Cornfields, beef, and Alexander Payne movies—these were my ideas of Nebraska before visiting the Cornhusker state last weekend. Little did I know I would end up smack dab in the middle of one of the state’s largest sexual emporiums by Sunday.
After meeting John Chism, co-owner of Lover Luxuries, at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality’s annual conference—where hundreds of sex researchers, therapists and other professionals gatherered last weekend in downtown Omaha to talk about everything from edging to the sex lives of people with autism—and hearing about his store’s famous “Tunnel of Love” from many conference goers, there was little choice but to visit Omaha’s hottest attraction myself. Before doing so, I spoke to Chism about marketing sex toys to Nebraskans, how high-tech sex toys could improve the lives of combat troops, and who massagers are really for—ladies or gents.
PLAYBOY: Who are you and what do you do?
CHISM: My name is John Chism; we are Lover Luxuries, Omaha’s largest lingerie and romance superstore. We opened up about three years ago, but I’ve been in the industry a lot longer.
PLAYBOY: What’s sexual culture in Nebraska like? Is it controversial to run a sex store in Omaha?
CHISM: Obviously, every place has its own religious and other groups who could affect how local ordinances are going to be applied to a sex store. Some towns and cities have special laws specifically for adult-oriented businesses and some don’t. It varies.
Omaha had tighter controls on adult-oriented businesses until ten or twelve years ago. That’s when an organization came in and really advocated for our free speech—to open up the market in the Omaha area, whereas Lincoln and Council Bluffs were already a lot more relaxed on it.
PLAYBOY: How do you engage with new customers?
CHISM: People walk into our store everyday and have no idea what half the stuff is or what it does. They’re learning. You can find a lot on the internet, but there’s nothing like eighteen-year-olds walking into an adult store, and being like, ”What is that? What does it do?” That’s a rite of passage, kind of like being twenty-one and going out drinking.
PLAYBOY: What about your employees? How do you prime them for the job?
CHISM: A lot of people think they can do this job, but when they get into it and get hired, they realize—Oh my gosh, I’m going to have to talk to a complete stranger about a very sensitive item. A lot of people can’t do it. You have to get over religious convictions you might have, or worrying about what your friends or parents might think about you working at a sex store.
PLAYBOY: How does Lover Luxuries drive sales?
Everyone that works here has a sales goal and they each strive toward that goal. The only way our team can do this is with lots of product knowledge, strong interactions with customers, the ability to break down customer defenses. When people walk in sometimes, they’re nervous. They don’t want to tell a stranger know they’re looking for an anal toy or a prostate massager, particularly these items that men feel really sensitive about. But the people that are working here have heard it all before. It’s second nature. Everything’s just another product we’re selling.
PLAYBOY: Do your employees have to be sex toy connoisseurs themselves?
CHISM: As a salesperson, you have to gauge what the customer is looking at when they walk in, and often you have to put the situation on yourself first. Depending on the product, you can say “I really like that” or, “My wife really likes that.” The way we approach the toys lets our customers know that this is no big deal. We’re not going to be shocked by a lot of what customers find shocking themselves.
PLAYBOY: What were your first experiences in the adult industry?
CHISM: I was born and raised in Nebraska and retail’s been my passion for a long time. I worked for Spencer’s for eight years. They had a much smaller selection of adult products those days then they carry now. Back then, we just sold flavored lube and some battery-operated items—your grandma’s old, hard plastic vibrators.
PLAYBOY: How has the perception of sex toys and adult stores changed over time?
CHISM: Times have changed. Things have changed. The industry’s changed. What used to be a male-driven industry, where there was a truck stop with blacked out windows and X’s on the front window and booths to get porn movies at, has turned into a female and couple-oriented business. Our store is brightly lit. It’s a very nice atmosphere. We feel we are very special because we use some really creative marketing techniques to break down people’s defenses when they step inside.
PLAYBOY: For example, the Tunnel of Love… Can you talk about that?
CHISM: I don’t want to give too much away, but if you’re in Omaha, Nebraska you’ve got to stop by our store and check out our Tunnel of Love. That’s all I can really say. It’s an attraction you walk through, but I don’t want to give too much away.
PLAYBOY: Does the Tunnel of Love help get people in the door?
We are in an area called Benson which is a very big nightlife spot. There’s probably 12 to 15 bars within three blocks and a lot of eclectic restaurants. And we stay open until 3 AM. You’d be surprised how many people come into our store [can we say “at that hour”], go through the tunnel, go down to the bars to get their friends, and come back through the tunnel again. The people that might have been nervous about walking into an adult store get to come in that way and realize that it’s not so bad. Sometimes they might not buy something that night, but they come back in the middle of the week without their friends and get what they need.
PLAYBOY: Are there still stigmas about your products?
CHISM: There are still stigmas. We’re at a sex convention right now with tons of sex educators. We have this booth, but many people walk by and ignore us. Because they’re still not ready to talk to other people about it. The industry has changed and people’s mindsets have changed, but not completely. It is getting better though.
PLAYBOY: Who are most toys really for–men or women?
CHISM: One thing that needs to be realized is that these toys aren’t for one person or another. I sell more male masturbators to women than I do to men. The reason for that is: guys are always wanting it and women don’t always want it. If a guy has a masturbator, his wife or girlfriend can use it on him and in two minutes he’s done. And she’s back to doing what she needs, but he still feels like she did do something for him.
PLAYBOY: Are they mostly for individual use?
CHISM: The industry has also focused on a lot of couple oriented toys. The newest ones are remote control, like WeVibe or all these vibrating panties. The controls can be used over the Internet, some through an iPhone. So let’s just say someone’s in the military, or deployed in Afghanistan—that person can control sex toy of someone back home. Talk about bringing people together without them being in the same room. That’s pretty powerful.