Home Archive 20 years of ETO: Harmony, Charing Cross Road, London

20 years of ETO: Harmony, Charing Cross Road, London [reprinted from issue 1, July 2003]

[From July 2003] ETO visits Harmony in Charing Cross Road, London, and sees a store that’s as far removed from the old-style adult shops as David Beckham is from Bobby Charlton. The game’s the same but it’s played with a great deal more style and panache these days…

As the industry emerges, blinking from the darkness of its past, into the light of the mainstream market, it is undergoing significant changes. Going – a little too slowly for some, yet a little too quickly for others perhaps – is the ‘seedy’ image of the adult industry. Thanks to the success of the Erotica consumer show, and coverage given to toys by television stars such as Graham Norton and, before him Antoine De Caunes on Eurotrash, we are gradually being seen as nothing more threatening than just purveyors of ‘fun for grown ups’, and this can only ensure the industry grows even further over the next few years.

To reflect this shift in perception, the face of adult retailing is changing too, and a fine example of a new generation store can be found in Charing Cross Road, London, where Harmony is located. Even from outside, and despite the obvious constraints such stores face, Harmony gives the impression of a professional, classy establishment; the Harmony shop sign has a halo over the A and devil’s horns attached to the O, subtly hinting at the nice but naughty pleasures that await inside.

Once inside, the visitor cannot fail to be impressed by what he sees – and that’s before he even considers the merchandise. The shopfittings are comparable with any retailer, whatever sector they trade in, operating today, and the shop layout is clear, uncluttered, and very welcoming. The ground floor is given over to books and magazines, and whilst perusing the shelves, the visitor’s eyes are drawn to the ceiling, specifically the fact that there is very little evidence of one. This gives the store a very airy feel and also draws attention to the DVD and VHS movies racked above.

Once upstairs, the visitor will fully appreciate the work that has gone into creating the first floor, which beautifully integrates the two levels into one whole. So much so that in a different life, the premises could easily have been conceived as a trendy bar/club. The wide staircase up to the first floor continues up to the second floor where lingerie, toys and other novelty items can be found. The merchandise is expertly laid out, with great care, there is plenty of space to move around and the browsing customers could be forgiven for forgetting they were in an adult store. This could be the lingerie department of Marks & Spencer, were it not for the presence of items such as leather cuffs and a handsome display cabinet showcasing glass phalluses.

There are two other branches of Harmony in London, in Soho and Newport Court, but the Charing Cross store is the company’s flagship, as Jamie O’Sullivan, area retail manager for the group, explains: “Charing Cross is like the supermarket look. Soho has more of a sexier appeal and there’s an element of surprise when you go in there because of the corridors and the layout of the store. It has softer lighting, but the monitors screening trailers of porno flicks create a hardcore feel to the place. Newport Court is a small but tidy store, predominantly focusing on DVD and video promotions.

“Shopfitting is essential in this day and age,” Jamie continues, “creating the right look to take the image away from the dark, dingy, back street stores of yesterday. It is all about promoting clean, friendly, and accessible stores, so your customers can navigate the shop with ease in a comfortable environment.”

The Charing Cross store certainly fits that description, but instead of being the work of a team of outside professional shopfitters, as we suspected, it was a DIY job: “Steven Elvins, Harmony director, managed the shopfit. He was builder, designer and architect all rolled into one. He oversaw everything.”

Whilst we were in the store, customers were coming and going constantly, and the mix appeared to be extremely broad: “It’s generally male, about 70%,” Jamie confirms, “but there are many tourists at the weekend and we are seeing a gradual increase in females and couples as customers. They have finally discovered us!”

Like just about every retailer in every market, Christmas is the busiest time for Harmony and the store’s main suppliers are ABS Holdings and Scala, but Jamie has only good things to say about all his suppliers: “They are all very helpful. The industry is extremely professional and we work well with all our partners. Our best-selling lines are the Harmony Pornutopia DVD and video and our Harmony magazine. Our customers like to take a bit of Harmony back home with them.”

The Charing Cross Harmony store is managed by the very efficient and professional Elizabeth Delumo, and her presence within the store is helping to widen the customer base from its predominantly male base: “When female customers purchase toys, generally speaking it works well with female staff. Buying sex toys is quite a private thing, and the female customers find the presence of female staff quite calming and makes it more of a discreet environment.”

And the best thing about working in this industry? “Working in a fun and non-exclusive environment, and being able to receive and enjoy all the wonderful pleasures our products provide,” concludes Jamie.

We were extremely impressed with the Harmony store we visited, the way it was run, and the whole shopping environment. If stores like this are pointing the way to the adult shopping experience of tomorrow then, to quote that old Timbuk 3 song, the future’s so bright we’ll have to wear shades…

This article first appeared in issue 1 of ETO magazine, dated July 2003, and all references were correct at the time of publication.