Celebrating the spooky season with Party City

Retail Gets Real episode 287: Merchandising VP and “Halloween queen” Odette Welling on preparing for the retailer’s biggest season
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor
October 25, 2022

Halloween kicks off pretty early at Party City. In fact, Vice President of Merchandising Odette Welling says her team begins planning for one of the retailer’s busiest seasons more than a year in advance.

“We plan over a year and a half in advance just from a product assortment standpoint. It all starts with that vision and that strategy, and then it trickles in from there,” she says on this week’s episode of Retail Gets Real.

Welling is “one of the Halloween Queens” at Party City and guides the strategy and vision for that department. “Halloween is clearly one of our biggest seasons at Party City,” she says. “I have some other responsibilities beyond that, but I’m really focused on Halloween.”

Halloween 2022

Learn more about the latest insights and trends for Halloween this year.

The company operates two brands: Party City and the Halloween City popup stores, which Welling describes as “our scarier, sexier, edgier cousin.” Halloween City merchandise is different than what’s in Party City stores. “That has been really fun because it caters to that more adult customer,” she says.

Adults getting into the Halloween spirit is a major driver of consumer trends around the holiday, Welling said. “One of the biggest shifts has been into our adult side of the business. Halloween used to be this kid-focused holiday, and it's still a very much is. But adults want a piece of it, too,” she says.

“Halloween is one of those holidays you can kind of just let loose, so we're seeing a bigger business shift into our adult side. They're really just looking for that gorier, edgier, maybe a little sexier, costuming and décor.”

This Halloween, Welling says the most popular costumes for adults at Party City include Michael Myers, Ghostface and anything “Top Gun” related. For kids, “it's all about the littles. It's Bluey and Bingo and our Light-Up Disney Princesses.” “Star Wars” themed costumes are popular with slightly older kids. “Disney+ content has been streaming the last couple of years, and I think parents who are obsessed with ‘Star Wars’ are bringing their little ones on the journey.”

Consumers are also calling for more Halloween décor including large items such as inflatable and animatronic items. “The buzz starts in that June/July timeframe for who has the best animatronics of the season. And this is a space where we haven't had a lot of credibility because our assortment has just paled in comparison,” she says. “Coming out this year, we have an amazing assortment.”

So far, the demand and the response has been positive, Welling says. “We had a ton of awesome feedback from our customers just saying that our assortment was one of the best this year and that's been fun,” she says. “It ties back to that customer wanting the drama and the theater, and animatronic is the best way to do that.”

Listen to the full podcast to hear more consumer trends this Halloween, what customers are looking for and how they’re buying, plus how Welling will be celebrating Halloween and what costumes (yes, plural) she’s prepping.

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Episode transcript, edited for clarity

Kris Stewart:        Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail's most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I'm Kris Stewart, stepping in today for Bill Thorne, and on this episode, we're talking all about Halloween with Odette Welling, vice president of merchandising at Party City. We'll find out more about the company's Halloween strategy, what customers are looking for this year, and what it's like to lead all things Halloween for Party City. Odette Welling, welcome to Retail Gets Real.

Odette Welling:        Well, thank you Kris. I'm so excited to be here.

Kris Stewart:        I'm so excited to have you here. Let's get started. I want to hear all about your job at Party City. How did you end up with this amazing sounding job?

Odette Welling:        <laugh> Oh man, I feel like I got really lucky. I have the best job in retail — or one of the best ones, I should say. I came from 7-Eleven to Party City. One of my mentors, Sean Thompson, had come over to Party City and invited me to check it out. I remember going for my interview and just thinking, I really want to be a part of this. We are changing, we are growing, we are taking a brand-new approach and I couldn't help myself. So, I ended up at Party City.

Kris Stewart:        How did your background at 7-Eleven translate into your work at Party City?

