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Virtual Store, Concrete Success


Party & Paper Trade Magazine
Sarah Mandel, Editor
December 2005 Issue


Virtual Store,
Concrete Success

A family-oriented e-retailer hits the information superhighway's fast lane

At www.ThePartyWorks.com and the Web sites it interlinks with -- www.cakeworkscentral.com, www.harrypotter-birthday.com and www.thebabyworks.com -- the party never ends.  Not only can 4,000+ items be perused and purchased any time, day or night, the site's party library provides over 1,000 free ideas with user-friendly titles like "Party Favor Ideas" and "218+ Ways to Use a Cookie Cutter."

E-shoppers can also receive liver support from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, or post a query on the site's extensive message boards.  It's all part of the online retailer's mission to provide their customers value, outstanding service and free party planning and cake decorating guidance.

However, becoming the largest e-retailer of children's cake decorations as well as children's birthday and baby shower supplies didn't happen overnight.  In fact, www.ThePartyWorks.com came about in a rather roundabout way.

"I 'failed' retirement," laughed co-owner Mary Ann Ross, who runs the e-business with husband Earl and daughter Kimberly Lainson.  "I was raised to take care of others, and when the time came for me to do whatever I wanted, I didn't know what that was."

When Mary Ann found herself alphabetizing and labeling every item in her new dream home, Kimberly suggested it was time to start a business together.  "I wanted Kimberly to be able to spend time with her family, and also not take jobs away from people here," Mary Ann emphasized.  E-commerce sounded ideal.

Once the medium was decided, it wasn't difficult to select an area of focus.  "Because I put on elaborate parties for my children's and grandchildren's celebrations, and I had extensive experience creating special events before my first retirement, a party business seemed appropriate," Mary Ann noted.

A Steady Ascent

Their e-doors opened in November 1998 with one order.  That figure doubled in December.  By January, orders increased, primarily as a result of the site's party library, which became as much about marketing as providing information.

"I always believed people would use the Internet to research whatever interest they had.  At the beginning, advertising on the major search engines was very expensive," Mary Ann explained.  "We didn't have that kind of money, and I never believed those ads worked.  I thought free content was the answer, and we started catering to the search engines and building our library."

Today, we enjoy high search engine placements at a nominal cost.  Although I was ridiculed for years, I am delighted my free content idea was the answers," commented Mary Ann.  "As a result of our approach, we survived the 2001 e-commerce dip and increased our sales by a high percentage every year since."

Maintaing a high search engine ranking, then, is a priority.  "Every few months, I do a hands-on analysis of our ranking on the top five search engines, and I'll occasionally include smaller search engines just to see what's happening," Mary Ann remarked.  "I don't rely on programs that tell you your ratings, I've found them unreliable."

Challenges and Solutions

Some of their growing pains were literal, since they involved space.  After starting in a spare room in the Ross' home, the enterprise moved to a small outbuilding on their rural property, and then to a few bays in Earl's dream garage/shop.  Eventually, it took over the entire building.

Another 1,500 sq. ft. was added in 2001, and they doubled their space in two new locations in both 2003 and 2004.  Mary Ann describes this 7,200-square-foot building as able to "take us through several setps of growth."  Fortunately, there's also room for two more buildings.

Other challenges revolved around product and pricing.  "In the beginning, we negotiated a deal with a Spokane Party City.  In order not to deplete their stock, we made daily trips there, 50 miles from our home," Mary Ann said.

As well, major manufacturers were reluctant to do buiness with them because the Internet was no new.  Slowly, "we got the majors one-by-one, and as our business grew, so did our discounts," Mary Ann stated.


Maintaining and keeping the Web site current is a constant concern.  Knowing they needed a complete redesign after the first few years, Mary Ann found a couple just getting into Web design, and became their first client.

"Kimberly worked with them, and they taught her programming to expand her knowledge and allow her complete control.  Our new design cost us a tenth of what our competitors were paying," Mary Ann noted.  "Programmers were earning $135 an hour, and at one time one of our competitors had 22 programmers working for them.  We had two programmers, at $30 and $15 an hour respectively, plus our daughter.  The new design brought us to the forefront in appeal and customer navigation."

Finally, dealing with the enormous amount of e-mails requesting free advice -- as well as maintaining live support -- were challenges that evolved into their competitve advantages, Mary Ann explained.  "Even in the beginning, we received over 100 e-mails a day.  Kim and I spent many hours answering each one."

While many of these answers became party plans, their days would often begin at 3:30 a.m. and not end until early eveing.  On the edge of burning out, they hired a neighbor to be their customer service manager, which she remains today.  "We were concerned we wouldn't find anyone who would treat our customers like family.  We also now have three ladies, all in different states, who handle (the e-mailed) questions."

Finding Its Niche

Like many retailers, www.ThePartyWorks.com honed its offerings -- and its identity -- to focus on its most profitable merchandise categories.  "At first we carried adult birthday and anniversary items as well as holiday merchandise.  Specialty designs often sat on the shelf, and research proved that people usually purchased them at grocery stores or party shops, or just used solid colors.  As well, after shelving holiday designs for a year, styles changed," Mary Ann commented.

They soon realized kids parties and cake decorations were a "great fit," Mary Ann emphasized.  "Working with customers by phone and e-mail, it became apparent that children dictated, and parents tried to accommodate.  We added cake decorations because they allow working moms and dads to make and decorate cakes easily and are a great money-saving family activity."

As a result, they now see themselves as providers of solutions for parents "who are scared to death of having eight kids in their living room waiting to be entertained," Mary Ann remarked.

Setting Its Sites

The other Web sites were added to increase their exposure and search engine listings.  Because of the areas The PartyWorks specializes in, they were limited in the Web sites with which they could partner.

In 1999, Kimberly developed www.cakeworkscentral.com, which allowed them to work with food and cooking websites.  "When Harry Potter explored, she developed www.harrypotter-birthday.com with the blessing of the attorney who handled Harry Potter licensing," Mary Ann related.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann continued, www.thebabyworks.com allows us to promote our baby showers, first and toddler birthdays and children's parties.  All of them link to the main site, and customers placing orders use a single online shopping cart, although they may not realize it.

A clear division of labor has evolved in the self-financed, family-owned and -operated business.  Quite simply, "my husband is the financial genius and my daughter the technical and search engine guru," Mary Ann described.  "I am never without ideas to keep our Website a step head.  I drive Earl and Kim NUTS!"

They employ seven full-timers and 10 part-timers, five of the latter working from home, either on the site itself or answering e-visitor questions.  "We are truly a remarkable team that works efficiently and quickly and shares a kindness and love among each other," Mary Ann said.  "Our team includes all ages, from after-school teenagers to retirees.  We are definitely blessed!"

Words of Wisdom

As seminar presentaters at several Transworld Halloween, Costume & Party Shows in Chicago, Mary Ann is used to hearing the e-concerns of brick-and-mortar party stores.  "The first thing we suggest is to reconize that storefront is one business and the e-commerce completely separate.  Many party stores pay a lot to have sites designed, and then stop promoting them because of increased labor, additional product inventories, a shipping area, customer service representatives and advertising costs."

To that end, she recommends that storefronts come up with a separate e-commerce business plan.  "We tell people that all the fun and excitement is in the start-up of a new business and creating a Web site.  However, if you don't promote it, no one knows you exist, and you end up wasting your investment and trashing your dreams!"


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