When Julie Roehm joined retailer Party City as its Chief Experience Officer in December, she was tasked with rethinking the customer experience with the brand both online and in stores. Little did she know, a pending pandemic would transform the kind of experiences that consumers have with brands.
One of her first tasks was to map out the customer journey, identify difficult points in the journey and try to come up with solutions to these pain points. This kind of approach prepared the brand to pivot when COVID hit.
“We used COVID as the opportunity to not just survive but actually to thrive,” says Roehm. “So we took a lot of those learnings and implemented Buy Online, Pick Up at Curb, and Same Day Delivery. We were up and running within eight days of deciding to do so in April. It was scrappy, it was totally manual, but it was the right thing to do for the customer because at that point the stores were closed and the only ‘door’ that was open was the Web.”
Roehm was promoted by the end of April, adding CMO to her title and extending her responsibilities to include digital, traditional marketing responsibilities and the call center. This year, she has spearheaded a number of different initiatives that help consumers throw parties in the era of social distancing — from creating party packs to teaming with influencers.
Additionally, in some key markets, Party City has opened its next-generation store concepts, which have a totally different look and include a big balloon counter in the center of the store as the focal point.
The retailer has also hired party planners as employees who work on a B2B level, as well as on a B2C level to support events that can make it even easier to create celebrations and still allow you to follow safe COVID protocols. The pilot program will likely grow next year.
“We are doing a lot of work to promote the experience,” Roehm says. “We are moving away from just selling products to selling the entire party. We want to make it easy for you to plan end to end. Our party planners will help you plan it, they will help you envision it, they will take your Pinterest photo and help put that together for you.”
Roehm brings decades of experience in executive marketing roles for companies including SAP, Walmart, Chrysler and Ford Motor Company to the table. Brand Innovators caught up with her from her home in Westport, CT to discuss innovation, transformation and Halloween.
Socializing and parties have changed this year. How are you adapting?
Clearly COVID has put a crimp on plans and challenged all of our imaginations, no doubt. One of the things we found to have been really helpful about COVID hitting really early, if there was a benefit, is that it gave us a lot of practice and insight about customers and how they were thinking of celebrating everything differently. People continued to have birthdays, anniversaries, and they still wanted to celebrate. So we had to work early on to create some alternatives to the traditional celebration methods.
My son was one of those 2020 high school grads, so we had a ton of those personalized signs in the yard and banners across the house. We had huge balloons everywhere. There was the parade. This kind of celebration carried over into all events – birthdays, anniversaries, showers. We saw parties moving outdoors in small groups or going virtual. To make these easier, we created special kits for customers that leaned into this phenomenon. For birthdays, we created birthday kits that took into account that you would be celebrating over some sort of camera versus being together in the same room.
These special kits included all of the favors, the candy, hats, plates, balloons and came with little flavor bags for them. The party host could order these kits, put them together and drop them off in the driveways of their guests with invitations that would link to a Zoom party. We also offered free downloadable interactive online games to allow guests to play together so that it felt more like a traditional party atmosphere.
Halloween is one of your busiest times of year. What strategies have you employed to drive sales this season?
Since early on in the pandemic, we have been reading reports about a Second Wave, so we prepared for the worst case scenario, which unfortunately it looks like we are going to get. We understood that people wouldn’t be able to “Halloween” in the traditional way, so how can we help them?
We leaned in heavily with the same kind of experiences we had created for birthdays, graduations, etc. For example, Trunk or Treating is popular this year, so we created kits to allow you to easily decorate your trunk. Decor is out of this world, people are really into decor this year. We have fun interactive decor and animatronics are a really great way to amp up the decor. One of the most innovative creations this year is the candy luge or candy chute. This allows you to send candy down a tube from your door to the side walk to allow for social distancing. We have great decorations and “how to” videos for the candy chute creation.
People are also creating individual grab bags, so that when kids come around, they grab individually packaged candy bags, versus all the kids dipping their little hands into the same bucket.
One really interesting idea is the use of plastic Easter eggs that open up so that you can put candy in them and hide them in the backyard. So, if you are hosting a small gathering of just a couple of kids who you feel safe with you could do create a safe “Easter/Halloween egg hunt” in the backyard. We have also seen people buy our suckers and place them in the yard like flowers with balloons on them.
These “alternative” kits have sold out online in huge numbers. We just leaned in to the ability to do things differently.
We have an entire “Joy Squad,” which is an online group of event planners and key influencers who, because of their event planning background, take our products and bring to life some of these wild ideas.They are then putting together itineraries to make it very easy to replicate and they are sharing these on social media. We have leaned into the influencers and the joy squad and letting people who are experts, show and lead the way.
So influencers are playing a key role in your marketing?
As an advertiser it is great to go out and say, “Hey here is a fun way for you to do things.” But we aren’t staffed with 35,000 event specialists, so we are able to leverage influencers and let them use their own creativity and apply it to things that they were naturally doing. Because they are event planners, this is already their sweet spot. They were already doing it, we just asked them to do it with us. It was obviously much more efficient than hiring thousands of event planners.
What other key strategies are you thinking about this Halloween?
Our key strategy is to help people to feel safe celebrating Halloween. And depending on your own tolerance, if you are in a neighborhood and you feel safe trick-or-treating, great, but there are still safety protocols that we are trying to suggest to people. We have a lot of fun COVID masks, in addition to the traditional Halloween masks. We’ve created a new campaign called “You Boo You,” which is kind of a play on, “You do you.” We want people to be able to mix and match and make it their own. Our COVID masks are a creative way to safely celebrate, while being unique. The COVID mask could have a skeleton face on it or Day of the Dead. In this case, you can wear the mask and create the rest of the costume with accessories, so you can create your own unique version of it. But then you can use our makeup on the top half of your face to match what is on the mask. Voila! A safe way to be creative!
We also want to make it safe for people to shop, so we really focused on our “Same Day Delivery” program and our “Buy Online, Pick up in Store”and “Pick up at Curb” programs. In roughly 70 stores we are testing aScan and Go app as well. Halloween at Party City can get very busy, since it is THE place to go for your Halloween goods. As such, the lines can get really long. People waiting outside is a very common thing. Right now, when there are limitations on the number of people that can be in a store at one time, that can be a problem. We now have our associates showing customers how to shop from the store via their app. You simply shop from your app and we’ll put it together. Then, you can just go inside and pick it up instead of having to shop indoors, if that is what you prefer.”
We also created something called the “virtual costume wall” this year. It is geofenced, so if you are near the store and you want to shop our costume wall, which is an entire wall, from floor to ceiling, of costume images. Traditionally, you simply choose the costume you want, give the number and size of that costume to an associate and they would go get the costume for you. With our virtual costume wall, you can do the same thing, except you do it virtually, via the app. You can go on the app, if you are near the store, and shop the virtual wall. It is a 360 degree view of the costume wall that allows you to pan around and zoom in on your preferred costume. You then click on the costume that you want which then opens up a page, much like the product description page, and you can choose your quantity and size. The app sends the request to the back of the store where an associate packages it up for you and brings it up to the front of the store. You can pick it up and pay for it online or at the register.