Shop Talk: The Great Party Store
From ABC to CBA
Spotlight on: Pottstown, PA
During dinner one night in 2007, Christine Beck looked across the table at her 10-year-old son, Daniel and asked, "Danny, when you grow up, what do you want to do for a living?"
"I want to open a party store," he said without a moment's hesitation. "Aisle A will be for Anniversary, Aisle B will be for Birthdays and Aisle C will be for Christmas."
Beck was surprised at how he'd thought it out so well, but her husband Steve, 8-year-old son A.J. and her agreed that owning a party store would be a pretty cool thing to do some day. Because of the economic downturn, Beck lost her job as the head of customer service for a large corporation in September of that same year.
"Steve and I wondered, ‘What now?'" Beck said, "and then we realized that Pottstown needed a good party store."
They opened the doors on Feb. 2, 2008 with about 4,500 products, 150 balloons and a desire to have fun. The 3,000-square-foot store sits in the center of a shopping center and pays homage to their home state of Delaware with bright yellow and sapphire blue painting. Piñatas are hung from the ceiling, Mylar balloons are attached to the rim of the walls around the outskirt of the store and products are grouped by theme/events. Believing the store needs to be brightly lit and inviting, there's even a slight smell of cake in the air.
"We have couple of plug-in air fresheners around the store and it makes a difference," Beck said. "I've had customers tell me, ‘your store always smells so good!' That's the vanilla scent in the air. I've been in other party stores that smell musty and are dark- that's depressing! You're trying to create a fun, bright atmosphere."
Beck admits they didn't really get the "balloon thing" when they first opened. In fact, Steve actually said that he wouldn't mind it if the competition across town had all the balloon business because it just didn't seem to be worth it. They see things a little bit differently now.
"Today, balloons are 35 percent of our business and getting bigger every day," Beck said. "I think at first our customers were just like us, they didn't know the colors, sizes and shapes of balloons available. Now we can show them what's possible, and if they can see it, they'll buy it."
The balloon area itself is separate from the checkout area to remind customers that balloons are something special, not an afterthought. Beck said that with only four employees, it also allows one of them to focus on working with customers to create balloon designs while another is checking out a customer at the register.
In fact, they use the balloon counter area as a stage - putting on a performance of sorts with balloons inflating, scissors flashing and hands moving. Sometimes they sing "Happy Birthday" to the birthday boy or girl or throw in a little Motown to keep it light and fun.
What else sets them apart from local competitors is the fact that Beck recently became a Certified Balloon Artist (CBA).
"I've described it to people in these terms," Beck said. "You can have your brother in law do your taxes or you can have a CPA do your taxes. Most of the time, your brother-in-law will get it right and everything will be fine, but there will come a time when you will wish you had the CPA on your side.
"You get that same assurance if you hire a CBA to do your balloon décor," she continued. "The CBA process was rigorous and you know you have accomplished something when you pass."
Awarded for Excellence
What they didn't plan on accomplishing when opening the store was cementing themselves as a part of customers' lives over time. Beck said it starts with the wedding.
"We may see the bride and her mother or fiancé come in to look at wedding invitations," she said. "Then the mother comes in to buy bridal shower supplies and the bride comes in for wedding accessories. Next thing you know, it's the wedding day and we have a balloon décor order."
In what seems like no time at all, they see the mother back in for the baby shower and a year later, they're talking to the new parents who are planning a birthday party for a one-year-old. Beck said they are constantly reminded they're an important part of what makes up a community.
"I can't compete with the big box stores on price, but I can greet each and every customer that walks in my door with a sincere smile and an offer to assist them," she said. "We ask questions about the event, make suggestions, point out items the customer might not think of and offer to do special orders.
"We remember people and events so that the next time the customer comes in, we ask how the party planning is coming along or ask how the party went," she added. "People love to be remembered."
While they shoehorn in many products, customers often tell them they appreciate how organized the store is, something Beck attributes to how product is put on the shelf. Items are grouped together by theme and they try to keep the individual products inside imaginary boundaries to keep everything in line.
"If a rowdy child comes in and attempts to remodel the store, we quickly straighten up after they leave," Beck said. "You can't let that kind of thing wait because the next customer who comes along will get a bad impression. They don't know that you just had a whirlwind come in!"
When it comes to themes and patterns, Beck has figured out a way to have the latest and greatest without a big investment. They first wait to hear customers ask for a theme and offer to special order it. After three requests, they will bring in four pieces - plate, invite, napkin and table cover.
"We call it PINT," Beck said. "With these basics, the customer has the gist of the theme and can add matching solid colors and balloons for a themed party. If the pattern really takes off, then I will add the favor bags and party favors. It works for us."
And it all obviously works for the community as well. A local newspaper honors businesses with Readers' Choice Awards, and The Great Party Store took "Best Party Store" honors for 2008, 2009 and 2010.
"We sees this as a report card for us because the readers of the newspaper vote for the businesses they think are the best in a tri-county area," Beck said. "We're very proud to have won it each year we've been open."
Award-winning service and selection truly does make this The Great Party Store.
By Abby Heugel