Happy Birthday Party Blues

Cynthia Compton -- July 5th, 2017

We have a thriving birthday party business at our shop, both to the joy of our bookkeeper and the local bakery that supplies our cupcakes, but sometimes success is just, well, exhausting. We began offering parties when we moved to this location some 10 years ago, using our back room/event space/Lord-where-do-all-these-boxes-go? space. Over the years, this business has grown to a consistent weekend schedule, often hosting up to five frosting-filled celebrations in a weekend (followed by almost as many glasses of wine and a nap for yours truly).

The formula for successful parties has been tweaked a bit, but is now rote: we offer a two hour, themed party for 12 children, with additional guests (up to 18) for an incremental charge. Parties include pretty much everything except the invitations: crafts, games, some type of dress-up accessories, cupcakes and drinks, and goody bags for the guests, all tied to a theme carefully chosen by the birthday child, usually with a bit of input from the parents (our all-time favorite was the three-year-old boy who insisted on a Band-Aid themed event. “Have boo-boo: will party!” was our response). Parents are asked to confirm the ages and number of guests, identify food allergies, and then just stand back and take pictures (“Please! No, really, we can do this!”) and our staff runs the event. Grandparents and other family members are welcome to attend as guests, and parents of younger party-goers are also offered a chair to hang around if their little reveler is a bit leery of being dropped off (interestingly, the kiddos whose parents stay are usually the criers. Kindergarten teachers are right about the power of the “kiss on the head and confident ‘see you later’ goodbye”).

Parties are a natural extension of our business, and an obvious business builder. Each event welcomes 12 to 15 guests, all of whom are delivered by a parent and often a sibling or two. About half of these families are new to the shop, and at least a third either make purchases or join our email list for events while they visit. Store calendars go out in the guest goody bags, and Friday phone orders for gifts to be wrapped and held for parties that weekend are a nice bonus to the weekly sales. Most available times are booked two to three months in advance, and November spots are gone by midsummer (we don’t offer December parties, because we need the space in both the store and my brain to manage the holidays). We ask for a deposit to hold the time and date, and charge the balance at the end of the party, allowing us to account for the all-too-frequent unexpected extra guests, as RSVP has become a quaint old-fashioned custom, rather like penned thank you notes and curtsies. Some of our additional sales on party days come from families who arrive early for pick-up (and hopefully leave late) but we also include a bounce-back coupon in every guest’s goody bag, which usually brings repeat visitors in a week or so.

For some families, parties at 4 Kids have become annual events, as we move through the 3’s, 4’s, 5’s and 6’s of their children. Others join us after celebrating here with a classmate (we moved through an entire first grade of one local school last year in a blur of princesses and superheroes). We’ve hosted 1st birthdays and a 50th — a grand celebration for a customer headed abroad on a mission trip, who requested that all her guests bring children’s books to donate. We’ve had parties for as many as 25 children (see earlier comment about missing RSVPs) and as few as four guests for one little guy whose ideal birthday involved two hours of playing at an improvised sand table with diggers and dump trucks, with a cupcake-to-go at the end. We’re still finding sand in the corners, but he was very happy.

The real challenge, of course, is figuring out the staffing for all these events. Our younger team members, while full of energy and intimate knowledge of all the words to the latest animated movie theme song, sometimes lack the confidence to redirect a room full of five-year-olds on jellybeans. Our experienced teachers on staff spend their weekdays inside a classroom, and are really not looking for more mayhem at their part-time job, and some of our booksellers are just better suited to the YA shelves than the “yahoo!” of the party room. This leaves…. well, me, and one or two on-again-off-again employees (who I’m SURE screen my calls) when the schedule gets full. Since each birthday party we do generates two or more additional bookings, the scheduling and staffing dilemma escalates like the damages in the board book section: good evidence of volume, but challenging to maintain. So, until a good in-store cloning device is developed (are you listening, Espresso Book Machine friends?) we’ll just keep blowing up balloons and drinking liberal amounts of coffee. Sprinkles, anyone?

 

 

 

 

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, the walker of 5 dogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She is a current board member of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

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