Shop Talk: Halloween Costume World
Spotlight On: Water Street in Fitchburg, Mass.
Giving scares and giving back
Jack Hoover, owner of Halloween Costume World in Fitchburg, Mass., contends that he’s not in the party or costume business, but rather in the idea business.
His props are displayed in several different scenes throughout the store, and it’s not unusual to see two skeletons playing cards in one scene, using a pickle barrel for a table, holding cards in their bony hands with an extra ace tucked in between their toes. There’s an animated “Freddy” as you walk through a door who talks and usually startles and scares the customers.
“It makes shopping fun,” Hoover said. “Sometimes the amount of fun involved in any career is in direct proportion to the amount of hard work it takes to make it in that industry. I’m always running, planning, making moves to be successful, but when you bring a smile of delight to a customer’s face, it is so rewarding.”
Hoover always enjoyed making and using costumes and considers it the ultimate in good, clean fun. He used to create his own very detailed work, and people liked them so much they requested that he loan them out. That was 23 years ago, and he’s happy to have been successful in creating so much excitement and joy for others.
“My retail experience was nonexistent,” Hoover said. “My education is strictly the school of hard knocks — no college or formal training. I just jumped in with both hands tied behind my back and tried to swim. Years later I’m still treading water, so I guessed right.
“Common sense is more important in this business than advanced degrees, and my business philosophy is really about people,” Hoover continued. “Treat people with kindness, a friendly welcoming attitude and a good product at a good price and they’re happy. Try to make each person walking in that door a customer for life.”
When they walk through the door, they might be surprised at the size of this deceptively large store. From the street it looks like it is 150 feet long, but it actually extends another 200 feet to the left and is 50 feet deep. It all adds up to 17,000 square feet of fun jam-packed with more than 23,000 items in stock. Hoover said it’s always a guilty pleasure when he sees a new customer come in and be slightly overwhelmed with the displays and size of the place.
“Everyone is looking for personal expression of some kind, so it can be difficult to judge what people will find interesting or uniquely them,” Hoover said. “That’s part of why I offer such a huge assortment. But you can find trends popping up and as long as you’re actively involved in the business, you find ways to put the right things in front of the right people.”
Hoover added that when you find someone overwhelmed, you have to recognize where they are mentally and ask the right questions to point them in the right direction. The end result is a big smile and a happy customer.
Aside from customer service, Hoover prides himself on carrying the hottest trends and being open year-round. If someone has an issue or wants to ask a question, they’re not going to pull into the parking lot and find that they closed shop and are gone until next year, the way they might with a pop-up store.
“I’m often asked, ‘What do you do the rest of the year?’” Hoover said. “Honestly, there’s very little downtime because there’s more to this business besides October 31st. The demand comes in peaks and valleys, each of which have to be managed and capitalized on.
“I am the only year round store in the area and I stay very busy with holidays, schools, birthdays, themed weddings and weekend costume parties,” he continued. “Not everyone is interested in the latest superhero or horror movie character. Having an assortment is the key to being able to offer everything the customer needs in one place at a fair price.”
Of course Halloween is a big attraction, and preparing for the holiday starts early in the year with visits to trade shows, a lot of computer uploading, inventory management and planning, layout and display design and set-up. Hoover said he’s always running and it gets crazy, but if you’ve prepared correctly it can be managed with a smile.
“Having great, creative displays is a huge part of this business,” Hoover said. “You have to ‘wow’ them. We sell thousands of props, costumes and gags and we do our best to display them in interesting, unique ways that give customers tons of ideas about potential use. It takes a lot of effort, but it’s vital to show your stuff in the best way.”
All in all, he usually has 40 to 50 fully dressed mannequins loaded with themed accessories. When people see it all put together, they can’t help but want to make a purchase to take some of that fun feeling home.
Hoover also offers “The Haunted Mansion Tour,” a walk through adventure leading customers down winding halls and spooky rooms with the occasional live actor popping out to give a good, hearty scare. Hoover said there are genuine, antique props and set pieces and people get a big kick out of it — including the actors.
In addition, he opens up his home for Christmas tours to benefit Toys For Tots. The 6,000-square-foot home was built in 1859 and is decorated with life size nutcrackers, a Victorian Santa, miniature villain, trains, multiple Christmas trees, animated reindeer and an antique sleigh.
“Growing up I had nothing,” Hoover said. “My family struggled and received help and now the charitable events I do are a way of giving back. It is by far the most rewarding part of being successful in business. I love what I do for a living, but it feels so good to be able to help those that may be less fortunate that many of my favorite memories and best times involve the charitable side. I’m very grateful to be in the position to be able to help.”
His success hasn’t been without challenges, and the Internet and temporary pop-up stores are the biggest threats to the industry. Hoover said he offers superior customer service that goes a long way, but that it’s important to have a Web presence and be aggressive with inventory and prices.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years, sometimes the hard way, and I’ve managed to stay afloat by making good decisions and giving people what they want while getting what I need,” Hoover said. “Work hard, learn fast and keep them coming back. Sounds simple, but it’s not easy to put into practice. But if you put the customer first, think on your feet and are willing to help, you’ll be successful, too.”
By Abby Heugel