Apr 25, 2013
Party Gear +

Spotlight On: Sulphur Springs, Texas

Small business with big heart

When Thad Gregory opened up Party Gear + in Sulphur Springs, Texas, his goal wasn’t to see how much money he could make, but rather to provide an alternative for the customer.

“We are your average American mom-and-pop-type store trying to survive by creating our own jobs, and I don’t want the customer to feel railroaded into bowing down to the big corporate chains,” Gregory said. “Some people will give you their business merely by showing them kindness, attention and letting them know how important each and every customer is to our business. Any sale is a great sale.”

Taking Over
Gregory has been in retail for about 25 years, doing everything from working in the men’s department of a retail clothing store to a managerial position with a major drugstore chain, but for the past 15 years before opening up Party Gear+ in 2012, he had managed a Paper Factory store.

With the “big box” retailer cutting ties to the store, he told his wife that he felt like the market was still wanting of the type of product they sold, so they opened Party Gear + in the space that had previously housed Paper Factory.

“We are the definition of a specialty store,” Gregory said. “Whereas the leading retail stores have a little of everything to offer, we offer a lot more specific to our genre and offer more personal service. In this challenging economy we feel like small business can adapt quicker to the ever-changing retail environment.”

The store itself is 2,500 square feet of selling space with around 500 square feet used in other non-selling capacities. They’re located in an indoor mall space and have a 16-foot gate used to show whether they’re open or closed, which means the customers essentially have a wide view of the store as they pass.
The store had not had a remodel in 16 years, so they painted it a golden yellow similar to the local high school colors and added black pegboard and white metal upon taking over the space.

“The best compliment we have received since opening our doors is that it’s a ‘decompression zone’ when you come in the door,” Gregory said. “We have about a 16-foot entrance so customers can ease into the store rather than feeling claustrophobic as they enter. Our gondolas are spaced more than the ADA requires so there is plenty of space for strollers, wheelchairs or mobile units.”

The store’s basic design mix is very similar to the Paper Factory with a few noticeable differences. They don’t carry as many greeting cards or wrap as the previous store, and although they do offer balloons, it’s not something they actively promote due to the helium situation.

“There’s no question solids form the basis of our sales, at least that has been the one constant I can measure over the years,” Gregory said. “One that has changed is how people seem to want seasonal themes year round, especially Mardi Gras. Mixing our solids in with the seasons as well as constantly suggesting the solids really helps with our sales. One would think Western would sell great year round in Texas, but so far it isn’t quite as concentrated in our area as I expected. However, the camouflage theme has caught on.”

Although it’s a challenge, Gregory said it’s best to fit his business around what the customers want, so he keeps a list of customer requests. For example, there are some members of the older generation who tend to think of them as an “everything store.” They’ve been asked for everything from light bulbs to bridge score pads.

“In the case of the bridge score pads and tallies, we did accommodate this, as they were accustomed to buying them from the Paper Factory,” Gregory said. “Some of the other requests are for sex toys and beer/frat party items – I’m thinking twice before I order those items! But usually if it’s something I can get from within our vendor network in Party Club (of America) and if it’s requested more than once, we feel we need to try it.”

While Halloween has grown since from the time Gregory started in 1997, he said the current location struggles with the holiday. They even have customers who object to Jack-o-lanterns, so they go with a softer Halloween.

“We didn’t pick up any horror type items, as those did not sell well with Paper Factory,” he said. “We chose to only have about a 12-foot section with some decor, tableware, glow, treat sacks and bags for collecting candy.”

Learning Curve
Gregory has found that there’s a tremendous difference between managing and managing/owning, something he said he finds out every day. Now he not only has to consider merchandising, but the merchandise and marketing as well.

“Trying to determine the right merchandise mix is no easy task, so there is always homework,” he said. “And there are things I honestly take more personal now, like when a customer mentions they can purchase something somewhere else. In a small town like ours, the importance of doing business locally has to be explained over and over again.”

Gregory has found word-of-mouth and Facebook to be great for business, although it too has challenges, especially trying to determine what time of day to post. He’s found posting pictures, coming up with their own ad to put out there and having a “secret word” that gives customers 10 percent off something different each month to be effective tools thus far.

“The biggest challenge is from our competitors,” Gregory said. “Many times people will come to us and say things like, ‘We have looked and looked all over but couldn’t find it, so then we thought to come here’ or ‘We can get that at Wal-Mart or on the Internet.’ The competition is much stiffer in 2012 than it was in 1998, so we do something that sets us apart like friendly service that will hopefully help keep the doors open.

“There are people out there who understand what it means to be a local/small business and those who refuse to do online shopping because they can’t touch it before they buy it,” he continued. “As long as we have enough to pay the bills, that’s good enough for us.”

By Abby Heugel
Managing Editor

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