Sheen’s beloved party shop has been a favourite fixture of our high street for 12 years. We asked owner Adrienne D’Souza about the challenges the first lockdown posed for her business, and her strategy for trading safely in a pandemic. For now, they’re open online for click and collect and local delivery – ready to deliver your birthday balloons, Santa suits and Christmas crackers and table novelties.
How did A Party Palace fare during the previous lockdown? And since then?
We operated click & collect as well as local delivery during Lockdown 1. It was really popular as people want to make a fuss of their birthday people and show them some extra love so they can try & make up for missing the other birthday celebrations such as going out, parties, seeing friends & family etc… We also delivered on behalf of other people as a gift or a surprise which was always fun.
Once shops re-opened, business has varied depending on the restrictions at the time.
Our August was a bit better than usual as more people stayed at home but September & October were wobbly! People are very discombobulated and unsure on a day to day basis what’s coming. Once there are government changes we find it takes a week to ten days for business to settle down. There’s no pattern at all! Speaking now, a day or two after lockdown 2 has begun, it’s super quiet but let’s hope once people acclimatise again things will look up.
What changes did you have to make?
We removed a lot of fixtures, marked out the shop in 2 metre gaps, put a big sneeze screen in, changed the process on entering the shop so we asked all those entering to sanitise their hands, changed our returns policy on wearable items, wrote a mammoth risk assessment and re-trained all the team so that we could all be as safe as possible and more. There really have been so many changes.
What was the biggest challenge?
Re-educating ourselves and our customers. We’re living a life none of us ever imagined.
Working out what is the safest way to trade for both staff and customers & yet still able to keep the business viable is a fine line.
What advice would you give other businesses?
Every business is so different around here and they’re all pros at what they do. We all have differences and quirks. I think as a business community we’ve been great at powering through and each business has shown amazing resilience and we’ve all tried to be as supportive of each other as possible. None of them need my advice. We’re all just doing our best.
What would you do differently? And what was successful?
We’ve spent a fortune on hand sanitizer dispensers that have only lasted for 2 weeks each time! I’d definitely re-think those purchases!
We’ve been buying a lot more birthday basics and ideas to strengthen our celebrating and decorating at home ranges. We’ve brought in ‘Birthdays at Home Bundles’ which have been great. We’ve just worked out what every birthday needs. Not everyone needs that help but some people don’t have the time with all the juggling they’re doing, they just need to buy it all in one go and know that all the birthday bases are covered.
Apart from a bit at Halloween, the fancy dress side of the business has taken a battering as no one has any parties to go to! Balloons and decorations are where it’s at for us at the moment for at home birthdays & Zoom calls.
I’d be doing my team a massive disservice if I didn’t mention them. They have been the biggest success.
They have literally hung in there every step of the way. Humoured every crazy initiative I’ve had, even when they thought I was bonkers, and if things haven’t worked they’ve helped me pivot in a different direction.
Supportive isn’t a strong enough word. Each and every one of them has been incredible for so many reasons. They all have individual strengths that have been completely invaluable.
You have started home deliveries/pickups in April. How big is your online shopping compared to in-store sales?
Again, it fluctuates depending on the restrictions. The more restricted we are, the more we see online sales go up.
In non-pandemic life, people generally come into us because they want to see things in the flesh, be inspired or want someone to take them every step of the way in choosing their colour schemes or themes.
My background is as a bricks and mortar retailer, the website is secondary to that but in these days, essential. I think that will always be people’s preferred way to shop with our brand although online sales have been the strongest ever, our website serves the local community. We don’t tend to post goods out nationally, although maybe that needs a re-think!
What was your Halloween like?
For us, Halloween is our peak season. It was very different this year. Usually, in our industry when Halloween falls on a Saturday, it’s deemed to be ‘the big one’. We were very touched by all the support and the effort that people went to, to try and make it fun for their families but it wasn’t quite what we had in mind at the beginning of January!
We had Halloween bundles at the ready in case we were in lockdown for Halloween. Thankfully for the business we narrowly escaped that so people didn’t have to rely too heavily on pre-made packs, they could come and choose their own decorations.
We found people really compliant, very patient when queueing and happy to be doing something fun.
How can people shop with you in the next 4 weeks?
We’re back to click and collect and local deliveries. At the moment we’re in the shop 9am-12pm and 3:30-4:30pm Monday-Friday & 9-10am also 4-5pm on Saturday. For click and collect customers can phone us during those times and place an order to collect later or obviously they can order online at apartypalace.co.uk.
We also have set slots for local deliveries: Monday- Friday 12-2pm, as well as 10am-1pm on Saturdays. We can’t help if people just turn up so we’re asking that everyone pre-orders. We’re monitoring it and if the hours need a tweak then that’s what we’ll do! Also, if any key workers need us to be more flexible then we’ll do whatever we can to help.
What are your plans for the next 3-6 months?
Survival is my first instinct but when I opened my shop 12 years ago, I had no idea how attached I would become to this community.
Without sounding cringy (as my kids would say), I have watched little people become amazing big people, parents become grandparents, I’ve employed kids I knew since they were in Year 5 on my team and have a huge affection for this area. I’d love to still be here this time next year, helping folk celebrate. I’d love to be the one that helps with those massive parties that are coming at the end of this pandemic BUT that means we need people to shop local and support all of the small businesses. Without that, nothing is certain….
We are literally changing things on a daily basis to keep up with it all. We are constantly updating our website to make it current. We’re working extremely hard on our social media and we have plans to sell through other platforms too. We’re having to really get with it digitally!
We have had a think about how Christmas is going to look for our community this year. Children won’t be able to visit Santa in his grotto before he visits on Christmas Eve so we have tried to bring in a suitable range of red suits to help that situation.
We are expecting a range of fun games for smaller family groups, crackers (hoping for fill your own too) and table novelties. We’re selecting fun, interesting touches that will keep everyone entertained. Also, we are still as passionate about Christmas balloons as we are about birthday balloons so very excited about that range.
I just can’t stress enough how important it is to keep shopping local. So far, people have been amazing but they’ve got to hang in there, now more than ever.
This interview is part of our lockdown series featuring local businesses. Here are the previous posts: