Why don’t we ‘Party in Chains‘ like the rest of the World?

Yes, another unashamed bit of Product Placement

Perhaps the Brits are prudish, a bit reserved , not sure what is involved, think its a bit continental, and we get drunk too quickly.

Now I know the odd non U.K. citizen who may read this, says I know you brits like having a good time and dressing up in chains but that is not the point . Is it more to do with High Street rents, cost of operation, and too much online competition ? Quite simply a Chain of Party Shops does not exist in the UK and it has puzzled me for some time.

Oddly, Covid has helped with my enlightenment. For many years, the U.K. has been considered one the major markets for party products outside North America. Of course part of Northern Europe has ‘Carnival’, Many Spanish speaking nations have some form of Fiesta, Italy has Carnivals and Fiestas , the Brits have long been a nation using any good excuse for a Party.

That all said, the biggest Chain, in the U.K., was never bigger than 5 stores. Several years ago the American franchise chain Partyland established 12 branches, there are now 0. the remains of Partyland became Pure Party which was subsidiary of the Card shop chain Birthdays. I think at it is peak the Pure Party chain was over 40 stores. Unfortunately they were run like card shops. Both have long gone.

In France there are various chains with 20+, in Spain Party Fiesta has 130 (not all in Spain), and Germany with the likes of Karnevalswierts with 10 (1 in Holland) and Dieters with over 30. Needless to say the largest is in North America, Party City with the best part of 1000 stores. In the UK there have attempts by large multiples to try add on ‘party sections’ but all have failed through lack of sales per square foot. I have to add a small footnote here, there is one such operation in the U.K which is within a supermarket chain but from all accounts it is under constant review.

Enlightenment came via Covid lock-down. There are of course major structural issues ,which as already stated, focus heavily on operational costs being especially high in the UK for a retailer of any type, in addition to the effectiveness and impact of UK online operators. What I saw during lock-down and the eventual opening of retail early July was the split between those that had an alternative during lock-down and those that did not. Moreover, the successful operators, generally had a good relationship with their local community and were active on social media.

The common factors did not stop there. On the whole the successful retailers were family owned and run, and were single unit stores. The final piece of the puzzle was that they had a strong Balloon Business.

On the surface there is nothing there, which could not be replicated in multiple locations. Except the ownership, Family owned or single owner operated. It is very evident there is a strong connection between those single owner or family owner operated stores as against multiple stores. If this connection with the community is maintained and nurtured it becomes an integral part of the business. This is really difficult to do within a chain.

So why did lock down become a source of enlightenment ? From hearing some many stories from retailers about how they were pestered (not in a nasty way) by local customers as to when are you opening up…or can we get x,y & z from you somehow. None of this relationship came about because of lock down but highlighted what was already there . The local independent Party Retailer, is a bit like your favourite local Italian restaurant. When the owner goes home to Italy in the summer , the restaurant is never quite the same, until their return. Depending upon the location, the independent party retailers I know ,generally only go away when their locals go away.

For those of you not involved in the Party retailing, and are wondering about this mystique . Thinking Look I run a chain of card/grocery/shoe shops, it is all about good customer service, good management, good staff training… Stop there. Your staff don’t have to get up at 4 0’Clock on a Sunday morning to prepare for someone’s special event that very day . Get it all sorted then drive to wherever it is, lay it all out before the rest of the world has had breakfast. Then, perhaps later that day you might have to go back to collect some of the kit involved . The retort could be our family runs a very successful chain… Yes but your family(or single owner) is not in every store and this is the big difference with the successful Party Store. They have to be .

Yes, you can train teams to do that . But here’s the rub you could not afford to pay them or at least you could not afford to pay them at a rate that would make it the project profitable. The magic word being profitable. It is only profitable if it is you doing it. And yes, you are correct , it is not costed correctly. But that’s where the single ‘independent/ family owner’ comes into play. They need to make a living but profit is not the sole motivation, or even the main driving force.

That, in my opinion, is why there are no real chains and there are not likely to be in the near future unless the structure of the market changes dramatically. I, just, don’t see it happening anytime soon.

The Resilience of the Humble Toy Balloon….

Lord and Lady Latex, are titles that have not been bequeathed by Political benefactors, or an obsequious senior Civil Servant but by a friend who has also spent much of their working life within the same industry, and felt that for most of the time he had known Julia and I, we were flogging the odd latex balloon or two. The emphasis being on latex , which is also relevant to the context of this post.

