PHS INTERNATIONAL IS LOOKING FOR NEW DISTRIBUTION PARTNERS IN EUROPE
Exclusive: Since the 1970s, the rainbow flag is the international symbol for lesbian and gay pride, as well as the symbol for the diversity of this lifestyle. Products bearing this banner have been a cornerstone of the success of PHS International, the company of Jim Horne and Chuck Harnish. They had a few clients who also sold erotic products, and through them, the two businessmen got in contact with a whole new market – a market they were eager to enter. Today, after having established a firm foothold in the adult world, PHS International offers a range of more than 1,000 erotic products.
Let’s talk about the beginnings: When and how did you get the idea for PHS?
Chuck Harnish: PHS actually started 30 years ago as Professional Healthcare Supply. Founder Jim Horne distributed medical supplies to doctors, and when I, co-owner Chuck Harnish joined the company in 1991 ideas were thrown around to determine how best to diversify and grow. Through a lucky, chance meeting Jim and Chuck became aware of the burgeoning Gay Pride market and as a result began making and selling rainbow-themed goods. That chance meeting helped PHS become a huge success, growing to offer a product line of more than 5,000 items with accounts on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. As acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyles grew, the need for Gay Pride merchandise waned and once again, Jim and Chuck found themselves looking for ways to diversify. Since most of their accounts sold some adult product, it was clear that their next step should be branching out into that area.
What was your goal and your business philosophy when you started out?
Chuck Harnish: Obviously we wanted to be a financial success but we also wanted to make sure we had fun while we worked. Quality of life was and still is very important to us.
What are your strong points, and what sets you apart from other distributors?
Chuck Harnish: First, I would say is our speed in fulfilling and shipping orders. About 98 percent of all orders ship on the same day on which we receive them. Everyone who works for us has the same No. 1 priority – get the orders out! Second, I would say is our ability to accommodate the needs of our customers. We are a small company and as such we are a lot more “hungry” and willing to break the rules to take care of a customer. Customer service is key!
What can you tell us about your cur- rent product line (size, products, etc.)?
Chuck Harnish: Our adult product line features more than 1,000 items. We offer a wide variety of items including: Leather Products (Cock Rings, Harnesses, Leashes, Hoods, Paddles, Collars, Blind
Folds, Ball Stretchers, Whips, Crops, Restraints, Arm Bands and Wristbands); Metal Items (Nipple Clamps, Cock Rings, Weights, Arm Bands, Leashes and Pleasure Balls); Nitrile and Elastomer
Products (Cock Rings and Anal Plugs); Borosilicate Glass Products (Dildos and Anal Plugs); Vibrating Products (Bullets, Eggs, Rabbit Vibes, Wands). We have a great variety of high-quality products.
How did the industry, the trade, and the consumers react to your first products?
Chuck Harnish: Our first fully branded line of adult product we launched was the M2M brand. M2M was the first product line of its kind created in the U.S. which was designed to be marketed directly to gay male couples. Since we had made a great living for so many years from the gay community we felt it
was our duty to introduce this line first. Although the buyers loved the unique look of our packaging and our fully branded line concept we were more than a little bit surprised by the homophobia of many of them. We actually had more than one buyer tell us that no gay men or women ever shopped at their stores! But we were diligent and were able to place the M2M line in virtually ever major chain in the U.S.
What sets your products apart from those your competitors offer? What makes them special?
Chuck Harnish: No. 1 would be quality – we do not sell cheap goods. Leather items are made from the highest quality hides; all edges are turned and sewn for a fully finished look. No strap cut goods. No. 2, we are very concerned about product safety. We sell nitrile cockrings and anal plugs – nitrile is non-toxic and non-allergenic and is the same material that emergency room gloves are made of. Nitrile is also compatible with all lubricants and holds its shape better than rubber or latex. We also sell elastomer cockrings, which are also non-toxic and non-allergenic. Elastomer material is also compatible with all lubricants and are super stretchy. Our dildos are made of borosilicate glass or silicone, and both are non-toxic and non-absorbent. They also contain no phthalates. No. 3, The style and look of all our products coordinates for a more appealing and cohesive look on a store shelf or slatwall.
The look of a product is very important. What can you tell us about the design and the packaging of the product?
Chuck Harnish: All of our adult products are packaged in our custom tear drop shaped clam shells. The look is unique to PHS and the unusual shape sticks out among all the square packages in most adult stores. We also created a unique “tray within the clam system” – the clear trays hold the product in an attractive manner which allows the customer to see the entire item on three sides with virtually no obstruction. Each of our branded lines’ packaging has a unique color scheme that coordinates with the products in the line.
From where do you get your ideas? Could you sum up the process from the very first idea to the finished product? How long does this process usually take?
Chuck Harnish: Many, if not most, of our ideas are brought to us from the factories with which we work. They are constantly dreaming up new items. We also like to look at established items or products and try to come up with a new twist on them – our USB re-chargeable wand vibrator is a great example of that. Quite often customers suggest items or changes to existing items and those goods make it into the final product line. The Internet and digital photography have really sped up this process – it’s no
longer necessary to send endless samples back and forth; the entire process usually takes about three to four months.
Given the fact that the market is swamped with an abundance of products, it must be hard to present new innovative products in a way so their potential isn’t smothered by the tons of other products. Do you agree?
