Jan 27, 2010
A One-Stop Party Shop

Times may change, but some things stay the same – hard work, adaptability and innovation will get you where you want to go. Take SF Party on Mission Street in San Francisco, for example.

What began more than 100 years ago as a small retail toy and novelty store, with the two original owners actually selling novelties door to door throughout San Francisco, branched out into a company renting gaming equipment to schools and churches for fundraising events.

Over the years they have evolved to be the largest party store in San Francisco – a one-stop shop offering party supplies, a large selection of balloons and rental equipment. And although they do business in a very modern way, they keep the traditional values of their founders – to offer customers an excellent shopping experience.

Success from the Start
Located in the center of San Francisco, SF Party is a 7,000-square-foot one-stop shop. Whether customers are shopping for a birthday, picking up balloons for a surprise party or renting a margarita machine, general manager and buyer Ryan Allen said they have something for any occasion.

And although he wasn’t around in the beginning, Allen has been with SF Party for more than four years, working under the premise that if the shopping experience is successful, then the party will be, too.

“We like to think our customers make us unique,” Allen said. “This city is a fast-paced moving city and there is always a party going on. We train our staff to be very customer service oriented, to help the customer visualize the party they want to have and then make it happen, whether on a small or large budget.”

Every kid coming into the store is given a balloon, which not only makes the child happy, but also makes it easier for the parent to shop. It doesn’t hurt that each balloon is custom imprinted with the SF Party logo so people see it when they leave the store.

“The best way to sell a lot of balloons is to have a great store display,” Allen said. “We have balloon bouquets close to our balloon counter and checkouts. We also display a 16-inch balloon inflated right next to an 11-inch balloon, as once a customer sees the difference, they choose the 16-inch balloon for their bouquet – increasing sales.”

Along with balloons, solid paper goods, luau and general birthday are strong categories throughout the year. Solids are located in the back, so each customer must walk through the store to get to them, seeing all the other merchandise offered in the process.

They keep seasonal products toward the front the entire year, rotating it to the next season. Throughout the store, each section is organized by theme and merchandized next to similar themes. Within each theme are basic essentials – plates, napkins and cups – and the “extra” stuff, which can include T-shirts, sunglasses and party beads.

“I also use each window display to highlight a specific theme with the decorations and party basics,” Allen said, “but I do make sure that I have my solids category in the display, as that may appeal to someone else. Our props or larger decorations will have price tags on them and we do sell out of our windows – make sure when you display something, you have that item in stock.”

Allen makes sure the merchandise is pulled to the front of each hook it’s hanging on, as it makes the store look full and gives a clean appearance. Another necessity is dusting, as customers don’t like to buy merchandise that looks like it’s been there for several months.

“I also will only display merchandise so high on the wall,” Allen added. “One of my stock people is 5 feet 2 inches tall, and if she can’t reach the merchandise to take it off the wall, it’s too high.”

They re-merchandise almost the entire store every year after New Year’s and restyle the table settings and window displays often, usually every couple of weeks, as Allen has found that changing things up throughout the year keeps customer entertained and interested in the product.

The Great Pumpkin
But there’s one time of year that they really kick up the marketing efforts -Halloween. Although the Halloween season is still new to them, Allen said that as they’ve grown over the past few years, they have continued to move to more upscale costumes and accessories.

“As 65 percent of our business is repeat business, we see it as a great reason for new customers to visit our store,” Allen said. “We believe in strongly marketing Halloween and have learned to be street smart with our marketing dollars. Whether we have a 30-foot pumpkin out front for two months or a famous banana guy working in front of the store, we make sure our name is getting out there in the busy season.”

Hollywood always has a big influence on costumes, especially in California, so vampires, Alice in Wonderland, superheroes and Star Trek remain popular. Sexy costumes are strong for women who want to flatter their body, and Allen has found guys still want something easy.

“I’ve had success with men’s shirts in a variety of themes – such as sheriff, police, fireman, chef, priest, etc.,” Allen said. “Plus, they’ll always buy pimp items.”

Allen has found that preparing for the next season is a challenge, as something that worked one year may not work the next. So, each year he has all employees fill out a survey as to what they heard on the floor – what was selling slowly, what they would have bought more of if they were the buyer, what customers asked for, etc. In addition, he looks at his sell-throughs for each company and makes notes throughout the season as to what sold out the quickest and what’s still on the shelf the day after.

“I recommend using mannequins,” Allen added. “If a customer sees an awesome costume on a mannequin, they will be more inclined to try it on and those are the costumes I sell the quickest.”

Because there has been an increase in competition from the Internet and larger chains, SF Party launched its own shopping site, www.sfparty.com, in December 2009. Now people can find unique party items, to Allen sees it adding 10 to 25 percent in sales the first year, and hopefully growing after that.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that people are buying differently,” Allen said. “They use to buy everything for their party, from small wearables to large decorations, but lately they’re cutting back on the large decorations and buying more items for their money.

“Instead of buying a large decoration, they get a lei and a beachcomber hat for every guest,” he continued. “It creates a fun atmosphere for their party just as much as large decorations did.”

And in times like these, Allen added that you always have to adapt and look for niches to expand your business, much like the owners who sold novelties door to door 100 years ago. After all, great parties start with great people.

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