May 21, 2012
Spotlight On: Guilford, Conn.
Where they rent fun – and just about everything else
A stay-at-home mom looking to make some extra money, Eileen Petrillo, now president of R.E.A.D. Amusements in Guilford, Conn., started going out as “famous characters” to children’s birthday parties. As she started making money, she began to collect and make rental costumes.
The closest competition was about 40 minutes away, so she used one of the spare bedrooms in her home and started filling up racks and racks of costumes. Eventually this room became too crowded and her husband set up a make-shift “store” in their basement, which was their location for five years.
Again, this area too became too crowded, so she took the plunge in October of 1992 and rented a one month rental in her town. After having some success, she decided to try her luck full time with a costume shop providing both retail and rental.
“We found a spot right around the corner from my sons’ elementary school,” Petrillo said. “They would walk right over to the shop after school, which was great; they never had to go to daycare. I stayed at that shop for 10 years and then grabbed my present location, which is much sunnier and with more open space. We’ve been here for eight years now.”
In that time they’ve gone from just having a Characters and Costume Shop with costumes, makeup and tuxedos to offering everything from rentals of portable rock climbing walls, Segway scooter rentals and moonwalks to interactive games and inflatables.
“I basically had no retail experience, but my sister has a shop, ‘The Costume Company,’ in Boston,” Petrillo said. “She was a lifesaver in getting me started on names of vendors etc. and it was trial and error.”
Today three-quarters of the 2,000-square-foot shop is retail, with the remainder rental costumes. Petrillo tries to display as much as she can so the customer gets ideas for their particular party. She’s found that 90 percent of the customers have no idea what they want to be, so if they can set up different costume ideas around the shop, it really helps.
“After doing this for more than 20 years, I’ve really gained a lot of historical knowledge as well as what’s hot in today’s market,” she said. “This knowledge is shared with all my staff so they can be helpful as well. We don’t just stand behind the cash register and collect the money. We really help the customer find the right costume for the right historical period or event.”
Because they’re in the New England area, they cater to several historical themes such as Colonial Day, Early American Day, etc. where the students dress in colonial costumes and experience that time period with games, food and activities, while student book reports, Medieval Day and dressing up like explorers helps in the off season. Customers also come in for photography projects, trade shows and theme parties, and they also do tuxedo rentals during prom season.
“We provide excellent customer service and extended hours during Halloween, hand out flyers about the shop and tell everyone we can about our business,” Petrillo said. “We also let customers try on the costumes, both retail and rental. The rental costumes bring in the customer looking for something different; not what you will see on every other person.”
Petrillo said that besides the increase in sexy costumes and the fact that they’re selling more adult and tongue-in-cheek costumes than children’s costumes, things haven’t changed much in the last five years.
“But it seems that all the vendors carry the same stuff,” she added. “It would be great to get some new creative designers coming up with some new ideas. All the vendors just copy each other instead of coming up with their own new designs.”
Jack of All Trades
Petrillo knows about diversifying, as under the R.E.A.D. Amusements umbrella they also run Characters & Costumes and Shoreline Segway, where they do Segway tours, The Segway Experience riding the Segways and the Segway Rodeo for corporate team building.
They do events as small as a backyard party to corporate events with 10,000 participants and have provided rental amusement pieces for Pepsi, Self Magazine, the Committee to Re-Elect Senator Lieberman, Bloomberg Corp., the NYC Gay Pride Parade, numerous colleges in the Northeast, Summer Street NYC, etc.
“We offer rock climbing walls, inflatable rides (ie: moonwalks,) giant water slides, temporary tattoos, photo booths, trackless trains, etc.,” Petrillo said. “I would advise other retailers to do their research and have lots of cash available to purchase equipment, save for insurance and hire competent, dependable staff.”
The R.E.A.D. Amusement division is the most profitable division, but it’s also the most time consuming, physically hard and most expensive to operate. While they were the second company in Connecticut to provide inflatables, there are now many other companies offering the same things. Petrillo said the competition – along with the cost of running the business, especially insurance – has increased greatly, making it much harder to make the same amount of money as in the past.
“We are constantly looking to be the most innovative of our competition,” Petrillo said. “We have certain pieces of equipment that are geared towards certain ages and use our past experience to suggest what activities will work for different events. I am constantly thinking of new ways to increase my business, much to the chagrin of my staff, as I often hear, ‘Yikes, something else new to learn!'”
That innovation is key, especially seeing as the Internet has become a major concern for Petrillo, who said she has had people come into her shop to try on a costume, telling her they ordered it online and “just wanted to be sure it fit.” While she hasn’t given up on the idea of starting an Internet store, she’s so busy running her businesses that she doesn’t have adequate time to spend on it right now.
“But I focus on what I can do and am honest in my dealings with customers and clients. If you do that, you will be able to put your head on your pillow and get a good night’s sleep,” she said. “I have always followed this advice, even if it means losing some money in end.
“We haven’t been in business for over 20 something years by trying to be the richest,” she continued, “just an honest company that you as a customer would want to do business with.”
And with full insurance, competitive prices and an energetic staff, customers can count on them to make sure their party or event is a success.
By Abby Heugel