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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 09:32 GMT
Sex war threat haunts UK High Streets
Beate Uhse, founder, Beate Uhse Group
Beate Uhse: Founded chain in 1947

As travel writer Bill Bryson says, the sure way to run into that teacher who placed such faith in you as a child is to emerge, smirking, from the Dr Muller sex emporium in Frankfurt airport.

Prepare yourself, then, alumni of Britain, for embarrassing encounters within your own shores.

I would be astonished if women in Sutton were not wearing lingerie or enjoying themselves romantically

Michael Vaughan, Beate Uhse
For German-based Beate Uhse, which owns the Dr Muller chain, is bringing its "discreet", "spiritually inspiring", "taboo-breaking" brand of erotica stores to the home counties.

No more need to visit one of the firm's 200 Continental shops for help in making "sex an electrifying act of pure union, sensuous and wonderful".

Now, those seeking to up their love voltage need travel but to Sutton, a London suburb most famous until now for its football team's FA Cup run in 1988-89.

'Sex up your life'

The local council may tout Sutton as the "cleaner, greener borough", revered for ground-breaking library services and award-winning car parks.

But to Beate Uhse, the town offers good transport links, and a busy High Street.

It possesses a promising store site next to HMV.

And it provides shoppers keen not just on vinyl, but latex, and, apparently, vulnerable to the Beate Uhse sales slogan: "Sex up your life".

"Customers will be thronging at the doors when we open on Wednesday," Michael Vaughan, head of the firm's UK division, says.

"I would be astonished if women in Sutton were not wearing lingerie or enjoying themselves romantically."

Videos shunned

Note the focus on women.

For Beate Uhse expects some two thirds of its customers to be lone female shoppers, with couples making up most of the rest.

Sex and the City cast
Sex and the City: Iconic

The firm's German roots may be in magazine heavy, booth-equipped stores attracting mainly male customers.

"You get men coming in after work. That's peak time," says Assia Tschernookoff, public relations manager.

"Women do not buy videos or magazines."

But in Sutton, Mr Vaughan sees only 5% of customers being lone men "looking for a gift or something for themselves".

Cultural shift

The store has been designed as a "light, comfortable, stylish" affair, with sex toys placed "discreetly" at the back.

No dirty mac magnet this.

Beate Uhse Group - profile
Founded: 1947 in northern Germany
Sales: 222m euros (2001)
Gross profit: 2.2m euros (2001)
Employees: 1,170
Runs 200 stores in nine countries (incl UK)
Regional retail market share: 17%
Mail order market share: 46%

It is aimed at British women liberated after decades where "adult activity as a fun pastime has been denied", Mr Vaughan says.

"Increasing equality in employment, a growing number of single mothers, more women living alone, have all contributed to a noticeable shift in women's attitudes," his prepared text continues.

"Women's magazines with sexy strap lines have proliferated as men's 'top shelf' magazines have declined by 20% per annum."

Sex and the City and Ally McBeal are, more than TV programmes, lifestyle phenomena which have liberated female sexuality, and raised the sex industry beneath the counter.

And soon viewers nationwide could enjoy sexed up lives, with Mr Vaughan talking of the parameters of a fashion chain with 200-300 shops.

"It would not be a problem for us to roll out a new store every three weeks in the course of time."

Protesters' hopes

Not a problem, perhaps, for a firm, which since its foundation in 1947 by Beate Uhse, has grown into a business with sales last year of 222m euros (140m; $218m).

Ann Summers store
Ann Summers: unconcerned

Not an issue for a firm which under her successor, Gerard Cok, has expanded its retail operations into nine countries, and its product range to 20,000.

But for Britons living before the watershed, who view underwear as a matter of comfort, and battery driven devices as the preserve of electrical stores, the lace and latex march of Beate Uhse may be of real concern.

And as the stores do not require licences, as demanded of sex shops selling a harder cocktail of products, moralists' hopes of controlling expansion seem limited.

Sex toy recall

Competitors may also view the arrival of such a fecund rival with concern.

Ann Summers has, after all, been addressing Britain's sex needs since the opening in 1970 of its first store, named after the secretary of the shop's then owner.

While the chain has grown to encompass more than 70 outlets, the onset of Beate Uhse comes at a time of flagging sales growth.

And the chain earlier this years suffered the embarrassment of recalling its Rampant Rabbit sex toy over a potential fault.

War prospects

Ann Summers claims to be unconcerned about Wednesday's Sutton opening.

Michael Vaughan
Michael Vaughan: untapped demand

But a statement from chief executive Jacqueline Gold hints that such confidence is built on misinformation.

"I do not consider Beate Uhse as competitors as they run traditional licensed sex shops targeting male customers," Ms Gold says.

"Ann Summers... remains the UK's only passion and fashion retailer, that is run by women, for women, selling sexy lingerie and sex toys."

Yet with Beate Uhse too targeting the, unlicensed, "something for the weekend, madam" market, the scene is set for a High Street sex war - ready, Ms Gold, or not.

Rumble in Brighton?

Battle is unlikely to commence in Sutton, with Ann Summers continuing a somewhat gradual programme of store opening.

More probable is a showdown in Brighton, a city where Ann Summers has an existing store, and which is believed to be top of Beate Uhse's shortlist for future sites.

Even so, Mr Vaughan plays down talk of rivalry, mentioning the market's huge untapped demand.

He turns again to Sex and the City whose lead character, as the show's title sequence says, "knows good sex and isn't afraid to ask".

Maybe Britons have emerged from the dark ages of sexual repression.

Maybe they are past the era of smirking embarrassment at being spotted emerging from sex stores by former teachers.

Perhaps they should instead prepare to witness their former headmistress stepping in.

See also:

09 Jul 02 | Business
14 May 02 | UK
22 Jan 02 | Business
21 Jan 02 | Entertainment
28 Aug 01 | Business
18 Jul 01 | Europe
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