A Heavenly Choice: Where passion meets people
If you don’t find Denise Hagopian at her store, Heavenly Choice Gifts, Flowers & Balloons, you may find her doing motivational speaking for her local Chamber of Commerce and women’s club, hobnobbing with potential customers about town or designing and delivering balloons for her 24/7 delivery service.
“The bottom line is,” Hagopian said, “you can’t sit in your store and wait for business.”
Going from bloop to Boop
Hagopian got her start in retail at a young age, as she helped out at her father’s liquor store. “We grew up working inside of the liquor store and my dad started taking us to work at the age of 7,” Hagopian said. “My job was to stock the candy counter and comics … so I read all of the comics and it gave me a love of vintage characters.”
With an early start in the world of retail, it’s no surprise that, with the financial help of her father, Hagopian opened her store at just 26 years old.
“When I borrowed money from my dad to help me get a loan, my dad said to not sell what I wanted but what the clientele wanted,” Hagopian said.
But, when one customer entered Heavenly Choice and saw the Betty Boop mug Hagopian was holding, her business philosophy was forever changed.
Already a collector of Betty Boop items, Hagopian explained, “I loved Betty Boop because she was an independent woman … The woman (who entered the store) wanted the coffee mug, and I said, ‘really?’ In 1983, that mug cost $15, which was expensive at the time.” According the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator, $15 translates to $35.81 in today’s marketplace. “So I went to the stockroom and brought her one. She asked me to save the other one for her friend. I asked her if I could write down her name and number if I got any more items in.”
Hagopian remembers her father had advised to cater her merchandise to the consumer, but Hagopian was, after all, selling what her customers wanted. “I sold all of (the Betty Boop inventory) by Christmas. I tried to reorder and that’s when I first understood collectibles were seasonal in a buying cycle. As soon as Valentine’s Day came, I ordered $1,000 of Betty Boop and then came a turning point.”
When one of Hagopian’s customers entered the store, she exclaimed about how much Hagopian herself resembled Betty Boop. “Then, the customer looked around, pointed to a couple other kids and said, ‘They look like Betty Boop, too!’” Hagopian also commented that the Hispanic and Armenian neighborhood lends itself to a fun Betty Boop lookalike contest. The customer, whose son was a DJ on Rick Dees’ station, suggested doing a lookalike contest.
When Rick Dees called her and said they wanted to film it, Hagopian said, “I had to do a Betty Boop contest! It put me on the map … it put me on a different path and I followed that path. What people don’t do is follow their instincts.”
Working the crowd
While the Betty Boop Festival is one of the ways Hagopian has put Heavenly Choice on the map, from the very beginning and continuing today, she has networked strategically and creatively to garner her clientele.
Heavenly Choice opened in 1983, “with a huge grand opening party with the Montebello Chamber of Commerce,” Hagopian explained. “I don’t think people start off big enough. They have soft openings. I invited every city official, nonprofit and business leader, so my grand opening had 200 people,” Hagopian said. “I used the Chamber of Commerce and the city effectively. People think you can do all of this on social media — you can get a lot of buzz, but if you open the storefront you have to capture immediately the people that are surrounding you, so you have to have money set aside to do that and you have to wow them from day one because your rent is due in 30 days. Facebook is a piece of it, but you have to have a balance and reach out to people in the community who have money. The movers and shakers.”
And if one person knows how to do that, it’s Hagopian. And she does it with inventiveness and plenty of vigor.
“When a casino was opening up, I wanted to sell to the casino but I wanted them to see me at a high level of status,” Hagopian said. “So, whenever the casino sponsored anything at the Chamber of Commerce, I bought a ticket at whatever price level table they did and would sit in front with them. So they saw me as an equal, even though I was a small business owner.”
“Who are you going to do business with?” Hagopian asked. “The person who’s sitting at your table. If your future client golfs, learn to golf. If they bowl, go bowling.”
A 24/7 commitment to service
Heavenly Choice offers a service not found often in other party stores — or any independent retail store, in general: a 24/7 delivery service.
“It started because I got a few telephone calls from the movie industry and they start shooting at 5 or 6 a.m., which meant I had to deliver between 2 and 3 a.m. In 1983, we were one of the earliest balloon deliveries and artists doing columns. Other balloon companies were always late because they were trying to do balloons on-site,” Hagopian explained. “I realized if I guaranteed on-time (delivery), and wasn’t on time, they wouldn’t have to pay. They’ve never not paid!”
Hagopian is also able to offer on-time delivery for citywide 5K races and runs, Valentine’s Day and recipients who work the graveyard shift. Hagopian even found this service to save space and maximize productivity during busy holidays in her store. “I did 24 hours two days in a row around Valentine’s Day, but it was better because I didn’t have to store as much product, and that took a lot of stress away.”
While Hagopian’s services and offerings are unique to her store, the bottom line is: retailers spend “their money differently but I don’t think they’re looking at their own potential and how they can bring in a high-end client,” Hagopian said. “You can’t sit in your store and wait for them to come to you, you have to get out there and grab it.”