Shop Talk: PartyLand Utah
An entrepreneurial spirit and rental retail know-how have kept PartyLand Utah going strong
By Abby Heugel
Since 1979, PartyLand (formerly Carnival Concessions) has been the longest, continuously open party store in Utah. For owners Tom and Sue Grassley, what started as selling silver Mylars in malls and renting cotton candy, popcorn and sno-kone machines to church groups and parties has turned into four locations full of the most popular party items and more than 200 different rental options.
While the stores are now anywhere from 1,500 square feet to a 13,000-square-foot store in a 23,000-square-foot shopping center they constructed, the Grassley’s opened their first 1,800-square-foot retail store in 1981 in Springville, Utah.
“During the Christmas of 1978, we were walking through a mall and saw a huge line of people waiting to pay $3 for a plain, silver Mylar balloon,” Grassley said. “I did a quick sales calculation and the entrepreneurial juices started flowing. We started selling Mylars in that same mall a few months later.”
While Tom is the president of the corporation, he acknowledges Sue has a better business sense and “a ton more common sense.”
“I just pay the bills,” Tom said.
While they offer a full array of party supplies, they have been renting equipment from the very beginning and have continued to expand their offerings over the years, displaying banners and some rental items in each store’s main showroom. They rent tables, chairs, linens, large and small tents, inflatable bounces, more than 50 carnival games, food concession machines, some lighting and sound equipment, etc., while also selling the food and paper items to go with the concession machines.
“I’ve found rentals to be profitable,” Grassely said, “as once you pay for an item — industry average says you should have an item paid for after 5-20 rentals, depending on cost — you can rent it over and over again for profit.”
He noted that retail shelf items require you to notice you are out of an item, re-order, pay freight, labor to restock, etc. With a rental, you rent the item to a customer and they bring it back the next day (ideally), then you rent it out again. While he acknowledged that you do pay for repairs, he said they’ve been renting some cotton candy and popcorn machines for more than 25 years. If a motor burns out or a glass panel breaks, they replace it and keep going.
“Along with renting equipment, we offer full service events,” Grassley said. “For these we can organize, deliver and fully staff a company party or picnic, family reunion, etc. and include tents, carnival games and prizes, food concessions and inflatables. Then we clean it up and haul it away.”
The PartyLand events coordinator uses PartyCad to graphically layout all tent designs, providing customers with a specific idea of what the tent will look like. This same layout is sent with the delivery crew, ensuring that the final product is what the customer agreed to and eliminating any delays on-site.
When it comes to in-store sales, employees encourage seasonal section sales by creating a handout for customers for each season that contains the history of the holiday, the colors involved, why it’s celebrated, etc. These are half-page vertical handouts with a hole so they can be hung on a peg hook.
Along with these seasonal history sheets, they’ve created a seasonal store sheet for employees that lists all everyday items they carry that may apply to a particular season — Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Chinese New Year — whether it be linked by colors, a particular decoration item or the like.
“The managers move these items up and back with each passing seasonal holiday,” Grassley said. “The more everyday items we can bring forward lessons the amount of specific seasonal items we have to purchase for each holiday. It also makes the lesser holiday sections seem fuller. Unsold everyday items move back to their regular in-store home after each holiday is over.”
They are constantly reorganizing the stores to make better sense of the merchandise for customers and use their banner machine every day to push sales on sale/seasonal items and for floor graphics to lead customers to new items or sections.
Because themed sections of the store allow PartyLand employees to put merchandise in more than one area, exposure is increased and customers get ideas on how to create a themed event. This cross-merchandising — big bags of candy underneath the piñatas, for example — increases the impulse purchasing, as well as the customer satisfaction.
A big part of customer satisfaction comes from the dedication and professionalism of the employees, and PartyLand has more than 40 employees spread over 280 miles. Grassley said that training and educating their employees, they call them Party Planners, is probably the most difficult thing they do in this business.
“To ensure consistency among the new hires, the initial training and education is done by the store managers using a training checklist,” Grassley said. “We send out a lot of memos via e-mail that require signed responses from every Planner working in every store, meaning each Planner has read and understands each memo.”
The use of electronic media has become a way for the stores to stay connected with the customers as well. Along with the website showcasing services offered, the Grassley’s daughter Stefanie started a store blog to help give customers more comprehensive party ideas.
Although she lives in New York City, she has enough experience working in the stores to know what needs to be emphasized for which season. In addition, Lyndi, a former assistant manager, works from home writing some blogs and helping with social networking by doing Facebook and Twitter posts.
“Lyndi also sends a ‘theme on’ alert of new prints and products, combining a blog with pictures from the store and with Facebook and Twitter to let customers know what’s new,” Grassley added. “We’ve noticed more customers coming in requesting specific items seen on our Facebook Fan Page and buying items mentioned in the blog.”
So how do they find the items that they sell? Corporate staff goes to several trade shows during the year and Grassley said having a “younger” set of eyes (Stefanie) on the show floor pays dividends.
“As we get older, we tend to miss trends, colors, etc that Stefanie readily notices,” he added. “She is much better at identifying current trends, movie related accessories, new wedding colors for the year, jewelry styles, etc.”
And although big-box stores and their negotiating power present the biggest challenge to PartyLand, Grassley said joining Paper First Affiliates (PFA) has mitigated this a bit. The vendor discounts, advertising help, rebates, professional operation’s help, conventions, etc. have helped the bottom line.
“I would say the best thing we ever did was to join PFA,” Grassley said. “The help from the individual party store members within PFA has been fantastic. I have learned more just sitting around a table and talking with the members!”
But talk is just talk unless you take action, as Grassley said he keeps a Will Rogers quote in his head when he works, “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”
“We work in a party store,” he added. “Be happy!”