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UK party retailers come together to discuss life in lockdown

Party and fancy dress retailers and balloon decorators from across the UK party sector have come together for a virtual conference, addressing and discussing the uncertainties and challenges they have faced during the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Progressive Party hosted the online conference, which took place on Thursday 14 May and followed on from the recent successful UK supplier and European supplier events.

The hour-long meeting included a wide variety of independent traders, with Kate Moore (Jollyjesters Fancy Dress), Mike Hurst (Balloons by Reds), Shirlee Gibbs (The Dressing Up Shop), Sally Quigg (Fun Warehouse) and Gary Wakefield (Lili Bizarre) all giving up their time to take part.

A wide range of topics were covered, from how business stopped for many before lockdown was even announced, to the various opportunities it has presented (thank you, VE Day!) and the plans which are being put in place as retailers prepare to open up again in June, if it is safe to do so.

It was quickly clear that navigating the Governmental guidelines has seen party and balloon retailers dealing with their very individual circumstances in a number of different ways. Those with an online e-commerce offering have been able to continue offering contact-free deliveries, with balloon bouquets proving particularly popular as consumers look to make lockdown birthdays as special as possible, particularly for children and milestone occasions.

After realising the seriousness of the situation – and as sales began to falter – Sally quickly began to look for an opportunity to help keep things moving.

“I started off by panicking for about a week before putting a new product line together,” Sally said of the early days when lockdown first began and all non-essential retail was closed. “I introduced the ‘Box of Fun’ – a box of fun accessories ideal for video calling – that I had real visions of taking off, but while feedback was good it just didn’t really go anywhere. So then after about three weeks I spoke to Trading Standards who gave me the go-ahead to do balloon deliveries. That’s made a huge difference and I’ve been able to separate that from the fancy dress side of the business, which, even online, is just a trickle at this stage.”

Conversely, Mike chose to stop trading entirely and has been turning business down ever since. “I just didn’t feel like balloon deliveries were worth the risk,” he explained. “We have only just opened up again this week, following the new guidelines, and it’s already been a bit mad, which is great.”

Shirlee also closed on the 23 March, following two weeks of virtually no trading at all. A seamstress by trade, she’s been keeping busy in the interim by repurposing old hire costumes and turning them into scrubs for the local hospitals.

The hire side of things is what I’m most concerned about when I think about reopening,” she revealed. “A lot of my costumes are Victorian gowns which won’t stand up to the heavy laundering they will need. I have to think about how to do it very carefully – I know I’m going to have to go online.”

For fancy dress shops which rely on people trying on outfits, masks and accessories, it will be extremely difficult to open safely, agreed Kate, who is based in Derbyshire. “I have both sale and hire costumes,” she explained, “so the logistics of how that is going to work is something we have to really think about. It will probably be a reduced hours or appointment-only set up, so I can make sure I offer a safe, personal service.”

Kate has been trading on a reduced basis during the lockdown, offering a socially-distanced home collection or delivery service for her local customers and focusing on non-costume stock.

“Pre-lockdown, we hadn’t taken any money for almost two weeks,” she revealed, “it was just people calling up to cancel all their VE Day costume bookings. But actually, that’s where we’ve done well, with the flags and bunting that I had got in for VE Day. I couldn’t believe it – it was almost as good as Book Day in the end and I even had to order more! I was lucky that I ordered when I did and that Bristol Novelty were able to send it all out on a next-day delivery.”

Over in Liverpool, Gary has been closed for the duration so far and is looking to start trading again from next week. “We’ll be reopening the online store and will start offering a balloon delivery service,” he explained, “as people still can’t collect from us. We have been into the store this week to try and start putting plans in place for when we do reopen – it’s going to be hard as fancy dress is such a touchy-feely business. We will just have to see how it goes – we will be open for three or four hours a day at first and take it from there.

When the talk inevitably turned to cashflow, it was widely agreed that the Government grants have been very helpful but the loans less so, with a general reluctance to go into further debt when so much uncertainty remains in the market.

“I know that business will go back to normal eventually,” said Sally, “but it will take a while and until then I would rather not pay back a loan on top of everything else. If it carries on for much longer, we will need to have more help from the Government if we are going to be able to continue – I certainly can’t envision being able to pay my lease and other overheads for at least the next 18 months. It’s all a bit of a waiting game at the moment really, we have to keep all our options open.”

Long-term, concerns were expressed for the future of fancy dress in general, with social distancing measures generally expected to extend towards the latter half of the year, encompassing the key Halloween period.

I placed my Halloween order at the start of the year,” said Shirlee, “so regardless of what happens my Government grant will be paying for that!”

We know people will dress up individually and there will of course be trick or treating at Halloween, but as for larger gatherings and parties, we just don’t know when they will be allowed to start taking place again,” said Sally. “Everything to do with our business is largely based around mass gatherings and parties – we won’t be seeing things quite back to normal until they are allowed again.”

With everyone looking forward to the possibility of a boost from Halloween, it’s clear that party retailers are being pragmatic and realistic, while also being as optimistic as possible as they look to navigate a clear path out of the current situation.

Just look at the community spirit we have seen over the last few weeks,” Kate concluded. “It’s been amazing. And it’s just grown and grown as the weeks have gone on, thanks to the clapping for the carers and other street celebrations and of course VE Day which was just timed perfectly for the big parties. That’s the sort of thing that is going to keep us all going if this continues. People will just have to get used to celebrating at a distance!”

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