Shop Talk: Fantasy Festival Costume & Magic Centre
Spotlight On: Algonquin, Ill.
If you can't find something here, you're not trying hard enough
If you're the indecisive sort, then Fantasy Festival Costume in Algonquin, Ill. probably isn't the place to go for your next costume. The 4,000-square-foot building has a rental department at the rear of the store with an inventory of more than 11,000 costumes. But what you won't find are licensed costumes, as Owner Ron Ferraro found it hard for a small shop to make money when they had to compete with the buying power of large volume retailers.
"This is primarily true of license goods, so for us, the answer is to simply not carry them," Ferraro said. "We've seen people get stung with licensed costumes, as there are too many in too many sizes in varying quality. In my opinion, the only way to profitably sell these types of costumes is to have them drop-shipped or ordered specifically for a customer. Standard costumes - pirates, civil war, decades, cowboys, etc.- sell best."
And after 25 years in the business, Ferraro would know. In the early '80s he was acting professionally and in community theatre and noticed the lack of good local places to obtain costumes. His wife was an excellent seamstress and had made costumes for a number of shows, and even though neither had any kind of retail background, they thought they might open a costume shop.
"When an acquaintance from church mentioned that he had a building for sale on the main drag, we talked and he sold it to us," Ferraro said. "That was the best move we ever made, as if you don't own your building, you're working to pay someone else's mortgage."
Thousands of Options
That first store was 1,500 square feet with a full basement and a 500-square-foot apartment upstairs, and they only used about 750 square feet for retail space, with the rest for office and storage. They opened on Oct. 3, 1983 with 75 costumes to rent and a small stock of retail items they replenished during the month.
"At that time, the city did not allow signs perpendicular to the road," Ferraro said. "That was very limiting, as we had heavy traffic but couldn't get their attention. So we painted the building a bright purple and pretty soon people gave directions as ‘just a block past the purple building.'"
They expanded the retail space, put in an up-and-down conveyor system and stored the rentals in the basement. Customers had a picture book of costumes to choose from, with the appropriate costume brought up on the conveyor. Eventually they outgrew the original store and looked for another building, finding one on 3.5 acres sitting adjacent to two cemeteries and a major state route. This allowed them to expand their costume offerings, but they still don't let customers browse through the rentals. Ferraro maintains that that's saved a lot of costumes from being damaged.
"People complain that we don't have pictures of all the costumes, but how long would it take you to go through 11,000 pictures?" Ferraro said. "We offer an idea list and will pick the costume style of their choice. We have about 3,000 of the costumes on the conveyor and it takes less than a minute to get to any costume. None of our costumes have sizes indicated on them. When a size 18 tells us she wears a 12, we just give her a costume that will fit her and she doesn't know the difference."
Ferraro admits that they're rather strict about preventing loss and damage. Customers are not permitted to open packages by themselves. If they take it to a clerk, they will open the package and allow them to try the costume on.
"With retail costumes, we insist they try on only what they intend to buy because we do not accept returns," Ferraro said. "We also limit the number of try-ons allowed, as people have come in to our store to try on something they intend to buy on the Internet-they've told us that's what they are doing."
A fireplace close to the front entrance forced them to create a circular path around the store that gives the illusion of the store being even bigger than it actually is. To help customers around, items are hung in areas and they put colored duct tape on the floor to help customers get where they want to go. Wigs? Follow the yellow line. Rentals? Follow the purple line.
They have novelties, make-up and magic close to the front of the store with costumes, hats, wigs and accessories spread toward the back. Masks are hung from the 12-foot-high beams and are not customer accessible, a step that also prevents a lot of damage.
"We place and retrieve masks and other goods from high places with a device we sell and call the ‘Grab-EZ,'" Ferraro said. "This is a product made in Italy and distributed by us."
The magic department contains around 1,000 different SKUs ranging from beginner magic to more complicated and expensive stage magic, and there is always someone available to demonstrate magic to prospective magicians.
Reuse, Recycle, Rent
It takes a certain amount of retail magic to keep track of everything in Fantasy Festival, so all products are bar coded and kept track of in the computer. What makes this program unique is that it was written specifically for a costume shop doing rentals. They fill out the rental agreements, keep track of what is out, when it will be back, size, color, age, etc. The computer system is hooked up with their Internet site, which allows them to update stock as soon as an item is sold.
"We can also use the program to search inventory, to tell us what we need to order and what our current level of product is," Ferraro said. "With over 18,000 SKUs, you definitely need the computer to keep track.
"We use the Internet site to sell merchandise worldwide," he continued. "If it's on the site, it's in the store at that moment. Two minutes after an item is sold, it's removed from our online inventory. We also have a section on special order items that we do not stock, as these items that are too difficult to stock profitably or require a large size spread."
According to their computer, the categories that make up their total sales are costume sales 22.9 percent, costume rentals 19.1 percent, accessory sales 17.4 percent, wigs 11.1 percent, make-up 10.5 percent, hats 8.8 percent, with magic, novelties, and masks just a little over 3 percent each.
"For profitability, we still turn to rentals and have adopted the ‘green' slogan to ‘Reuse, Recycle, Rent,' Ferraro said.
And if you do decide to go "green" this Halloween and find yourself near Algonquin, just look for the purple building. You'll have a great selection.
By Abby Heugel