Shop Talk: A Party Palace
Spotlight On: South West London
No matter what side of the pond you're on, a party is a party
Some holidays are more popular in England than the U.S.- bonnet parties in the spring, for example - and some events go by different names, such as hen and stag instead of bachelorette and bachelor parties. But no matter what side of the pond you're on, one thing remains the same - a party is a party.
At A Party Palace in South West London, Owner Adrienne D'Souza brought her retail experience running the toy department of Harrods to the party side of things.
D'Souza and her husband Llyod had friends with a large wholesale and retail party outlet that she and Lloyd ran for 14 months before deciding to give it a try themselves. They knew where in London they wanted to be, searched for a property and opened the 1,500-square-foot store three weeks before Halloween 2008.
"Halloween is our peak, just like the U.S.," D'Souza said, "but it's not as big as it is in the U.S. Trick-or-treating around the area we live in is enormously popular and everyone in the community gets involved.
"However, my husband visited the States this year at the end of September and was stunned at how many shops sell Halloween," she continued. "Here it's the party shops and the supermarkets and there are occasionally some pop-up shops, but he was amazed by how it is sold in all the stores over there!"
D'Souza said they don't have big box competition like that in the States and that although the supermarkets gave it a try this year at Halloween and took some of the share away from the independents, that was only for a few weeks of the year. She said the Internet is their strongest competitor, and because there's so much competition online, they try to stick to what they're good at.
"We are experts at serving customers and this is what we do best," D'Souza said. "Customers are often relieved to know they can try their costumes on in the store and be given good advice about how to decorate a room, what costume to wear, what kids like in their party bags, etc. They come back time and time again, and better still, they tell their friends."
At A Party Palace, a hot pink and yellow jester logo is their mainstay, but they occasionally change the jester depending on the season. They also change the windows displays at least once a month to draw people in. With three windows, they have the flexibility of leaving some in and changing those they need to.
"We try and incorporate a whole story in a window - costume, tableware, balloons, decorations, etc." D'Souza said. "One guy who lives in North London and owns a pub saw our Halloween windows when he was passing by and was so impressed, he came all the way back to us the following week (that's a big deal in London terms) to dec out his pub. People love it when we change them or introduce a theme they haven't seen before, and we're already thinking about Kate and William's wedding windows!"
Themes in England are similar to the popular themes in the U.S., with luau, pirates and decade-specific parties leading the list. When it comes to licensed product, shelves are full of "The Hungry Caterpillar," "Toy Story 3," "Peppa Pig," Where's Wally," "Hello Kitty" and, of course, Disney Princess.
Because A Party Palace is set up near Richmond in an area with a variety of schools, D'Souza said there a great sense of community with a lot of requests for kids costumes for school plays.
"We make it our business to find out what all the schools are doing so we have plenty of the right stuff in stock," she said. "There are also a lot of Historical Curriculum days where the kids go to school dressed as Tudors, Victorians, Greeks, Romans, World War 2 Evacuees, etc. so we always try to hold a basic stock of these."
It's no surprise then that when it comes to Halloween, they sell a lot of kid's costumes. This year ghosts and zombies were really popular and there's an emphasis on looking scary.
"I know this is different in the States where it's more ‘anything goes,'" she said. "However, this year the basic witch was really slow and we did sell a lot more basic stock in the adult range, so next year we will select our adult range differently."
They start to display the merchandise at the end of August and build it up more and more each week. Along with costumes, they sell props, lots of tableware, pumpkin carving sets, garlands, etc. and D'Souza said anything that makes a noise or lights up always does well.
"We have learned a lot over the last two years and we aim to freshen up the stock and move it around so regular visitors get to see something new every time they come in," she said. "Often people will make two to three trips to the store at Halloween, as they can't face spending all that money in one go!"
Go for the Glitter
Year round, the biggest category at A Party Palace is balloons. While most requests are for milestone birthdays and children's parties, they also offer more elaborate displays and bouquets based on the Qualatex Retail Portfolio. Most of the staff training is done in-house and once they have reached a confident level in all the basics, D'Souza sends them on balloon courses to learn new skills and to be inspired by some of the other talented trainers in the country.
"Our biggest and most profitable success would be the ‘Glitter Writing' service that we offer on plain colored foil balloons from 18 inches up to 36 inches," she said. "We will personalize a balloon with any message using a glue pen and crafting glitter. It has grown in popularity beyond belief and we will have some customers coming once a week for a balloon with their friends name and age put on it. We have also written them in French, Polish, Italian and Portuguese."
D'Souza added that for children's parties, some parents have balloons written with party guests names on them to give as party favors. It's easy and quick to do, so it's easy to up-sell. Everyone is trained in how to do it so they never disappoint a customer who comes in for one to be done on the spot.
They sell a lot of balloons in July, as people cram in any celebrations before they set off on their summer vacations. D'Souza added that the schools also break up for six weeks, so they do prom party balloons and decorations. Valentine's Day is driven by flowers and they're surrounded by florists, so they may only do some personalized balloons and a few bouquets.
"Easter is busy before the schools finish, as many of them do Bonnet Parades and decorate their bonnets with bunnies, chicks and eggs," she said. "We try to supply all of that. Fourth of July is quite good for us as well, as we have many U.S. ex-pats living close by, and us Brits like to celebrate it, too!"
They are also looking forward to celebrating the Royal Wedding and the 2012 Olympics. And no matter what side of the pond you're on, one thing remains the same - a party is a party.
By Abby Heugel