Employee 101

Peter Smith
Not so long ago, when a consumer entered an adult emporium, the helpful, knowledgeable staff was rarely helpful or knowledgeable. Looking for some advice on a vibrator, or trying to find out which lube might be harmful to your delicate skin? You'd be hard-pressed to glean any of that from the attendant behind the register.

Things have changed exponentially in recent years due to a number of factors. In the novelty arena, customer awareness and demand have increased, thanks in large part to the Internet. Also, the idea of walking into a brick-and-mortar establishment in search of a dildo or strap-on wasn't always as acceptable as it is now.

Although those elements thankfully are becoming a thing of the past, the question of today remains: Exactly how do you reconfigure your business to accommodate the modern customer? Adult shops are engaging in a number of ways, from sex workshops to employee education to in-store redesigns; the "knowledge is power" notion has never been more true in maintaining a competitive edge.

Since 1972, the Pleasure Chest has been a Los Angeles mainstay for one-stop adult shopping. And though the store's walk-in clientele is steadfast, the Internet has helped spark changes at the store.

"Online companies are really undercutting prices, so we want to focus on what benefit people have by coming into the store and getting hands-on education that they wouldn't necessarily get online," says Kristin Tribby, who was recently hired on as the store's director of marketing and education. "The Pleasure Chest has always been behind knowing about sex and communicating that to its customers, but I think we're seeing a resurgence of education in the industry, with folks wanting more information, and workshops have been blossoming."

The store offers classes open to the public featuring sex educators explaining the ropes, sometimes literally, as in the case of noted San Francisco-based sex columnist and author Midori.

"We bring in the best sex educators," Tribby says. "Midori covers a variety of topics — from fellatio to cunnilingus to sex toys 101 — but she's most known for her rope play. Folks can come in, and it's about $30 for a seminar."

As the saying goes, there are some things you can't learn in the classroom.

"In the current climate, I think people are really not learning too much in schools, people aren't getting much sex education," Tribby says. "I work with college students, and I'm finding that there are weird, somewhat naïve ideas about sex that were common years ago that we're seeing a resurgence of. Also, colleges will book people from our workshops to come out, so we're seeing people reaching out, and we're trying to answer that need. Online, you don't get the one-on-one experience."

The Chest also features a "petting zoo," where buyers can get a hands-on experience with an ark-load of different novelty species. And after a zoo visit, adopters "can pick up an informational sheet telling what kind of product they're buying, the material it's made from and how to take care of it. And we're revamping that too, with a holistic eye."

Yes, the green ideal is reaching into the novelty world as patrons become more concerned about eco-friendly playthings.

Florida's Fairvilla Megastore opened in 1992 and now claims the title of largest adult retail store in the country. In addition to creating new internal changes like user-friendly signage, Fairvilla knows that a successful "one on one" experience demands educated employees. That has included bringing in reps from video and toy companies such as Cal Exotics and Tantus to tout their product.

"We want to know what sets them apart, what makes their company what it is, what is their focus and where they are going," says Debra Peterson, Fairvilla's director of marketing and a 10-year company veteran. "If we know what makes them special, we can guide our customers to what they're looking for. We've always had an emphasis on customer service. But today, with our employees, we do a lot more training than running a register. It's important for them to know what makes a lubricant special and the difference between water-based and silicone and how that's compatible with one product or another.

"These kinds of things are just going to make your customer that much happier," she says. "I'm amazed sometimes at the great feedback we get; customers will mention specific employees and how knowledgeable and fun they were."

Fairvilla has also begun incorporating the customer via focus groups.

"We're going to our customers and asking for feedback in ways where we can enhance a particular department," Peterson says. "In your own store, sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees, and you need to see things through the eye of the consumer."

One company that's not playing catch-up in the employee schooling game is Babeland. With locations in New York and Los Angeles, the store has majored in staff education for 15 years. Workers are given weeklong training sessions that go far beyond which shelf to place the purple dildos on.

"We provide very thorough training on anatomy and physiology, on customer service techniques, on the language that we use surrounding sex toys and sexuality, plus training on all of the products that we sell in our store," says six-year Babeland veteran Abby Weintraub, the Soho location store manager. "We've gathered a lot of information from a lot of sources, and it's generally the managers that do the training, or staffers that have been with us for a long time that are very knowledgeable. From what I've seen out in the world, the information that we're giving to our sex educators is comparable to what you'd find from doctors and therapists who are teaching a lot of the same things."

That's right, she said "sex educators." Like Best Buy has its Geek Squad and Subway its Sandwich Artists, Babeland confers upon its sex-savvy staff an official title. It has paid off; the company even won a Zagat Award for best customer service in New York, no easy feat. But what does it take to make the grade?

"A lot of people want to work here, and we go through a lot of applications," Weintraub says. "We're looking for a really unique combination of strong customer service and retail skills and some experience talking about sex and sexuality, and a basic understanding of sexuality. We want people who 'get it' about sex positivity and are open to learning more and are good listeners and can communicate well."

She said that last part is a basic necessity, given patrons' knowledge.

"I'd say customers are more educated about their own sexuality than they used to be," Weintraub says. "It's become much more common for people to have done some research themselves before they come into the store. But everybody is still looking for that affirmation; that little bit of sex education that you still can't find in a lot of places."


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