industry have always gone hand in hand. Australian pop star Kylie Minogue caused a stir last year with a commercial she made for lingerie brand, Agent Provocateur.

Only shown in some London cinemas, Minogue appeared in bra and see-through panties riding a bucking broncho. The commercial was banned but soon made its way on to the internet and became a popular viral. Sadly, Minogue was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year.

Gold is regarded as the second most powerful woman in British retailing, trailing only WH Smith boss Kate Swann. The Ann Summers chain is ranked among the top 100 companies to work for in the UK.

Last month, Gold was voted the most inspirational businesswoman in a survey of women conducted by handbag.com and Barclays Bank. Jamie Oliver was voted the most inspirational male celebrity entrepreneur.

Her proudest moment in business came when Ann Summers' spanking new HQ was opened. She writes a regular column on retailing for a trade publication in Britain and if any Irish media owners want her to do likewise, she is open to offers.

Gold would like to do more columns and TV appearances. While the Ann Summers shop in O'Connell Street is not unlike the adjacent Centra shop in how it appears in terms of interior design, the merchandise on offer is strikingly different.

In Centra, consumers will not be offered Tasty Tits and Bite My Butt chocolates. Lotions like Pussy Rub, Banana Dick Lick and Slide and Ride will not be weighing down shelves in the convenience store.

Ann Summers is an enviable business proposition - no direct competition; strong brand recognition; no need to advertise and customers who appear oblivious to recession.

Few retailers get so lucky as Gold and have so much fun at the same time. She has already written her autobiography and it is called, appropriately enough, Good Vibrations.

Her own favourite toy? The Neighing Horse Poser Pouch, no less. She finds it endearing as it is not your conventional sex toy, but it is used in the bedroom and offers women much amusement.

"My top tip is for more after play," Gold said. "It's something that's highly underrated." Writing on the recent general election in Britain, a leading columnist remarked that if Gold was to allow her name go forward for Parliament, her slogan would be 'Lower Knickers'.

Perhaps she should consider joining the Conservatives. Ever since Margaret Thatcher left office, they have been crying out for a leader who can challenge Labour. Who better to seduce the voters?

Hugh Oram is a freelance writer and author of 'The Advertising Book - a History of Irish Advertising'

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