Jacqueline Gold: Vibes remain good for queen of Ann Summers

Jacqueline Gold has amassed £340m through her lingerie and sex-toy store chain. But she's still hungry to grow further, reports James Thompson

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Retailers often make all kinds of grandiose statements about improving consumers' lives, yet few can justifiably lay claim to having played their part in a sexual revolution. But Jacqueline Gold, the chief executive of Ann Summers, says with a broad smile that liberating the sexual attitude of British women has been her "mission for the last 30 years".

She says: "It is just so different to when I first started – women were almost second-class sexual citizens."

Indeed, few would disagree with her, given that Ann Summers sells 2.5m vibrators a year, with its best-sellers the 11-strong family of Rampant Rabbits, including one with "just the ears".

However, if all this talk raises a giggle, there is nothing fluffy about the transformation that Ms Gold has delivered at the 150-store retailer since she joined as a wages clerk in 1979.

Ann Summers delivered operating profits of £5.5m in the year to 30 June 2010, on turnover up 3 per cent to £118.5m, according to its last available accounts. Along the way, Ms Gold has amassed a personal fortune of £340m, making her the UK's 25th richest woman, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.

But such wealth has not curtailed Ms Gold's ambitions to grow Ann Summers further, and international expansion is firmly again back on the agenda. The retailer – which only has a store in Spain's Valencia outside the UK and Republic of Ireland – plans to carry out further detailed research next year ahead of plans to launch overseas in 2013. While Ms Gold has not yet decided whether stores or an online site will come first, she already has Sydney and California her sights.

She says: "The one for me is Australia. They are very similar to the British and have a similar sense of humour. California would also be good for us. I am very excited about taking Ann Summers international because there is absolutely nothing like it out there and we are unique in what we do."

However, Ann Summers can face different cultural barriers to other retailers, and its overseas forays have not always been successful. It closed its franchise operations in the Middle East a number of years ago. The retailer also launched Party Plan – its concept of selling sexy products in people's homes – in Holland and Germany in 1992 but ended the venture five years later

Launched in 1981, the Party Plan concept remains a key part of Ann Summers in the UK and boasts 7,500 self-employed workers, who run about 14,000 parties a week at this time of year. While a typical party may generate sales of £200, around Christmas time it can be £800. Sales women who hit certain targets can receive a company car through Ann Summers.

And what about the typical clientele at the parties? "Mostly you can have three generations at one party and family and friends come to the party. On average you would have 15 guests a party but you can have a lot, lot more," says Ms Gold.

Such diversity of customers from women in their 60s to teenagers is also common in its stores, with mothers and daughters being regular visitors. Certainly, Ann Summers has not been short of traffic since recently opening its new concept shop in Westfield Stratford City, east London. In addition to a new look and layout, the store has a fake six-foot rabbit in the middle of its vibrator section, in a nod to its best-selling vibrators.

Ms Gold says: "Stratford is turning in phenomenal numbers. They [Westfield] are tough landlords but they do it very well." Despite only opening in September, Westfield Stratford City is already a top-five store for Ann Summers, with the others in Dublin, Manchester's Trafford Centre, Birmingham's Bullring and London's Oxford Street.

However, Ms Gold acknowledges the huge changes the retail sector has seen, particularly the shift away from shopping on the high street to out-of-town shopping centres and inexorable growth of online. The internet now accounts for 14 per cent of Ann Summers' total revenues and the "online figures are great at the moment", says Ms Gold. The impact both of shopping centres and online was widely documented in the high street review unveiled by Mary Portas, the TV presenter last week. Ms Gold's initial thoughts on the review are mixed. While she praised Ms Portas for tackling thorns in the sides of retailers, such as prohibitive car parking on high streets and onerous business rates, Ms Gold has concerns about some of the key figures in the industry who were allegedly not consulted. "I would have liked to have thought that [Sir] Philip Green and Lord Wolfson [the chief executive of Next] would have had an input. That was disappointing."

Ms Gold also has strong views on plans to increase the number of women in boardrooms, following Lord Davies' recommendation this year that listed FTSE 100 companies should aim to have a minimum of 25 per cent female board-member representation by 2015. She says: "Of course, there should be more women in the boardroom. But they don't want to be the token woman in the boardroom. I honestly think that most women want to be there based on merit. In the short term, I think it [a female target] is damaging."

Ms Gold has recently done her bit by promoting her sister Vanessa from deputy to managing director of Ann Summers earlier this year. While she remains upbeat about prospects and says the retailer remains profitable, she acknowledges it has been "tough" recently for all retailers.

On the front foot, Ann Summers will start selling its lingerie in the catalogue of Shop Direct, the home shopping group, from January. The retailers has also held discussions with Selfridges about a long-term concession deal, following Ann Summers opening a Hallowe'en pop-up shop in the store for six weeks.

This type of activity and the success of its new concept store in Westfield Stratford City illustrate how it is not "all doom and gloom" on the high street, she says. But Ms Gold stresses the importance of innovation in retail. Speaking like a retail revolutionary, she says: "One of the things is that we are always full of surprises and innovative. If more retailers took on board this policy, the high street would not be in a dire state."


* Her father David Gold – current chairman of Gold Group International, which includes West Ham football club – and his brother Ralph bought Ann Summers in 1972. Jacqueline joined in 1979 as a wages clerk. But her epiphany came in 1981 at a Tupperware party in an east London flat, when she saw a huge opportunity to sell lingerie and sex toys to women in their homes. She launched the Party Plan concept that year. Ms Gold became chief executive in 1987 and acquired the Knickerbox chain out of receivership in 2000. She is also chief executive of Gold Group International.

* She lives near Sevenoaks, Kent, and is married with a daughter. "I love football" and supports West Ham not just because of her father but also because her grandmother lived next to the ground. Ms Gold exercises regularly and has a personal trainer. The last song she bought on Apple's iTunes was Maroon 5's Moves Like Jagger. Ms Gold says she "loves socialising" and is "a big fan of Christmas".