Shop Talk: Balloons-N-Tunes
Spotlight on: Sedalia, Mo.
If you build it, they will come
How does one go from secondary education to singing telegrams? Well, sometimes you choose your career, and sometimes your career chooses you.
Eric Monsees didn't know that his position as a Program Coordinator for an agency that trained independent living skills to individuals with developmental disabilities would eventually lead him to owning Balloons-N-Tunes, but it did. Now four years after a leap-of-faith opening, this one-stop party shop has settled into its current 3,700-square-foot location in a prime retail traffic area of Sedalia, Mo.
A close friend Monsees had met through work owned a home-based balloon delivery business that Monsees had helped finance. When she decided to sell it, he took over - despite the fact that he had no retail experience and had never even entered a party store before.
"The store initially offered balloon arrangements/décor and singing deliveries," Monsees said. "As a hobby I played guitar and sometimes sang with a group that played at mid-Missouri wineries, so I was familiar with singing in front of people. I had few customers and did four to six singing deliveries a week on average, but doing that was not a good way to earn a living."
Monsees knew nothing about balloons, and after the first year in business he sold his home, moved in with his mom and spent a lot of time reading. By the end of the second year, he was seriously considering getting a regular job and walking away.
"Most of my friends and relatives thought I had lost my mind," he said. "People who once respected me now looked at me with confused concern and said things like ‘do you sell many...balloons?'"
He might not have sold many at the time, but that would change. Monsees said he came to appreciate how fun and underestimated balloons were and started acquiring an arsenal of Qualatex latex prints, coordinating them using ideas from magazines. The result? People loved it.
"During this time I developed an understanding of the need for a retail party store in our area," Monsees said. "Moms would come in for balloons and while I was making their order, they would tell me what they drove 60 miles to buy, what they bought online or what they wanted but could not find. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to get those things for them."
To this day he doesn't know how he got on the mailing list, but an issue of Party & Paper came in the mail. Monsees said that single issue became a source book for contacts and information that he needed.
"I called Don Morgan of the Party Club of America (P.C.A.) for advice and called vendors to try and convince them to send me catalogs," Monsees said.
With an "if you build it they will come" kind of faith, he leased a 1,500-square-foot bay in the back row of a shopping center and spent what was left from the sale of his home on party supplies. Despite his reservations, several customers a day would tell him that the store was exactly what their town needed, so in 2007 he leased an additional 1,000-square-foot location across the parking lot from the main store.
"That year I attended the TransWorld show in Las Vegas, took the Party and Paper bus tour and joined the P.C.A," Monsees said. "The P.C.A. has been a huge part of the store's growth and success, as the vender discounts alone help us compete against the big-box stores."
That growth and success lead to moving the store to its current 3,700-square-foot location in 2010. Although they carry a large amount of general party supplies, a large amount of sales are from balloons.
"They offer a greater margin than most products and, if done correctly, a greater perceived value," Monsees said. "The proper use of Hi-Float is essential and we bag almost every arrangement that leaves the store. I still do many of the deliveries personally."
Wear It, Declare It
The slow growth and various stages of the store allowed Monsees to hone in on potentially good selling products by hearing what people were already buying.
"Kids parties are a little tough to predict," he said. "We currently have about 90 themes and just when we think we should ditch one, a mom comes in and buys it. There seems to be a strange phenomenon where if we decide to discount a line and talk about it, a mom will come in and buy it. So, we try that before we discount it."
Categories like baby shower, milestones and themes for adults are not as complicated to predict. Monsees said they stock eight lines for baby shower with almost every component for each line, and then eight feet of favors, banners, sashes and tiaras.
"An Amscan rep once told me things that you wear and things that make noise sell well," he said. "It seems especially true of things that you wear. Sashes and tiaras sell well in almost every category - from milestone birthdays to showers for babies and weddings."
The event décor side of the business developed in early 2005 when a bride-to-be attended a wedding that Monsees had done an arrangement for-tulle draped between balloon clusters. From there, it became a high demand aspect of the business.
"Most of the venues in our area desperately need some kind of décor to achieve the elegant look brides want," Monsees said. "There was one venue I rarely had brides request décor for- the Hotel Bothwell. It is on the National Historic Register and has an elegant ballroom that needs little, if any decoration."
In late 2009, Monsees approached the manager, Liz Smith, to see if they could work out a discount for individuals who rented the ballroom and then purchased items at Balloons-N-Tunes. They never quite worked out the discount, but in March 2010 she resigned from the hotel and came to work as manager of Balloons-N-Tunes. Monsees said her event experience and perspective has been a great asset to the store.
"I've received great advice from a lot of people, but the owner of a chain of successful independent party stores described his customer demographic in a way that I adopted and used to provide some perspective on doing business," Monsees said. "He said his demographic was ‘wealthy women of child bearing age who want good life memories.' If customers came into his stores and balked at prices, he was fine with sending them down the road to the dollar store."
Monsees said he believes in the idea of providing exceptional customer service and quality products, and that there are plenty of people willing to pay for that. He's not really bothered by "big box" stores' ability to price items at lower costs.
"I think of them as chess opponents who are blind to my moves," he said. "I can react and adjust to whatever they do without them even knowing I've done it."
Because when it comes to quality balloon décor-and a solid reputation-if you build it, they will come.
By Abby Heugel