Odette Welling:        That's a great question. At 7-Eleven, I held about four to five different mini careers, I'll say. I was there for just over 12 years, and I learned how to be an entrepreneur at 7-Eleven. It's a franchise model and you can't just cookie-cutter everything. You can't just tell a franchisee what to do. You really have to understand why and how it impacts the customer and influence them to do so. Taking that entrepreneurial spirit, keeping that mentality and mindset, and bringing it to Party City is really what has made me successful.

Kris Stewart:        What does it mean to be the vice president of merchandising for Party City? What does your day look like?

Odette Welling:        Oh man, so I'm also one of the Halloween queens. Halloween is clearly one of our biggest seasons at Party City. I have some other responsibilities beyond that, but really focused on Halloween. I guess in a nutshell, it's just guiding the strategy and the vision for the department. But really my job is blocking and tackling for my team, moving those obstacles, getting them out of the way, because my team is incredibly talented, and they just need to be able to be unleashed to do their thing. 

Kris Stewart:        That's interesting. NRF has a Halloween survey, and it shows that people are really excited, they're ready to shop. We're seeing that the planned total spending is like $10.6 billion. I presume that you are also seeing a lot of this excitement. What kind of consumer trends are you all seeing at Party City?

Odette Welling:        Yeah, one of the biggest shifts that we've seen is into the adult side of the business. Halloween used to be this kid-focused/concentric holiday and it still very much is, but adults want a piece of it too. Over the last couple of years, with everything that adults have been dealing with, Halloween is one of those holidays you can just let loose. So, we're seeing a bigger business shift into our adult side and they're really looking for that gorier, edgier, maybe a little sexier, costume and décor, which has been really fun to see.

Kris Stewart:        Do you see a lot of differences in the way that consumers are planning to celebrate, with or without children?

Odette Welling:        It's almost both. We're seeing the traditional — mom is getting the costumes for the kids. She's shopping a little bit early to make sure she has the costume her kids want. Décor is a bigger part of our business, more than ever this year. I really think it's that desire to create that drama, that theater, and be the best house on the block. 

Kris Stewart:        Yeah.

Odette Welling:        During COVID we really got used to decorating and celebrating at home, and that trend has very much continued. 

Kris Stewart:         Yeah. 

Odette Welling:        Beyond that, it's how can I celebrate with my adult friends? We're seeing the baskets look a little different this year. Lots of group family costumes paired with the more clearly adult costumes.

Kris Stewart:        What are the top costumes that you're seeing this year? What are people gravitating toward?

Odette Welling:        Great question. For kids it's all about the littles. It's Bluey and Bingo and our light-up Disney Princess. It's been so great. Then, a little bit older kids — boys, it's Darth Vader. Disney+ content has been streaming the last couple years and I think parents who are obsessed with “Star Wars” are bringing their little ones on the journey. So, Darth Vader — for girls, it's Addison Alien Zombies 3 movie, very popular this year. Then for our adults, it's very much horror. So, Michael Myers, Ghost Face, or it's top movies like “Top Gun.” “Top Gun” is by far one of our best costumes and we see a lot of DIY after that.

Kris Stewart:        So, are you seeing people are buying parts of a costume to try to cobble together their own little DIY version of something?

Odette Welling:        Yeah, we see that in our teens and our adults. It's like, I want to dress like a group with my friends, but I want to look very different. Whether that's a wig or an accessory, I want to be special and unique in my own way, but also be a group.

Kris Stewart:        Are the group costumes following those same trends, where you'll get people dressing up as a group from this movie or from this TV show?

Odette Welling:        It varies, and this is the most exciting part because a lot of creativity happens here. Fairy is a top group costume. A lot of couple’s costumes. So, something we're calling punk proposal, which is like Travis Barker, Courtney Kardashian, Machine Gun Kelly, Megan Fox — it's that punk look with all the special effects tattoos. Just a lot of creativity there.

Kris Stewart:        Excellent. Okay, what about pet costumes? Does Party City have a pet costume section and is it a big seller for y'all?

