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Spotlight on: Boston Costume

Spotlight on: Boston Costume

‘Two Stores Under One Roof’

In today’s costume market, consumers often want to take the standard manufacturer-issued costume to the next level by adding a personalized touch. Often, they go searching for vintage clothing and accessories to provide that little something extra to make their costume stand out.

At Boston Costume, they can do that without leaving the building. The costume shop is located in historic Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the first floor of the building at 200 Broadway, just across the Charles River from Boston proper. On the second floor is the Garment District, a shop that specializes in both vintage and contemporary clothing and Boston Costume’s parent company, with Chris Cassel owning both.

Combined, Boston Costume and the Garment District provide about 20,000 square feet of retail space, with the costume store accounting for approximately one-third. The building at 200 Broadway is a former warehouse in a district bustling with coffee shops, eateries and plenty of technology, as the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology is less than a mile away.

“We’re the building with the pink stripe painted along the exterior,” Cassel said. “Surrounded by labs and biotech buildings, we’re the funky place that adds colorful retro flair to a Victorian-era soap factory.”

“Surrounded by labs and biotech buildings, we’re the funky place that adds colorful retro flair to a Victorian-era soap factory.” — Chris Cassel, owner of Boston Costume

Background

Like Boston itself, Boston Costume is steeped in history. The Bertolino family opened the store in 1965 near Boston Common, where it stayed until 1987, when the family moved it to the Chinatown district.

“That store offered a mix of rental costumes, retail costumes and accessories,” Cassel said. “It stayed there for the next 20 years, offering the city everything from Venetian masks to Santa suits. In those years the rental market decreased dramatically and the retail market began to dominate. Internet stores were also gaining speed.”

In 2007, David Bertolino, who by that time owned the SpookyWorld Halloween-themed amusement park, sold Boston Costume to Cassel, who got his start in retail by working in the back offices at Harrods in London. After buying Boston Costume, Cassel moved the business to its present location in the same building with the Garment District.

“’Two Stores Under One Roof’ has been our slogan, and it has been a good marriage,” Cassel said. “Boston Costume greatly benefits by having a giant clothing store above it. The Garment District offers everything from vintage to decades to contemporary clothing for a great price. We encourage our customers to shop both levels and mix and match as they need.”

The two stores operate separately, at least 11 months out of the year. “For Halloween, we transform both stores into one giant costume superstore,” Cassel said. “It allows Boston Costume to expand in a way it couldn’t in the old location.”

Difference in the details

Boston Costume is a “year-round retail, rental and party store,” Cassel said. “It sets itself apart from the chain stores by offering products costume-buyers can’t get elsewhere, Cassel said.

“The store itself has a very unique look and feel,” he said. “The basics are the same but the specialty items set us apart. Big-box stores tend to have a smaller range of lower-end products. We have a fuller range, unique items, and of course rental costumes, which are nearly all one-of-a-kind.”

Cassel added with the low prices and fast shipping online retailers can offer these days, it makes offering hard-to-find products that much more imperative. “If you don’t have unique products, why wouldn’t your customers buy online?” he said.

While full costume sales aren’t particularly high outside of the Halloween buying season, costume accessories, such as theatrical makeup, masks, wigs and hats, sell well all year. “Costume accessories can easily mix with a customer’s existing wardrobe or add to a new costume,” Cassel said. “These items dominate our sales floor.”

Costume purchases may peak just before Halloween, but Cassel said the permanent retail space makes sense to continue offering them all year. “Once you already have a retail space sized to handle the sales at Halloween, giving people the choice to buy costumes year-round is easy and low-cost,” he said.

Trending now

Consumer wants and constantly changing and costume stores must change just as quickly. Pop culture can be a major influence on what’s hot.

“We’re always rearranging the layout of the stock to match the current season. The last few years have been about what’s going ‘viral.’” Cassel said. “Blockbuster movies may hit or they may not. ‘Frozen’ hit hard, but you never really know. You need to find what’s trending with the kids. Music always has an influence — (Lady) Gaga to Gundam Style to Katy Perry have been big for us in past Octobers. Cosplay has exploded. Events like Comic-Con are now mainstream. This has really moved us in the DIY direction.”

Some things never go out of style, however. “There will always be decade-themed parties. You know the staples like flappers and pirates will always sell,” Cassel said. “I think a balance of new and classic is important.”

Boost to rental revenue

A good website can’t replicate the experience of walking into a store and shopping, but Cassel recognizes what one can do for his businesses. Bostoncostume.com has been great for rental business,” he said. “The site also gives customers a sense of what we have in the store at any given time.”

A strong online presence has important in generating rental revenue, which Cassel admits, can be difficult at this day in age. “The costume rental industry is not what it once was. Many shops across the country continue to close due to online competition” Cassel said. “The shops that remain have had to adjust to survive. We were proactive in getting our rental stock pictured and online. Having an online rental catalogue has helped us engage with a nationwide customer base. Whether there’s a retired veteran who needs a uniform for a special event or a late-night TV show in need of a beaver suit, we’ve got them covered.”

Providing costume rental has its challenges and finding employees suited to properly assist customers isn’t easy, but Cassel said it’s definitely worthwhile. “Rentals are certainly more labor intensive. The upkeep is a challenge. A rental employee needs unique skills and knowledge,” he said. ”That being said, it’s great to offer high-quality costumes to customers who appreciate them.

— Zeke Jennings, Managing Editor

Originally posted Friday, Nov. 13, 2015