Feb 2, 2015
Custom Baskets & Balloons

Delivery, smiles, sweets and sales every day

Beverly Hornsby, owner of Custom Baskets & Balloons in Pensacola, Florida, often tells customers with a big smile, “If anyone says they are having more fun than me, they are making it up.”

That spirit goes into everything Hornsby and her staff offers and creates, from paper products and custom gift baskets to the fact that they participated in the creating the Guinness Book of World Records for Largest Balloon Mural in Chicago in 1999. Hornsby's business philosophy is: “We may not be the cheapest, but we are the best in what we do in the Pensacola area.”

They set out to prove that every day.

Record-setting retail

Family-owned and operated since 1993, Custom Baskets & Balloons started as a creative outlet for Hornsby. She thought gift baskets were going to be her primary business, but quickly learned that balloons were in high demand. The business now has four Certified Balloon Artists on staff, and at least one regularly attends the International Balloon Arts Convention, World Balloon Convention and Ballooniversity for new education, ideas, methods and products.

“Beverly does most of the buying and operational work,” said Amanda Pierce, operations manager. “Since she has a better rapport with our older clientele, she does a lot of the booking and selling to them, while other staff members are more in touch with the younger generations.”

The showroom and work area started at 500 square feet but has grown to nearly 2,000. That includes a mostly empty space known as the Balloon Production Room, which is used to create and store large decor, such as balloon drops and dance floors.

Custom Baskets & Balloons offers everything from custom-made event balloon decor, air-filled and helium-filled balloon deliveries to more than 30 themed and customized gift baskets. Balloon decor and deliveries basically use and promote all balloon products available on the market today. By doing so, they gain new customers and keep their returning customers guessing what will be next.

“About 90 to 95 percent of our business is repeat business,” Pierce said. “Customers approach us with their ideas, and we make it happen.”

They do a number of high school proms and homecomings each year with themes ranging from classic black and white colors to outrageous alien- themed occasions. They also do numerous runs/ walks each year for various organizations.

“The pink arch we make for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer is the largest balloon arch ever done in Pensacola, using 98 quads of 16-inch latex, for an approximate measurement of 75 feet wide by 18 feet tall,” Pierce said. “The Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day we make an arch on site at 4 a.m. for the largest Prediction Run in the U.S.A. –– McGuire’s 5K Prediction Run. Last year all 50 states were represented in the run with an estimated 16,000 participants. We have even made the front and back of the runner’s shirt worn by/given to more than 16,000 participants!”

Custom Baskets & Balloons only offer premium latex balloons, and every latex balloon that leaves their shop has been treated with Hi-Float. Because of that, Pierce said their balloons last longer than anyone else’s, which keeps customers coming back.

“We have even had a customer call a month after receiving her delivery just to tell us that it still looks great,” Pierce said.

She added that air-filled deliveries have noticeably increased over the last few years and people are amazed that balloons don’t have to float to make a presentation. The “Balloon Deliveries” section on their website offers customers air-filled, helium and licensed options, and Pierce said being able to see what a design may look like helps customers decide what to purchase.

Basket Bonanza

Aside from balloons, customers also purchase gift baskets in many shapes and sizes.

“In the early ’90s, it seemed that gift basket popularity was hitting our market hard, so we decided to try our hand at arrangements,” Pierce said. “Along with Beverly’s natural ability to design, we have all received some kind of arrangement/design education through seminars, conventions, classes and webinars.

“Over the years we have gone from using designer baskets as the arrangement base to more generic baskets, BoxCo boxes and plastic containers,” she continued. “We almost always shrink wrap the arrangement, and also enjoy designing open arrangements. We encourage our commercial customers to bring in their advertising materials so we can incorporate it in the design.”

They have more than 30 themed gift baskets, with the most popular being Birthday-in-a-Box and get-well themes. Custome Baskets & Balloons' Thanks-a-Million basket is used by several nearby companies for employee appreciation every month.

Their website shows some examples of available designs, but almost every arrangement is custom-made and one-of-a-kind. Customers go to the company's website or Facebook page, pick out what they like and call in their order – most delivery sales are made by phone.

“Most of our basket arrangements are food- based, including the three most popular options,” Pierce said. “Thanks-a-Million, made in a BoxCo box, features Harry London Mint Chocolate bars, salty snacks such as pretzels, crackers, nuts and sweet snacks such as cookies and candies. The arrangement is then shrink wrapped, printed cellophane is added to the top and a handmade wire ribbon bow finishes off the design.

“Our Birthday-in-a-Box looks as if a party exploded out of the box,” Pierce continued. “It’s made in a BoxCo box and features gourmet food items with birthday- themed packaging. Then, we add a mini shaped birthday foil balloon, party hat, a few party blowouts and horns and tons of curling ribbon.”

When it comes to party theme trends, Disney’s “Frozen” shows no sign of thawing anytime soon, and Pierce said they’ve seen weddings go from whites and pastels that look very elegant to deep bright colors and themes that are funky and fresh.

In addition, baby gender revealing parties have hit the mainstream.

“One mother-to-be brought us a sealed envelope with the reveal of the gender and had us fill a

giant box with helium-filled latex,” Pierce said. “When she unwrapped the box at her party, pink balloons floated out and that’s when she and her guests learned the gender. We’ve also filled neutral-colored balloons with either pink or blue confetti that were then popped to reveal the gender.”

Running a business is never without challenges. A big one for Custom Baskets & Balloons is being located less than a block from a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

“But we specialize in whatever Wal-Mart doesn’t sell,” Pierce said. “Customers can park at the door and we provide walk-out service to the customer’s car.

“Wal-Mart can’t compete with that.” P

– By Abby Huegel, Party & Paper Retailer Contributor

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