Odette Welling:        Yes, it is. Pet has grown 200% year-over-year. I know y'all are seeing some big growth— 

Kris Stewart:        Year-over-year, that’s crazy.

Odette Welling:        I know, it’s crazy. Y’all are seeing the same growth because we use NRF as well. But top pet costumes, we’re seeing pet parents will buy two. The first one is usually the cutesy Instagrammable moment — think Buzzy Pumpkin or Panda Bear. Then the second one is a little bit more cheeky and fun. Chucky <laugh> is our top licensed pet costume — with the little arms in the front, so when the dog walks with the knife, it’s amazing.

Kris Stewart:        How charming <laugh>.

Odette Welling:        Yeah. We've expanded it into pet toys, which is more for the picture —

Kris Stewart:        Mm-hmm <affirmative> 

Odette Welling:        — less for the actual toy. So that's been fun.

Kris Stewart:        I was just wondering, you said people are buying multiple costumes for pets, are people doing that for their kids too? Are they buying multiple costumes? I know that I've had some friends with younger kids who buy multiple because they're not sure which one the child is going to decide upon.

Odette Welling:        Yeah. We've introduced some new price points this year. We have a $15 superhero program. 

Kris Stewart:        Mm-hmm <affirmative>

Odette Welling:        We're seeing a higher attachment rate with the $15 costume to a more expensive costume. In my own experience, I have a four-year-old and he's done all of these events. So we have a $15 superhero which is, go run in that, run your race or do your event, it doesn't matter if it gets ruined. Then he has his costume for the day of.

Kris Stewart:        That's excellent. You mentioned décor. Party City has started carrying more Halloween-type décor. Are you getting into the animatronics, the big scary creepy things?

Odette Welling:        Yes. <laugh> Animatronics is so fun, and this business is super unique because it's the collector … and it starts early. The buzz starts in that June/July time frame for who has the best animatronics of this season. This is a space where we haven't had a lot of credibility because our assortment has paled in comparison. Coming out this year, we have an amazing assortment. We had a ton of awesome feedback from our customers saying that our assortment was one of the best this year. That's been fun. It ties back to that customer wanting the drama and the theater, and animatronic is the best way to do that.

Kris Stewart:        Mm-hmm <affirmative> 

Odette Welling:        You can almost collect them. Our top seller is Cackles the clown. He's 12 feet. Absolutely terrifying. So fun <laugh>. Then, Michael Myers has been a top seller for a couple of years now. 

Kris Stewart:        Is he also inflatable?

Odette Welling:        Not inflatable. He's just an animatronic. He moves. He breathes really heavy. <laugh>

Kris Stewart:        Terrifying. You said that June/July customers were already thinking about and talking about it. So, you all didn't already have your inventory on the floor in June or July, did you?

Odette Welling:        We did not. We tried to strategically talk about it online — it's coming soon. Trying to build that buzz for 2023. We have an even better plan that I'm very excited about because really that's where you get your credibility with that group. They're trying, the collector anyways, is trying to survey the lay of the land. Where are they going to spend their money this year? You want to impress them and just have some really unique pieces. This year we had a zombie raccoon popping out of a trash can. <laugh> If you would have asked me, is this thing going to sell? I'd be like, oh, I don’t know. But one of our top sellers—

Kris Stewart:        Trash Panda. 

Odette Welling:        Trash Panda, that's right. 

Kris Stewart:        What does it look like for Party City to be ramping up for Halloween? I mean, do you guys increase your staffing? Do you start — I mean how far in advance are you planning? Do you have anything special going on?

Odette Welling:        We plan — oh my goodness — over a year and a half in advance, just from a product assortment standpoint. It all starts with that vision and that strategy, then it trickles in from there. Our customers are so heavily influenced by social media and celebrity, and my team are really experts at combing through it, picking out the best of the best and getting that in front of the customer. Then separately, we operate two brands. So, we have Party City and then we have Halloween City, which is our pop-up stores. 

