Seasonal retailers can be holiday gift to landlords

Kansas City StarOctober 2, 2012 

’Tis the season — but which one?

Seasonal stores are now selling everything from Batman costumes to Santa Claus candy dishes. The stores are merging the seasons, figuring if they get a jump on the season — any season — they will get a bigger percentage of that holiday’s sales.

But that’s not all.

Seasonal stores also can be a holiday gift to both landlords and their tenants.

Shopping centers fill empty spaces, not only making the center more attractive but giving their shoppers something new to entice them back.

As for retailers, the short leases that the holiday stores take out offer low risk and low overhead during a maximum selling period. They also can open up new markets that the retailer might not have tapped yet.

This season’s crop includes a national Halloween store chain that has circled the metropolitan area with eight suburban stores; a downtown landlord who made the most of an empty first-floor space; a Blue Springs man who juggles a full-time job with running Halloween stores two months out of the year; and a 98-year-old local business that wants to temporarily expand its brand in a new market. Budding business

Some Country Club Plaza customers knew Rosehill Gardens was the longtime landscaper for the Country Club Plaza, but the Martin City company wanted to build on and expand that tie-in. So four years ago it picked the Plaza for its first seasonal store.

“I think being on the Plaza lends a lot of credibility, a certain panache. ‘We don’t have it at the Martin City store, but I think we have it at our store on the Plaza,’ ” said Marcia Lawrence, retail manager.

This year Rosehill Gardens nabbed a prime spot on the northeast corner of 47th Street and Broadway. The 5,300-square-foot store is stocked with fall and Halloween decor items, including handmade gourd decorative pieces and a spindly black tree with bat ornaments. Just a few shelves are set aside strictly for Christmas — gold ornaments, snowflake candles, a Santa candy dish and the like.

But all of that will change once Halloween is put to bed. Overnight, store employees will convert it to a full-on Christmas store that will operate until the end of the year.

“We’re straddling the line a little bit right now,” Lawrence said, “but I think it’s important to give each holiday its due. I’m a bit of a traditionalist.” Spirit Halloween, a sister store to Spencer Gifts, swoops into a market in September, opening large venues in an effort to be one-stop shops for Halloween, from decor to costumes. But it also sets its stores apart by creating entertaining interactive displays.

Costume drama

Step into downtown Kansas City’s Costume Depot and be greeted by a white-masked, machete-wielding Freddy character from the Friday the 13th movies. Silently keeping watch near the ceiling are a Tweety Bird and Scooby-Doo.

Nearly every inch of the 1,500-square-foot shop is filled with costumes, including a wall showcasing a variety of wigs — purple falls, pink afros, white dreadlocks.

Owner Maria Heil didn’t have the usual concerns about finding a location or staffing a seasonal store. Heil and her husband own the building at 1617 Oak St. and live on the second floor.

“It’s convenient, and it only costs a little extra for electricity,” she said.

She calls her seasonal shops her hobby. She started with fireworks stands, trying to create a business that her three sons could take over one day.

But they didn’t like the “heavy lifting,” she said, and wanted to go to college instead. Now one son is a lawyer, one is an architect, and the third is working in his father’s heating and air conditioning business.

Heil attends a winter Halloween trade show where she orders her products. She starts setting up the goods in August for a September opening. Area shopping centers have approached her about opening in their higher-traffic operations, but Heil said even temporary rent in a mall can run several thousand dollars a month. She also would have to keep mall hours, manning the store for 11 hours or more on some days.

With her downtown shop she can keep short hours in September and then expand them during her peak period this month.

“It’s a big responsibility,” she said. “But I have great customers, and they are happy to see me come back every year.”

Come Nov. 1, some of those customers want Heil to turn her Halloween store into a Christmas shop. But she declines.

“There’s too much competition — CVS, Costco, Sam’s Club. They’re all selling Christmas items,” she said.

Holiday juggling

Halloween — when Mike von David was growing up — was all about homemade costumes, paper bags for candy and maybe a splurge now and then for a plastic mask. So as an adult the holiday didn’t hold his attention.

What he was interested in was a great business opportunity. He decided a two-month stint running a Halloween store would fit in with his full-time job building test equipment at Honeywell. He has Halloween Express stores in Blue Springs and Independence with his wife, Kim.

“Halloween is such a big deal now, and people of all ages come in, having a ball,” von David said. “It’s pretty hectic for a couple of months, and then you have the rest of the year to regroup.”

The couple had opened an Independence store in 2007 and 2008, getting the same spot, a former Pier 1 store facing Noland Road. They added a second Independence location in 2009, and in 2010 they had stores in Blue Springs and Independence. They tried three locations in 2011.

Seasonal stores are “nomads, going into new spaces nearly every year,” he said.

“It’s hard for your customers to know where you are,” von David said.

So he tries to find locations fronting high-traffic areas that can easily see his large “Halloween Express” signs. Then he advertises on billboards and on the radio, and even mails out 30,000 postcards to residents within a five-mile radius of his stores.

Once he dressed up in an 11-foot inflatable Frankenstein costume to wave at cars driving by.

“You have to wear all the hats in this business,” he said. “Some people said it made me look better.”

The von Davids have considered opening additional stores in Texas, where the franchise has openings.

“But it’s a lot of traveling, and this area hasn’t been developed fully, and we live here in Blue Springs,” he said. “We know the market.”

No sure things

Though seasonal stores save considerably on year-round overhead, there are some challenges.

For one, they have to choose from the crop of empty spaces available.

This year, Halloween Express has landed area locations in strong suburban centers on high traffic streets. And Rosehill Gardens has its spot on the busy Plaza intersection.

“It is the luck of the draw, but in this economy more choice spaces seem to be available,” Lawrence said.

Spirit Halloween has to seek out more than 1,000 temporary spaces across the country and has location scouts working months in advance of store openings.

Temporary stores also may not have the depth of inventory of permanent locations.

Chelli Tillman, rentals manager for downtown’s Kansas City Costume, said her year-round store carried a large selection in low, medium and higher price ranges.

Another downside: Seasonal stores typically do not sell out. So inventory has to be taken when the store closes, and the items carefully packed up and stored at another location.

Many of the stores also have to train new staff year after year. If service isn’t up to par, the brand can suffer.

Tillman said Kansas City Costume’s employees have theater backgrounds.

“We have experience in the costume idea, especially time periods so they don’t have to do a lot of research on it,” Tillman said.

Business drops off considerably for Rosehill Gardens in November, and it needs to staff only its fall garden center and holiday decor section. So moving employees to the Plaza store makes for better use of manpower and gives employees a change of pace.

Halloween Express also has built a strong staff that tends to return every year.

“They still want to get paid, but we spend a lot of time together and really enjoy it,” von David said. “I don’t call them my employees. I call them my family.”

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