Shop Talk: Akron Design & Costume
Spotlight On: Akron, Ohio
Where creativity and service are always in style
When you have more than 40,000 SKUs, you need a place to store your stock. How about a bowling alley?While Akron Design & Costume in Akron, Ohio, originally was located in the basement of the owner Deborah Meredith’s home, it has since become an 18,000-square-foot year-round costume, theater and party store in a building that was previously the aforementioned bowling alley.
Back in 1980, Meredith, who also serves as the 1st vice president of the National Costumers Association, designed, hand made and sewed hundreds of costumes and rented them to local Akron customers during the month of October. As her inventory grew, so did her business.
“My creativity and deluxe costumes took off when I rented more than 500 costumes from a box in the basement of my home during a busy Halloween weekend,” Meredith said. “I decided it was time to open a full-service store with my custom designs and unique vision to the public for all of their costuming needs.”
In addition to thousands of costumes, they now have a huge selection of accessories that includes wigs, masks, tights, hats, lingerie and more to serve the public and performing arts communities.
Best of Both Worlds
The business is now divided into four main categories: theater costumes (require a cutter/designer and seamstresses), mascot costumes (custom made corporate and school mascots), individual rentals (deluxe masquerade, birthday parties, business openings) and retail (both in store and Internet).
They have four storefronts with windows and a 40-foot long hallway that opens into an 8,500-square-foot room that’s divided between retail and rentals. Rob Lehr, graphic designer and marketing director for Akron Design and Costume, said they need both to create a prosperous store environment.
“The rentals work well for oversized animal mascots and theatrical costuming,” Lehr said. “Retail works best for book reports, seasonal items, children’s costumes and most Halloween needs. But sometimes in retail, the sizing just doesn’t cut it. In rental stock, we are able to make items and provide something different than other companies and fit customers of most sizes.”
Both departments pull their weight at different times of the year, and Lehr said rentals and sales allow for the company to diversify and not have all of their eggs in one basket.
“We’ve seen a shift to higher quality retail costumes and unique specialty items,” Lehr said. “But when it comes to yearly trends, we don’t concern ourselves with them. We tend to stock classic items, along with contemporary and pop culture items, but once we sell out of trendy products, we rarely order them again.”
The last few years they’ve noticed that the most profitable themes usually have not been licensed yet and won’t surface until the end of September, like the non-licensed black beehives for Amy Winehouse in 2008 and generic hamster masks in store for car enthusiasts in 2011. Lehr said at that point, you either have to order heavy on those items or create something in store or you’ll never meet the demand. Most people want to be unique and many of these items become licensed the following year by their vendors.
Organization and cleanliness are two of the most important concentrations for them and they assign sales clerks to areas of the store to ensure that customers are helped in each department. Costumes are organized by theme and size, and they maintain stock by running reports from their point of sale system and having sales clerks walk the floor to check physical inventory.
“We prefer black grid for displaying accessories organized by motif or theme, and keep our costumes and accessories separate,” Lehr said. “Masks and wigs are kept above reach to keep them clean and makeup is kept in a lit showcase.”
They use a numbering system to organize wigs, tights and makeup. With 40,000 pieces in stock, they’re constantly categorizing them, but the inventory numbers allow for them to find the items quickly and restock easily. Each piece gets logged out and back in.
“The store is always evolving and we want the sales floor to have personality and style,” Lehr said. “So shifting products and combining with new items often brings stale ideas back to life around the store.”
Halloween itself is a year round preparation. Many orders are placed in January through March, they update the website with new products from March through May, begin making room for new product in June through August and hire temps and stock shelves August through September.
Lehr said a challenge they face is that the attitude of some customers has changed, with many seeming to want everything for less and not always respecting the products.
“This may be a result of the companies that allow customers to rip open packages and throw costumes on the floor in dressing rooms,” Lehr said. “And this behavior is a huge challenge. How do you combat the bad habits learned from big commercial chains? Are the customers always right?”
It’s that uprising of every gas station, grocery store, convenient mart, etc. that now sells Halloween products that poses another challenge to the store. Meredith said 30 years ago the industry wasn’t so saturated.
“We combat the temp stores by having a different product,” Meredith said. “With a 1,200-square-foot workroom, we design 95 percent of our rental stock and can make skirts, tails, headpieces and more that only we have.
“Even during the craziest week we will make a little something for someone’s requested need — a belt, sash, ears, paws — and that really sets us apart and above,” she continued. “I want to see a youngster happy leave when they leave here and have something different.”
Akron Design & Costume has been on the Internet since the late ’90s and Lehr said they’ve seen a lot of changes online, not just in their brick and mortar store. They work with a lot of companies and schools online, and many local customers use their website as a pre-shopping resource prior to walking into the store to make their purchase. In addition to supporting the local community, they also ship nationwide to major high schools, universities and professional theaters.
“But we have no interest in being an online-only operation,” Lehr said. “The heart of this business is in creating costumes, not just making money.”
By Abby Heugel