No sooner had the Sexyland staff packed away the Santa lingerie with the faux-fur trim than it was time to haul out the merchandise for the adult supermarket’s busiest season, Valentine’s Day: hot-pink vibrators, heart-shaped panties, long-stemmed roses affixed to tubs of chocolate body paint. At the entrance to all nine stores, giant inflatable teddies hold hearts emblazoned with the words “I Love You”.
“No question, February 14 is our biggest day,” says the chain’s owner Jeff Holland. “That and February 13. Bigger than Christmas. Crazy.”
The nine Sexyland adult supermarkets occupy huge warehouses on major intersections in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, where young couples move into big new homes to start their families. The first 400-square-metre Sexyland opened in 2000 in an old pet-supply store in Thomastown’s industrial estate. The latest, the 800-square-metre Sunshine superstore, dominates the last major set of lights on the Western Highway before commuters lead-foot it to the satellite estates of Melton and Caroline Springs. Holland and his business partner Angelo Abela have built their empire over six years by chasing business down Melbourne’s fastest growth corridors.
“I spent 20 years in the adult industry,” says Holland, “and it was all sleazy bookshops. I thought, ‘Why does it have to be so grimy? What if we made it like Myer?’”
Sure enough, the lingerie that fills the front of the Sunshine Sexyland wouldn’t look out of place in a big department store; the lacy half-cup brassieres and flowery undies are surprisingly demure. Crotchless knickers don’t sell to Sexyland’s customers. To the right is a little light bondage: some handcuffs, some leather-look collars. “Very token presence,” says Holland. “The bondage people have their own suppliers and know where to go.”
Holland reveres the businesses that have made their fortune in the bulky goods zones that dominate the highways: Bunnings and Harvey Norman, with their wide aisles, uniformed staff and acres of carpark. “I hate and detest the city and the inner suburbs,” says Holland. “I’m a creature of the car. These big warehouse stores are built around the car. The customer goes in, they get what they want, and they get back in their car. They are never going to walk down the street with their shopping.”
Just as Bunnings is set up for the home renovator who has never held a drill, Sexyland is aimed at customers who have never used a vibrator. Eighty-five of the 90 staff are women, many of them recruited from high-street shops. “I tell them to dress like they’re on their way to church,” says Holland. “No slinky gear. Women customers are not going to feel comfortable if men are ogling the woman behind the counter.”
On a Saturday morning at the Airport West Sexyland, on the banks of the airport freeway, the store is almost empty. The two staff are busy with customers. The older man in the Sexyland polo shirt is advising a tall bloke with the shaved calves of a cyclist about vibrators for his fiancée, but Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” prevents much eavesdropping. At the counter, beneath a sign that promises discreet photo printing, a tiny young woman, bra-less beneath a high-necked black T-shirt, is chatting to a curvy girl in tight denim hipsters about the best batteries for Micro Tinglers. At the back of the store, a paunchy grey-haired man and a skinny kid with a ratty moustache roam the porno DVDs.
The Sexyland stores borrow their layout and look from women’s chain stores: pastel colours demarcate each product zone; the space is lit as brightly as Safeway. Although the women on the merchandise packaging have the hard blonde looks of porn stars, the posters on the walls are decorated with smiling lingerie models. Many of the products look like toys: the Barbie-pink and fluoro-purple vibrators are designed to resemble bunnies, dolphins or birds; the water-play area is full of guileless yellow duckies that rub in special ways.
Key areas of prime floor space are given over to the bawdy jokes of bucks’ and hens’ nights: an inflatable sheep, aprons with breasts, penis-shaped chocolate. Sex the Sexyland way is a laugh.
Growing the company so fast over six years hasn’t been easy: a succession of councils have freaked out over proposals to build giant sex stores at their gateway intersections. The migrant-belt council of Greater Dandenong fought Springvale Sexyland all the way to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in 2003, but thanks to Melbourne’s uniform municipal zoning laws, Sexyland has won every case. They can’t open in shopping malls, but they’re free to share the freeway verges with Camperland and Barbeques Galore. Holland says the mosaic of municipal planning laws in Sydney and Brisbane make interstate expansion too complex. “It’s maddening,” he says. “Too much trouble.”
The Sexyland empire has expanded as far as it can for now, says Holland. Nine stores open from nine a.m. until midnight, seven days a week. It’s enough. But it isn’t the hours that get to him: it’s the hostility. For the churches have also colonised the new estates, and they’re more than willing to fight their old adversaries, the sex stores, for the souls of suburban pioneers.
“The most violent objectors are always the religious groups,” says Holland. “They say people like me destroy marriage, destroy the family. I find myself completely unable to reason with these people. The hate! They’re full of hatred.”
He seems genuinely upset. “Some days I go home a bit rattled. Next stop I get shot or something? I wish people would come and see for themselves. We’re just for Mr and Mrs Australia.”