Beauty & Wellness Briefing: With Ulta Beauty’s stamp of approval, sexual wellness products become a beauty mainstay

After a series of retailer moves, sexual wellness products have permanently arrived in the beauty aisle. -Priya Rao

When I first started covering sexual wellness products, one of my editors routinely questioned if vibrators, lube and feminine wipes were actually beauty products at all. It felt a little like, ‘Oh, there’s Priya, trying to make wipes happen.'”

But much like other CPG products including oral care and tampons making their way into the beauty aisle, I was excited by the blurring of lines happening between beauty and personal care. And due to some recent moves, it appears that there is no longer any question of whether sexual wellness products belong in beauty retailers.

For example, Ulta Beauty exclusively announced to Glossy its Intimate Wellness assortment, a new sixth pillar of the retailer’s larger wellness assortment. Comprised of body and pleasure oils, lubricants, bath salts and sexual wellness devices, Ulta Beauty will debut its Intimate Wellness push exclusively online on September 4. Foria, Vush, Unbound, Smile Makers and Crave are its first brand partners for the segment, and Womaness and Olly, existing brands within Ulta Beauty’s larger wellness play, will also sell sexual-oriented products. A total of 35 products will launch in the Intimate Wellness category.

Penny Coy, vp of merchandising at Ulta Beauty, said the move into intimate wellness was natural for the company as it expanded into the broader wellness category over the last several years.

“We’re about a year after our Wellness Shop debut, the physical piece is in about 800 doors now, and this entire platform and the shops within are just a curated story of our intent,” she said of the retailer’s focus on inner and outer beauty. The first five core segments in the Wellness Shop were Everyday Care, Supplements and Ingestibles, Relax and Renew, Spa at Home, and Down There Care.

While all of these pillars could arguably relate to intimate products in one way or another, it was the Down There Care offering, made up of cleansing products, vaginal and oral treatments, period care and menopausal care, that allowed Ulta Beauty further entrance into sex products, or lubricants, oils and devices. “We saw a connection, in terms of blending physical, mental and social well-being and sexuality [for consumers] to enjoy a more intimate life,” said Coy.

Sephora, too, has considered sexual wellness products a growth category versus an afterthought. In February, the beauty retailer introduced its Intimate Care assortment. Maude and Dame, both of which sell sex toys, became new brands featured in the shop. Complementary products from Sephora’s existing partners, like Moon Juice’s Sex Dust, rounded out the assortment.

Like Ulta Beauty, Sephora has yet to sell some of its sexual wellness’s more provocative products in-store; but beauty retailers’ normalization of sex products is still a far cry from walking into a New York-centric Ricky’s location in the aughts, where one was greeted with Moroccanoil in the front of the store, before finding sex toys in a closet-shaped area in the back. But one thing the now-shuttered Ricky’s knew was that customers enjoy being able to buy a vibrator alongside a shampoo or lipstick.  Clearly, that consumer shopping journey is what both Ulta Beauty and Sephora are trying to mainstream.

And for those questioning distribution strategies, that push and pull between drugstore and beauty retail practically doesn’t exist anymore; think of CVS Health elevating its beauty assortment alongside its core pharmacy play, or Walmart and Target selling mass or premium beauty alongside groceries and household goods.

While sex products aren’t as taboo today compared to even five years ago, big beauty retail confers a sense of category legitimacy. Certainly, the pandemic accelerated this conversation, as Covid-19 limited the amount of social interaction one could have and opened the door for more solo sex experiences.

Luxury retailers like Violet Grey and department stores such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus provided some of the first luxury environments to buy sexual wellness products online, selling items like Crave’s vibrator necklace. But their reach is small when compared to Ulta Beauty. In its second-quarter fiscal 2022 results, Ulta Beauty reported a net sales jump to $2.3 billion, compared to $2 billion a year ago. And sexual wellness products, while a small suite of products at Ulta Beauty today, provide an incremental revenue opportunity via sheer newness. According to Grandview Research, the U.S. sexual wellness market is expected to reach $19.9 billion by 2030.

Kiana Reeves, chief education officer of Foria, said the large and broad audience Ulta Beauty serves is one of the reasons she found it to be a fitting partner. “We’ve been wanting to work with partners who are already having conversations around wellness and beauty, and talking to a core customer in their 20s, 30s and 40s about menstruation, intimate wellness and sexual pleasure,” she said. Reeves said Foria’s customer base online is segmented into three life stages: 20s-30s, 40s-50s and 60s-70s.

Communicating these nuances of who these products are for and why will be a challenge, especially at Ulta Beauty, given its 1,300-plus store fleet and its Gen-Z reach. Simone Petronio, director of integrated marketing at Ulta Beauty, said the company is being especially delicate to people’s conceptions of the category. Ulta Beauty will be working with brand partners to drive social and online marketing buzz, alongside influencers in the UB Collective. “We’ll be providing an online environment with very targeted and thoughtful communications, as we know this is a sensitive but sought-after space,” she said. 

For Reeves, she understands the marketing and communication piece is key for more shoppers to feel emboldened by these purchases in a big retail environment. “We haven’t been able to delineate between the three [demographics in marketing] because what we’re touching on is a multi-generational conversation. The fine-tuning work we need to do is ask, ‘How do you speak to the heart of these concerns and bring people in, instead of making people feel shocked or say, I don’t know if that’s for me,’” said Reeves. “It’s important for us to not limit sex to just young people. People go through changes — pregnancy, postpartum, menopause — and we want to and can support them through that, so they continue to have lifelong pleasure and vitality.”

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