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Spotlight On: Love of Character

By Zeke Jennings | Manaing Editor

Love of Character grew out of Mary Billings’ love of party planning.

The 1,900-square-foot corner-shop store and event space in Wichita, Kansas, is the affirmation that Billings’ former side business of selling party supplies online and helping others plan events was her true passion.

“I was very into planning my birthday parties and would randomly help others as well,” Billings said. “I was the babysitter that would show up with crafts, and my favorite free time activity was working on random art projects.”

Billings made a sensible choice in college, majoring in accounting, which grew into a career with a large corporation. As her enjoyable party and gift online business continued to grow, as did her love of hosting events, she started searching for a retail space. When she found the space at the corner of Douglas and Hillside, not far from home, she knew it was time to switch careers.

Love of Character offers party supplies, gifts, balloons design and event planning, as well as being a site for parties. Billings and staff maintain a strong online presence through the store website (www.loveofcharacter.com), social media and a blog.

PHR: You started as an online business and grew into brick-and-mortar. What made you decide to take the plunge and open a storefront?

MB: I had done a couple local shopping events and people reacted well to shopping my product offerings in person. I also was helping people throw parties — even held one for toddlers in my home — and really wanted a space that I could host in. When I walked into my current space, I knew it was the one. It’s in our neighborhood, has so much character, and is one big rectangle, perfect for my vision. Luckily, having an online store already started, I was able to just expand upon my current inventory. I had been daydreaming up shop plans for a while, so I put those into action.

PHR: What did you envision your store would look like? How close it is to your original idea?

MB: A few years ago, before I started the business, I wrote and sketched out a business plan in a magazine while flying home. It is crazy how similar it all turned out. I call my shop business in the front, party in the back. I have the front half setup as retail, with the back half as the event space. The only big change has been the increase in inventory and how I arrange it in the retail space. I had to get bigger shelving, extra tables, etc.

PHR: Where does the majority of your revenue come from?

MB: Brick-and-mortar sales make up a majority, with events close behind. Online sales are picking back up now that I have the shop running and can put more energy towards them again. I definitely had to shift focus for a little while managing the shop, and then figuring out how to best track inventory between the two. That was probably the hardest (and still can be) thing to manage.

PHR: What are your top sellers?

MB: Party supplies and paper goods (stationery, greeting cards, notepads, etc.). Party supplies sell well with the events held in store, but also people coming in to find products for their events held at home or other places. Paper plates and napkins are probably the biggest with that category. So many cute options these days! I try to carry unique designs you can mix and match to set a fun table. Balloon-wise, we have been creating lots of balloon garlands lately. We also do well with the giant numbers for birthday parties.

PHR: How do you get the word out on your business?

MB: Social media and word of mouth are my biggest ways to get word out. Social media is a great way to tell our story and continually share what we have in the shop. I also have a blog that I started many years ago that I can share party pictures on. We do host in-store events outside of private parties. We have workshops, craft morning, and special kid events that we sell tickets to. We also do some free events that we work with authors, local artists, etc., on.

PHR: In addition to party supplies, you also carry a lot of cute gifts. Where do you shop for products?

MB: My very first market was the National Stationery Show in (New York), and I have gone for the past four years. That has actually been the only one I’ve attended, but that’s because last year I was pregnant and then had my first baby this past fall — timing wise NSS this spring made the most sense time wise. In the future, I will be looking at the Atlanta Gift Market (AmericasMart) and NY NOW. I have been able to shop paper goods and party supplies there, but I mainly source online. I follow lots of accounts on Instagram and keep my eyes peeled for fun brands I’m seeing out in the market. My customers also bring me names, which can be helpful. My main dealings with reps are because a company sends them my way to use for orders.

Originally posted Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018