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Shop Talk: National Customers Association

They may not have been dressing up as their favorite action figure, but people were still interested in the art of costumes and accessories almost 90 years ago. In 1923, the National Costumers Association (NCA) was organized to bring together those dedicated to promoting the industry.

Today, the NCA’s membership consists of independent store owners, wholesalers/manufacturers, affiliates, honorary members and retired store owners working to encourage and promote the use of costumes in all fields of human activity. NCA President Nancy Cox, owner of Acme Costumes in Savannah, Ga., took the time to talk with Party & Paper about the NCA and the industry in general.

What is your retail background?
I started my business in 1992 after getting great responses over costumes I’d made for my family and me. I started out in a 1,200-square-foot space and have grown, 17 years later, into a rental/retail space of 10,500 square feet with 5,000 square feet of warehouse space. We operate with a year-round staff of six and upwards of 30 additional seasonal employees for the month of October.

I believe my efforts to organize, diversify and streamline the business and the willingness to accommodate and anticipate the needs of my clientele have gotten me where I am today. Through my NCA activity and membership, I have gained and shared knowledge and ideas that I have found to be invaluable in growing and evolving my business.

Can you please explain the role of the NCA?
The NCA does its best to encourage its members to conform to standards of good business principles and present costumes and accessories for masquerade, theatrical and commercial use. It also aims to promote the artistic, historical, educational and social nature of costuming. The NCA supports independent rental and/or retail store owners, wholesalers and manufacturers, costume professionals and affiliates as well as those retired from an active costume business.

There is an annual convention held in different parts of the country during which business meetings take place, as well as mini conventions that are held semi-annually. Board meetings are also conducted twice a year to discuss NCA business and upcoming events.

How did the NCA originate?
The NCA was founded in 1923 by Major Samuel E. Harrelson and a group of like-minded costumers from across the nation. In the 1920s and ’30s, costume houses across the country provided costumes for professional and amateur companies, as well as local 'theatricales,’ pageants, parades and masquerade balls. In its first year, the organization grew from eight members to 41 and the dues were a mere $10.

After The Great Depression nearly decimated the costume industry, WWII saw rationing and a federal mandate that no trade organizations convene. Traveling salesmen were allowed a greater ration of gas, so our 'representatives’ acted as ambassadors and mobile magazines to keep our members connected.

How has the industry changed?
Post-war growth was steady and saw the first major changes in the industry. The development of packaged children’s costumes due to the 'baby boom’ that followed the war allowed the retail costume market to grow. Halloween grew with the 'baby boomers’ into the multi-billion dollar market we know today. Children of that era loved their trick-or-treating so much that they held on to it and continued to dress up and party as adults.

In the 1980s, cable television really began to make an impact. People requested costumes like the ones they’d seen on MTV. Manufacturers saw the speed at which trends changed and, in turn, changed the way they did business. Trade shows moved to much earlier in the year and took on a new form.

Now, you can look at samples, place orders and wait to see if enough orders are made for an item to see if it will actually go into production. We have access to movie release information that we didn’t have 20 years ago; however, licensing and copyrights have become big issues and big business.

What are customers looking for?
Two basic client demands that have nothing to do with trends are cost and quality. No one wants to buy a costume that starts falling apart the moment you put it on after spending a lot of money on it. Other than variety in general, current trends include the growing demand for a wider variety of plus-sized costumes, retro costumes and modern vampires.

Makeup, wigs, retro costumes, weapons, jewelry and other accessories are popular sellers throughout the year. Book-turned-movie classics such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz” have remained popular over the years, as have vampires, werewolves and other classic horror movie and television characters.

How do you feel Halloween has evolved?
Over the years, magic, clowning, formal wear, party supplies, theme parks, mascots, bicentennial celebrations, gag gifts, practical jokes and a multitude of related interests and careers have found a home under the costume umbrella. Halloween, specifically, has grown to include not only children, but adults as well. Not only are scary costumes and masks par for the course, but so are gruesome props, costume and beauty accessories, too.

What general challenges do you face in the industry?
One of the main concerns in the costume/party industry is the economy. It’s on everyone’s minds and, while there are those who haven’t been adversely affected by the current economic environment, some clients — and business owners — have been forced to scale back their spending budgets, so they’re looking to get the most for their money.

Store owners must be vigilant when researching the best deals in order to pass the savings on to their customers. Another concern is shipping, which can be cost-prohibitive to placing an order or prove to be tedious due to scheduling or other issues. The best weapons in any logistics conflict are being flexible with scheduling and staying informed of company practices and special offers.

Anticipating client demands and needs for any season can be difficult. It’s important to stay current with entertainment trends and get information from your customers about their needs regarding what they’re looking for and their intent. If you know your clients’ problems, you can offer them solutions.

Any final advice?
Your customers are one of your best sources of information regarding trends and popularity in the entertainment world; listen, listen, listen. The better you’re able to please your clients, the more people they’ll spread the word to. The best — and least expensive — form of advertising is word-of-mouth.

If your customers can’t find what they’re looking for, they may leave empty-handed, so make sure your space is clean, well-lit and organized. Additionally, make sure that you and your staff are knowledgeable in all aspects of the merchandise you sell.

Take the time to instruct them in the best way to apply the makeup they want to purchase. Let them try on that costume or wig they’re thinking about buying. Offer to alter a rental costume, if applicable. Make the effort to make your client happy and you’ll see them again.

Originally posted Friday, Apr. 2, 2010