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Since its founding at the height of the Sexual Revolution, The Pleasure Chest has helped changed the way Americans shop to cater to their own erotic needs.

After Duan Colglazier and Bill Rifkin founded the first The Pleasure Chest location to cater to New York City’s gay community in 1971, the chain spread to Los Angeles in 1975 and Chicago in 1977.

Instead of hiding behind the intimidatingly tinted windows emblazoned with “XXX” or “ADULT,” which was typical for erotic stores in this era, The Pleasure Chest locations had department store-style display windows, friendly and knowledgeable sales staff, and appropriately lit interiors with eye-catching displays.

“The store displays were not of our current standards,” Director of Business Development Sarah Tomchesson says. “However, this was typical for the sex industry in that era. What makes us unique is that we have been successful in changes with the times and the demand of our customer base.”

Throughout the 1980s and beyond, The Pleasure Chest stores transitioned to a couples-friendly erotic distributor and retail outlet frequented by consumers from a variety of backgrounds and orientations. For The Pleasure Chest specifically, the shift began in the 1990s, around the time “Sex and the City” – which filmed scenes in the New York location – was a hit on the small screen and served as a marker of the new Sexual Revolution.

“Since 1971, The Pleasure Chest has always been on the forefront of the sex industry, which has been recognized by mainstream celebrities and media,” says Brian Robinson, owner and Colglazier’s nephew. “We truly offer something for everyone.”

Today, The Pleasure Chest continues to serve as a pioneer in the sexual health and wellness industry. Forty years after its founding, mainstream media and pop culture stars continue to sing the chain’s praises, including Joan Jett, Halle Berry, Queen Latifah, and the Kardashian sisters. The Pleasure Chest’s three locations in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles stock a variety of products that cater to a wide range of tastes and preferences.

“Our product selection is the most diverse in the industry, ranging from bachelorette gifts to lingerie to hardcore BDSM,” Robinson says. “Our staff is required to be educated in each of these areas, which we test on regularly.”

Staff Training

In order to maintain the most knowledgeable staff in the adult retail industry, The Pleasure Chest puts its sales associates through rigorous training to create expertise within its ranks. According to Tomchesson, The Pleasure Chest offers a tiered education program that allows employees to become a “sex specialist.” Once they achieve this level, employees can lead workshops for customers and new hires, as well.

“It is a fairly formalized process,” she says. “Employees come in and start as customer assistants, but once they are familiar with the point-of-sale, toy materials and our general operations, they’ll work with managers on a one-on-one basis.

“Once a manager feels they have achieved a certain level of product and sexual health knowledge, have attended a few workshops and have a good handle on our sex-positive culture, they can interview to become a sex specialist,” she adds. “Once someone becomes a sex specialist, they are eligible to train to become an instructor.”

Aside from product training, everyone hired by The Pleasure Chest undergoes gender and sexuality training, as well. This training is implemented in-house and requires some independent study, according to Tomchesson.

The company also allows its suppliers to host in-store trainings for employees. The Pleasure Chest’s marketing strategy is to remain as community-based and grassroots as possible, and hosting in-store workshops is one of the many ways it accomplishes this, explains Kristen Tribby, director of creative development and strategy. These workshops cover a variety of topics, ranging from tips on oral sex to BDSM. “In our communications with our customers, we rarely push selling products,”  Tribby says. “Instead, we offer sex advice, tips and tricks, and newsworthy coverage of sex-related topics.”

Exhaustively training its employees is one way The Pleasure Chest aims to retain key personnel for the long term. Robinson says it is part of the company’s “holistic approach to people management.”

“We offer a 360-degree review process so employees get feedback from both management and their peers,” Tomchesson says. “We truly believe that each of our employees should leave this job with a larger skill-set than they came to us with.

Another way is to offer an excellent retail benefits package. “The Pleasure Chest always has provided healthcare to our employees and has continued to offer 100 percent healthcare coverage for all employees who work at least 32 hours a week,” Robinson says.

Creating Loyalty

Although The Pleasure Chest has cornered the sexual health market, the competition is stiffer than ever. To maintain and increase repeat business, the company is working on a loyalty program it plans to roll out in the third quarter of 2012.

Robinson says the new program will require The Pleasure Chest to change its POS software to offer customers a more personalized loyalty program than in the past.

“This will allow us to offer a richer, more relevant loyalty program which speaks directly to the needs of specific customer demographics,” Robinson says.

This loyalty initiative includes increased interaction with customers through email and Web-based activities, as well. The Pleasure Chest already emails its customer regularly once they sign up for a recurring newsletter.

“Is it possible to add in that what distinguishes our social media and email outreach to our customers is that we do not market to them in traditional ways, like relying solely on discounts?” Tomchesson asks. “We try to engage customers in trivia, contests and regularly updated articles on sexual health and pleasure.”

Future of the Industry

Despite the retail industry’s migration toward Internet business, Tomchesson believes The Pleasure Chest’s success has always been with its stores because of the personalized service customers receive at each location – service that is not as easy to get online.

“Our brick-and-mortar is really solid for us,” she says. “We want it to continue to function as a shopping location as well as a resource for the community.  Our intentions are to focus our growth in opening new stores and extending our brand to other metropolitan cities.”

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