Chuck Harnish: Yes, I would definitely agree. But we find that we have established a loyal brand following. Customers who have bought our brands in the past are very willing and excited about new additions to the lines.
Who is your target audience? Which clientele do you want to cater to?
Chuck Harnish: We have six branded lines – each brand is developed and designed to be marketed to a specific customer as follows:
M2M – Gay men and gay male couples. We do not dance around that these are goods for gay guys. There are two men featured in the photography on most of the packaging. There is some nudity, as we feel that this is appropriate for this market. The quality of the leather goods in particular is the best available because we know this market uses these items on an almost daily basis.
H2H – Our product line designed for heterosexual couples. This line was designed to get average people to try products that they might never have thought of using. The non-threatening imagery and the very appealing product designs make goods that many would describe as fetish or kinky look like fun items that any regular couple would use. There is no nudity in the photography and no images suggesting domination, submission, etc. We wanted the average housewife to be able to walk up the counter with her package and not feel uncomfortable.
Fresh – Our vegan-friendly young women’s/men’s line designed to appeal to a younger market. The line contains no animal products and is produced in bright pink and blue colors. All products match each other and the packaging. The line is very non-threatening and many items are designed to be worn as fashion accessories as well.
Gaysentials – A fully branded and packaged array of our top-selling gay pride items marketed towards the gay community and the people who support them.
Bijoux de Nip – A high-end line of jeweled nipple clamps. Designed for the woman who has everything and the men who can afford it. Made of precious and semi-precious stones and sold at high-end boutiques.
With Attitude – A fun line of novelty socks, towels and mugs. Designed for the gag gift and novelty sections of adult stores.
The erotic market is undergoing a change towards erotic lifestyle, sexual wellness, and high-quality products, particularly for women and couples. What influence does this trend have on your products?
Chuck Harnish: We designed our products from the very beginning to mirror this trend. We could see that the industry was getting away from the sleazy adult shops with arcades and were becoming more female friendly. This was top of mind throughout our entire development process. We have
designed our items to be marital enhancements using the philosophy that monogamy does not have to be monotonous. We chose non-toxic skin safe items from the very beginning and still do not sell toxic goods.
Many erotic companies try to boost their products by establishing brands. Do you pursue a similar strategy, and if so, what can you tell us about this strategy?
Chuck Harnish: We feel that we were one of the very first companies in the industry to embrace this concept. All of our product lines are fully branded and work together as a group. We encourage retailers to display our brands together and not split them up on sectioned walls. When we first started we knew we could not compete just on product – there is and was far too much out there, but merchandising and branding was an area in which we saw an opening. It has been a difficult process but we have found that the stores who have really embraced our brands and merchandise them together have incredible sales figures on the lines. Add-on sales are way up in these stores and people come in looking specifically for
the brands. There is true product loyalty from the customers.
Who are the distributors for PHS products in Europe? Who can interested retailers turn to?
Chuck Harnish: At present we do not have a European distributor. We had struck a deal at the beginning of 2008 with pjur but because of the economic crisis and pjur’s desire to get back to their roots and concentrate on lube, the distribution deal fell apart. We are actively seeking a European distributor.
Which criteria do you apply when choosing your distribution, wholesaling, and retail partners?
Chuck Harnish: We want companies who really take an active role in the promotion and sales of
products. For distributors we want full line partners – they don’t have to buy all the different lines but if they commit to a brand (M2M, H2H, Fresh, etc) we expect them to warehouse at least 90 percent of the items in the line. We also want them to encourage their retailers to follow our philosophy and display the goods together.
How do you support your partners? Do you offer advertising and mar keting materials? Do you have individual tools for the online stores and the bricks and mortar stores, as those two have very different needs?
Chuck Harnish: For brick and mortar, we provide co-op advertising packages. Unlimited signage, staff buttons, contest prizes for sales contests. We also like to travel to the stores to assist with product displays and also to do staff training. Our packaging features smartphone Meta tags, which take the customer to a designated webpage with all the product information on the item that they could ever need. For our online retailers we provide high resolution images of ever product – in package, out of package, and side by side with the package. We also offer special pricing to both online and brick and mortar from time to time as long as the lower price is passed through to the customer.
Do you focus on the traditional erotic market, or do you also do business in other markets?
Chuck Harnish: We are in the gay pride market as well as the erotic market.
What are the biggest differences between the various markets?
Chuck Harnish: I think many years ago there was a big difference between the adult market and mainstream retail but that has changed dramatically in the last few years. The erotic market is seeing itself as mainstream and more customers are regarding it in this way as well. Stores are opening in malls and in neighborhoods where they would not have been accepted a few years ago. The seedy, dirty element is being replaced with clean well-lit female friendly stores. Even drug store giants like Walgreen’s and CVS now have small adult sections with vibrators and cock rings.
Can you give us some information about your new products for 2012?
Chuck Harnish: Look for new styles of elastomer cock rings, fun new vibrators, silicone cock rings and by 2013 the first multi function remote controller prostate massager on the market.
What can the market expect from PHS in the years to come?
Chuck Harnish: An ongoing commitment to product quality and safety, and a marketing campaign to establish our brands as highly visible and recognizable throughout the world.
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