Shop Talk: Party Palace
Spotlight On: Pocatello, Idaho
How one family’s favorite store became their family’s future
Most families have a beloved business they visit when they need special supplies, and the traditional visits seem to carry with them a nostalgic trace of magic — especially if the shopping is for fun. For Trent and Kathleen Stephens’ family, Party Palace was that place. “During the approximately 20 years the store was in the Westwood Mall, it was one of our favorite stores,” said Trent Stephens, who now co-owns Party Palace. “It eventually became our grandchildren’s favorite store. It became the first place our grandchildren wanted to visit when they came to town.”
Rarely does the opportunity to purchase those cherished pieces of familial memories arise. But, when Party Palace shut its doors in 2007, Trent and Kathleen Stephens jumped on the opportunity to add more memories by purchasing the store. “My wife, Kathleen, was in the store at the end of the year buying Christmas gifts for our grandchildren and was informed by one of the employees that the store was closing at the end of the year. Kathleen came home and informed me and we decided to buy the business,” Stephens said.
By 2008, the store was theirs. “Kathleen and I bought the store, along with our daughter, Brittani, and her husband Randy Hobson, in the early spring 2008 … Our family has been big into board games since our children were very young. We have been talking for many years about opening a game store. When the Party Palace became available, we decided to purchase the store and to expand the board game portion of the store,” Stephens said.
While the Stephens family had a niche goal in mind and a vision for fun, their professional experience in retail was limited.
“At the time we bought the store I had about 31 years’ experience teaching anatomy and developmental biology, but none of us had any business experience,” Stephens said. “I retired from Idaho State University in the spring of 2011, and have been focusing on the store, our expanding, online business and continued thalidomide consulting since that time.”
Despite not having extensive experience in business, the Stephens stay merchandise-minded by sublimating their passions and areas of knowledge to create a truly unique product line for customers. In addition to his science background, Stephens’ interests also include writing, art and theater. “I am using these interests to expand the costume rental, make-up, and online party portion of our business. I also have a very talented wife and daughter whose decorating and artistic abilities are of huge benefit to our business,” Stephens said.
By putting personal touches into its products, Party Palace is able to offer stock that cannot be found elsewhere — which is just one merchandising tactic that sets them apart from other businesses. “We can’t compete well with the big stores who can buy the same party supplies for a much lower price because of volume buying,” Stephens said. “My answer is to carry party supplies and other items that no one else can carry. How do I do that? By making things that are unique to our store and the ‘big boys’ can’t buy without going through us.”
On top of expanding their selection of games, Stephens and his family are creating products that big-box stores and customers alike will have a hard time finding elsewhere.
“I am in the process of developing flying dragons, dragon fetuses and full-sized dragon skulls for sale as only one portion of making this store one of the world’s most fascinating places,” Stephens said.
On top of creating products special to the Stephens’ store, Party Palace offers an array of services unique to its location. “We offer wedding decoration consulting, which is mostly my daughter’s area of expertise,” Stephens said. “We also provide a huge range of rental costumes, including full suits of armor that are actual metal and not cheap plastic. I also love to demonstrate our line of professional theatrical make-up and teach customers how to use them.”
On and offline engagement
Every retailer endeavors to bring in as much foot traffic as possible. But, embracing the Internet can help increase sales, and for Party Palace, inventory as well. While Stephens is working on developing product lines unique to Party Palace, he and his family are going beyond the scrapbook many retailers refer their customers to if they would like to see examples of the business’ previous work. “But if we make things that customers in Pocatello only buy once every two to five years, how do we stock all those items — that’s why no one else makes or sells them,” Stephens said. “We store them digitally! We have created a subsidiary, online company called Frolic Parties to provide these online services.”
Stephens said as competition grows from large chain stores, it’s more important than ever to offer individualized options to customers. “This (competition) is why it is imperative that we develop our alternative, custom parties as soon as possible. We currently have about 20 parties online, with another 25 ready to install,” Stephens said. “Our goal is about 200 pre-designed digital parties plus an infinite number of custom parties — coming online in the next month.”
On top of its baseline of party supplies, Party Palace is planning to focus on total party packages. “Someone has a birthday every day of the year. We are in the process of transitioning to having any birthday theme anyone can imagine, anywhere in the world, every day of the year,” Stephens said. “We plan to make those our day-to-day items all year-round.
In addition to expanding its online presence, Party Palace is going out into the community to share news with its customer base. “We are hosting a huge VIP party at one of the event (and) reception centers in town to announce the launch of our newly revised business. A customer can pay from $2.95 to $2,995 for a party, from a single item that they download, print off and put together,” Stephens explained. “Or they can buy supplies that we create, cut out and ship to them, along with complementing plates, napkins, etc., from our in-store stock, or we can cater the party with food, entertainment, princesses — the works.”
Not only is Party Palace celebrating its new product offerings by going out into the community as a marketing tactic, the Stephens are also hosting events for the community to participate in — and using all in-house products to showcase merchandise. “We are hosting a Fairy Tale Fair in August, a Halloween Fair and Haunted House in October and a Dickens Fair in November. We have enough items to provide many of the booths ourselves,” Stephens said.
While the Stephens family continues to expand its presence and product line, they continue to not only nurture, but cultivate the sense of magic and fascination that made them fall in love with the store before it was ever theirs. “The Party Palace was Pocatello’s most interesting store when we bought it,” Stephens recalled. “My goal is to keep it Pocatello’s most interesting store and expand to the point where it is one of the world’s most interesting stores.
—By Leigh Jajuga, Assistant Editor