Say what you will about the Fifty Shades of Grey series--it's had an undeniable impact on the economy of sex. 

E.L. James's best-selling trilogy first hit bookstands in 2011. As the series increased its visibility in the world of BDSM (loosely translated: bondage/discipline, domination/submission, sadism/masochism), it also created sex toy customers. Lots of them, in fact. 

Between 2008 and 2013, sex toy sales in the U.S. increased by approximately 12.5 percent annually, raking in $610 million in 2013 overall, according to the marketing research firm IBISWorld. And significantly, it's the small shops--which cater more to local demand--that continue to dominate the industry. 

"The main effect that the books had is that it really gave a lot of women permission to get into this market and explore more," said Neal Slateford, the co-founder of the U.K.-based online adult toy retailer Lovehoney. "That was really transformational for our business." (In 2013, women made up approximately 67 percent of U.S. industry patronage, which was a 12 percent increase from 2008.)

Indeed, Lovehoney reports seeing a 40 percent increase in year-over-year sales, which Slateford attributes in large part to the "Fifty Shades stuff." It's not the only one: E-commerce titan Adam and Eve, which holds the industry's greatest market share at an estimated 4 percent, also reported a boost in business related to the books: "Certain toys, such as Ben Wa balls, were backordered for weeks," spokesperson Katy Zvolerin told Inc. 

Adult toy retailers are anticipating another growth spurt with the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey on Friday, although it's worth noting that most of the toys represented in print are not likely to appear on-screen, as Slateford originally told The New York Times. (The film received an R rating, not the stronger NC-17 rating, which perhaps explains the reported absence of Ben Wa balls.) And as Claire Cavanah, the co-founder of adult toy retailer Babeland, puts it: "Translating erotic fiction into film could be tricky. We're modestly preparing for an increase in sales."

Still, with the expectation that many customers will flock from movie theaters to sex stores this Valentine's Day weekend, businesses are ramping up by selling a slew of related items. Lovehoney, for instance, manufactures an official Fifty Shades of Grey "Pleasure Collection," which it distributes to more than 200 vendors worldwide (juggernauts like Target included). Lovehoney has reason to brag: It's being credited by Universal Pictures for furnishing the film's "Red Room of Pain."

Other retailers have created their own products pegged to the series. Adam and Eve has a "Scarlet Couture" collection, for instance, featuring relevant items like the "Whip it!" Kit and "Candy Ball Gag" alongside advertisements for the official Fifty Shades of Grey line. And in perhaps the most creative bid to capitalize on the movie, Hustler Hollywood is sponsoring a Facebook competition users can enter to win their very own "Ultimate Playroom Package." Thus far, Hustler Hollywood has received more 26,000 entries. "We're in the mood," spokesperson Allison Johnston aptly told Inc. 

Even mainstream retailers like Amazon and Target are spotlighting items from the official collection (such as the Yours and Mine Adult Vibrating Love Ring) alongside more prosaic and everyday products, like Captain America toothbrushes

Interestingly, some specialty companies don't seem too concerned about losing business to the corporate giants. "We are hopeful that with Target and Walgreens carrying toys from Fifty Shades, more doors will open for us in the mainstream marketplace," Adam and Eve's Zvolerin said. After all, Cavanah added, "are customers really comfortable buying vibrators and floggers along with their toothpaste, storage bins, and a new waffle iron?" (Our bet: Probably not.) 

Debate about the realism or appropriateness of the series aside, Fifty Shades of Grey has measurably affected at least these precincts within the U.S. economy, from local shops to e-commerce retailers to (yes, even) mainstream companies. That influence is likely going to increase when the film hits theaters on Friday, with ripples that could continue to transform the industry: IBIS projects an additional 5.4 percent annual industry growth by 2018. And the consultancy credits 1.4% of that annual growth to Fifty Shades of Grey.

For the small business of erotic life, the future is visible--and perhaps even bright.

Published on: Feb 12, 2015