Ann Summers, the self-styled "passion and fashion" shopping chain which sells over two million vibrators to British women every year, is diversifying into mainstream consumer products. It wants to market Ann Summers-branded goods such as sandwiches, suitcases and even cars, from as early as next year.
The retailer, best known for its lingerie, hosiery and sex toys, is confident the brand is now strong enough to move into direct competition with its more strait-laced high-street neighbours.
Jacqueline Gold, Ann Summers' chief executive, confirmed that the company was "opening its doors to suitable lifestyle products", and had already received interest from a number of manufacturers interested in working with it.
"Ann Summers is such a powerful brand now, it's time to diversify and think laterally - to use our brand name to develop well-matched products," Ms Gold said. "If we do this, we will make Ann Summers accessible to an even greater audience."
Ann Summers is likely to be viewed as an attractive business proposition by a number of potential partners. Boasting 90 "passion and fashion" stores across the UK, and with plans to open 60 more, it has an annual turnover of £110m. The company is also the UK's biggest party plan network, with 4,000 parties every week.
It's a far cry from the early days of the chain, which was founded on London's Edgware Road in 1970 by Kim Caborn-Waterfield, an entrepreneur who named the company after his buxom blonde secretary in the hope of giving it an "English Rose" image. After an ill-fated early attempt to expand to Bristol, the company went into liquidation and was subsequently bought by brothers Ralph and David Gold for just £10,000. In 1993, David's daughter Jacqueline became chief executive.
Over the past three years, the company has expanded into Europe, taken over the Knickerbox chain, and secured a high-profile "face" in the shape of Nancy Sorrell, the model and wife of Vic Reeves.
Now, Ms Gold feels, it is time to push Ann Summers even further into mainstream consciousness.
"Imagine having exciting Ann Summers ice-cream flavours, seductive Ann Summers perfume and sexy Ann Summers silk bed sheets," said Ms Gold. "Once we have the right products in mind, we'll then decide on the sales platform. The possibilities are endless."
Retail experts believe Ann Summers has a realistic chance of succeeding in its ambitious expansion. Richard Hall, the head of retail at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young said there were "positives on all sides" for the company.
"The challenge for Ann Summers is to understand how big the opportunity for diversification is in comparison to their core brand," he said.
"In other words, how popular lickable chocolate sauce will be compared to their strong, well-known line of lingerie."
The attraction of expansion
Diversified into: planes, trains, vodka, condoms, finance,radio and more.
Did it work? Richard Branson began the Virgin empire as a mail-order record business. In 1984, Virgin Atlantic was launched.Other ventures have had mixed results. The radio station was sold in 1997 and the vodka flopped. Mates condoms enjoyed strong sales but was sold in 1988. Virgin Trains remains a problem.
Diversified into: clothing.
Did it work? In 1993, a Marlboro Classics shop opened in London, selling Wild West gear. Critics decried its stealth advertising. Now a worldwide chain.
Diversified into: hotels.
Did it work? In 2001, the world's first McDonald's hotel opened in Zurich Airport. Franchise holders, Rezidor SAS Hospitality, are exploring the possibility of a global chain.
Lynx (Lever Fabergé)
Diversified into: barber shops.
Did it work? In 2000, Lynx deodorant opened two London barber shops that offered to keep customers amused with TVs and PlayStations. Both failed.
Diversified into: alcopops.
Did it work? FCUK Spirit launched in 2001, but its 5.4 per cent alcohol content, was controversial. In May 2003 an independent complaints panel ruled the drink held too much appeal for under-18s.
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