Common topic discussed between me and my balloon friends…..store front? or NO store front?
I went to one balloon convention and was told by a very “famous” person in the industry that I could drop the store and make more money just doing one big event on Friday and one big event on Saturday. I went to another balloon convention and was told by a very “famous” person in the industry that the store front people are the only people making any money. So, from an expert’s point of view….I don’t think there’s an “industry” answer. It all comes down to personal preference…individual goals…how big your support system is….and how much time you truly want to devote to your passion.
We first opened as a party supply store. We had a four foot balloon counter. Seemed the town of Dyer really didn’t need a party store as much as it needed balloons. People would come into our store and ask: “Can you make me a balloon arch?” “Can you deliver big bouquets to our party?” It was after my first convention experience (Balloon Camp in 2008) that I decided to turn the store into more of a balloon store, and less of a retail store.
And at future conventions, I had a little bit of a problem. I met a lot of decorators who didn’t have stores. I was told to sell my four foot columns for $75.00. In a retail store. I was told I was doing everything wrong. And a lot of them didn’t like me. It was a little discouraging….
I was the girl with a “party store” and I didn’t feel like I fit in…at all…
It IS a challenge to have a storefront. My retail customers can come in and get their balloons for $.99. So…..how do I justify my charges if I’m setting up an event and the bouquets are more like $10.00? Well, that’s just one of the challenges I face….
I DO have to keep my retail customers happy and compete (within reason) with Party City.
I DO have to WOW my big clients and make them come back year and after year…while also impressing my retail customers to keep them coming back party after party….
My big clients want the low prices, my retail customers want my WOW effect….and it can be a challenge to make the whole party store/balloon decorating service combination work for our benefit and for our bottom line.
My thoughts on a Store Front:
TIME. Inventory, staffing, payroll, heat/air, water. Crushing boxes, cleaning toilets, remembering holidays, scheduling, unscheduling. There is so much time that is involved in running a storefront operation. It is a lot of work. The first year in business, Alissa would work 50-60 hours a week and I would work more. It was insane. If we were to hire more people, there would go the money to pay a bill or two….and we couldn’t afford that.
MONEY. One or two bad months can really put you in a bad spot. And it’s hard to “make up” two months of bad sales and recover your losses once you have a good month again. So, it could very likely end up on your personal credit if you didn’t open up with enough cash reserves!
Other than TIME AND MONEY (which are very huge factors), there is really not much else that is negative about a store front 😉
TRAFFIC. We are in a high traffic area. Because we are high traffic, we get a lot of customers! And our customers have a lot of friends! And it helps a lot to build your reputation. We have the reputation as the “fun store.” While doing a delivery today, the girl told me that when she was in our store to place the order, the energy level was SO high and she felt good for HOURS after visiting us!
Our biggest customer came into our store one day to buy a $.99 greeting card. When he saw what we could do with balloons, he told us he would be contacting us…and he did. Our accounts with Purdue Calumet, American Cancer Society, Harley Davidson and more have all been established because someone from their organization stumbled into our store.
Because we have a store that people visit, we are always dipping our hands into the jars of balloons. We have so much time to explore different options as we help people. Our customers have given us great design ideas. We love to help them, and as we do….we can play…be creative….try new things….
Our store is a great place for clients to come in, sit down and look around at albums. We have a table set up with lots of photo albums…and customers will sit and look. And then they’ll chat with us and with other customers, and it’s like a “Mom’s Club.” Most everyone in the community knows us and has been in to visit us. Sometimes they’ll just stop in as they are walking through the strip mall to say HI.
There’s a lot more bad….and a lot more good…but for me, I know that a retail storefront is right for me today. Who knows how I’ll feel in a year or two, but today I have a tremendous amount of energy. I don’t need a lot of sleep. I have an amazingly supportive husband who cooks and handles the household. I have a rock star team and they make it fun to show up each day. If any of those things in my life were to change, I would reconsider.
And here’s what I think about a party supply store also being a balloon decorating store….
There are TWO things that we offer: Retail Bouquets/Options and Balloon Decorating Services. They are NOT the same! All of our employees know the difference…and know how to handle a customer who seems like a retail customer but who really needs the attention that our balloon decorating service provides.
Retail customers have binders and a menu to choose from. That’s it. Yes, we provide some variations….but we keep it simple. Each project has a number….each balloon has a number. Bouquets are ordered by NUMBER. Otherwise, it would be a nightmare for staff filling orders to know what the customer ordered.
Balloon decorating customers are provided a SERVICE. We help them plan, we place special orders, we set up the room, we create custom bouquets. The balloon decorating services that we offer are not on a menu. They receive the service of SAMPLES, prototypes and consultations and my attendance at committee meetings. These customers don’t get a set of 3 latex on a weight with a foil because that’s not what they want.
We have to be very careful….if we spend fifteen minutes helping someone choose a set of three latex on a weight and a foil, we are losing money. If our retail customers do not know what they want, we’ll give them some ideas and we will ask them to browse our idea book. They can tell us their event and we will give them suggestions based on the menu that we offer from retail. But the service of planning an event with our custom centerpieces and designs is entirely different, and unless they are willing to pay us for the time that we spend with them….it’s a menu.
I have a couple of analogies that I use with my team. One of them is this: Taxi Cab drivers get paid to wait. We don’t. So, if we are waiting five minutes for a customer to decide what colors to choose….we don’t get paid. My advice to the team? Give the customer a baggie. Tell him/her to put the balloons that he/she wants into the bag and when they are done deciding, you will be happy to take their order. This is a kind way of pushing along the process so that the sales staff is free to help the next customer. It’s retail. Retail involves TURNS. We need to turn the customers in order to make a profit.
In addition, our retail customers receive good latex balloons from Pioneer. Better grade than a Dollar Store….but not quite as brilliant as our Qualatex balloons that we use for event decorating. We never use medium quality balloons for big jobs and it’s another way that we separate the retail from the event decorating.
Also, to my “balloon friend” who said I could make more money doing one big event every Friday and every Saturday? Not necessarily true at all. I can do a thousand dollar event on a Saturday, or I can sell 50 projects at 20 dollars each and have the fun and thrill of a retail store…. Knowing HOW to mass produce, knowing HOW to work quickly, knowing HOW to utilize our high school employees can turn a high traffic retail store into a profitable design. But that takes work. And balloons are only 35% of what we do…which means that the retail turns are also adding to the bottom line, and retail is open seven days a week. Done well and done in the right location, it’s a seven day a week income stream instead of a “one day a weekend” business. It just takes time and the right set of employees, the right inventory and the right location to do it “profitably.”
I am very fortunate because my father purchased the store from my former partner on April 12 of this past year. I needed help….not only financial help, but the physical help of more people to get things off the ground. My sister does the inventory/retail. My father does the books. He’s also in the store almost every single day of the week. My mother just helps wherever she is needed. My father has made it possible to have employees work more than 4-6 hours a week. We have one full time employee in addition to myself, and 4 part-time people who work a combined total of over 60 hours a week. THAT has helped a lot.
So, again, it all comes down to personal preference…individual goals…how big your support system is….and how much time you truly want to devote to your passion. Fortunately for me, I have my whole family invested in this store….and THAT has made all of the difference.