I need to indulge a little and talk briefly about my working past as it will , hopefully, help to illustrate what I am going to say.

Travel back a long way, to a time when Mylar (foil) balloons did not exist , before Balloon Decorating started , pre huge colour ranges, and multiple sizes, to a time when the humble Toy Balloon was considered thus… Just a Toy. I was brought up with them. I was surrounded by them , not literally as I rarely saw one in my youth,almost certainly never in the house, but metaphorically. My parents lived and died Latex Balloons. Sounds quite odd and dark, but it is a lot simpler than that. They were involved in the manufacturing and selling of ‘Toy Balloons’. They was wat put bread on plate , wood in fire and roof over ‘ead…as Dickens may have said but didn’t, unless he had spent a lot of time in Yorkshire and didn’t tell anyone.

Even before working in the business I was often taken to trade fairs (oh yes that was a proper holiday). I participated in the Nuremberg Toy Fair before I left school. What I am trying to say is that I have experienced many an economic cycle and a myriad of unfortunate events that would have otherwise destroyed the market for lesser product.

From the miners strike in the early seventies, the oil crisis mid seventies, and rampant inflation(edging to 26%)recession in the early eighties, recession in the nineties, to the banking crisis and finally our present covid conditions, nothing has dampened the demand for the humble latex balloon. During the Oil crisis in the mid seventies in the UK , there was a three day working week. I can very clearly remember at the years first trade show everyone doubling their orders. During massive inflation , having to increase our prices by over 20% being told by customers they wanted a bigger increase(not really anything to do with the demand for balloons , a rather nuanced commercial input. However, the customer was not concerned that it would stop the consumer buying). The vicious nasty little bug that cowers all before it cannot dampen the enthusiasm for the The Toy Balloon. I would go as far as to say it has only increased it. During this crisis, it would not be out of order to add it to the list(at least in the UK) of toilet rolls, pasta, bicycles, and puppies . Once again it defies all expectations.

In The early Nineties this crept back up to 15%…

Now , I must wave a red flag to any Lockdown Entrepreneurs who are thinking …aah hah There’s a few bob to be made here ….the market is not short of supply . There are plenty of manufacturers and the market is very aggressive. By dint of the product’s durability, it has already gone the distance of attracting entrepreneurs . So back off!

The latex balloon is no longer just a Toy. It is a product with many homes, backgrounds to corporate events , decorating major sporting occasions , weddings, key celebrations, lifestyle enhancer…..the list goes on. Take a peek on Instagram and Pinterest to see how balloons are used now. Consequently, especially in the UK you would rarely find Latex balloons on sale in a Toy Shop. This differs to a degree in the rest of Europe. Twenty five years ago, the go to retail outlet for the humble balloon was a toy shop, but ironically it got too complicated for the toy industry . Ranges grew like Topsy and I think they took the view that to do it properly took too much space. And they were probably right . Yet I still maintain that whilst a single sku of bog standard toy balloons ,may not return as much cash, it will take return far more % profit per square inch than nearly anything else in a toy store.

So what is the allure of this simple object ? It is not without its opponents. Over the years it has had confrontations with the farming lobby, and environmentalists. Even today many think that latex balloons are made of plastic. Clue in title, please err ‘….Latex. There are those that are Balloon Phobic. I have encountered customers who would not step onto an exhibition stand as they are frightened of balloons. Not many, I hasten to add, I can only remember two . But there again I suppose I would not meet them all as they wouldn’t have come anywhere near me .

There are few that would walk into a room full of balloons, and not raise a smile. After a short while that same person, child or adult, would defer to childhood, and want to play with them, even if it is a sophisticated decoration. Maybe because they float or have a life of their own they subconsciously imbue a feeling hope, happiness and maybe even a touch of freedom. I have a sneaky feeling this is a peculiarly UK thing (and North America) . I am not sure this has translated to such a degree into mainland Europe, though I don’t see why it wont. Balloonwise , we are ahead of the game. A customer of mine (who is very close to the action on this one ) said he saw this coming sometime ago. He saw a movement to people playing (in a craft way) but suspected it would take another couple years to go mainstream. In his opinion , Covid has only hastened the timeline.

A toy it may no longer just be. Its development into adulthood has only just fortified its resilience and maintained its humility .