Kris Stewart:        OK. 

Odette Welling:        They are our scarier, sexier, edgier cousin, if you will. The merchandise is totally different than a Party City store, and that has been really fun because that caters to that more adult customer. But to your earlier question, it's all about staffing. We hire 20,000 seasonal employees. We just hit that mark. Which is great and it's a whirlwind. We have all these new faces joining the party, which we love. But it's quite the ramp-up to get everyone ready to service our customers in the season.

Kris Stewart:        Are the Halloween pop — you said it’s Halloween City, are they always located in the same places year after year, so customers know, OK it's August, it's September, I know this is going to be popping up here soon?

Odette Welling:        Ideally that's what we like to do, repeat same store centers. Part of that model is competition of real estate, so that's our goal always. We love same store centers. We love to have a Party City next to a Halloween City. It just increases the total brand awareness. 

Kris Stewart:        Mm-hmm <affirmative> 

Odette Welling:        We've been trying some things this year, which I'm really excited about. We've put our Halloween City graphics package, experience and product inside of our Party City stores — 

Kris Stewart:        OK. 

Odette Welling:     — that are much larger. Seeing how our Party City customer reacts to the different product. How far can we push scary, sexy, edgier, gory in a Party City store? We've had a tremendous amount of learnings this year, just from that.

Kris Stewart:        You also have been doing some really fun promotions this year. I saw a couple of months ago the skeleton hunt that was going on. 

Odette Welling:        Yeah, our Yorrik scavenger hunt. Yes, Yorrik is our five-foot posable skeleton, our Halloween mascot. We hid a hundred Yorriks throughout America's most spookiest cities with a QR code. 

Kris Stewart:        OK.

Odette Welling:        Customers could find Yorrik, scan the QR code and then be entered in for prizes. You could participate as well online if you couldn't get to one of the haunted cities. But it was a really fun promotion.

Kris Stewart:        I feel like I found out about the promotion as it was ending, and I was so disappointed.

Odette Welling:        <laugh> Well we have plenty of Yorriks in store. You know, we bought enough for every home in America.

Kris Stewart:        <laugh> Everyone needs at least one Yorrik.

Odette Welling:        Exactly. We have a Goldie this year too, Yorrik's best pal. It's a gold skeleton.

Kris Stewart:        Oh, that's nice. Have you all seen any change in shopping behaviors around the holidays? Are you seeing a lot more people engaging in online shopping or in buy online, pickup in store, things like that?

Odette Welling:        Yeah, that's a good question. We look at it as a digitally originated sale and it's fulfilled two ways. It's either fulfilled [by] buy online, pickup in store, so BOPIS like you said, or delivered to home — much bigger shift, BOPIS. When you think about our customers and their time, it's like too many kids, too little money, not very much time. 

Kris Stewart:        Yeah.

Odette Welling:         BOPIS is really convenient. We're going back to the office, we’ve got to pick things up now on the way home, we can't just pop out midday. So definitely seeing a shift in buying habits there.

Kris Stewart:        Was that a big change for Party City, to adjust to that change in consumer behavior?

Odette Welling:        We made that adjustment right as the pandemic hit. It's just been more of a fine tuning of that process. We want to make it easy for the customer. If they buy online to pick up in store or curbside, we want to make sure we have their product, what they're looking for. We're just more refining and fine-tuning the process, and it's just ramping up. The last 10 days are really all about in-store sales rather than online.

Kris Stewart:        Yeah, of course. So, Odette, how do you celebrate Halloween?

Odette Welling:        Every way possible. <laugh> No surprise that it's my family's favorite holiday, but I really just think it goes back to the traditions that you create with your family. We love to decorate. We're a September 1st crew, outside is decorated, inside is decorated. We do the traditional trunk or treat, trick or treat, and then I throw a Halloween party for my team, which is coming up soon. We always have a fun theme around it.

Kris Stewart:        Great. What's this year's theme?

Odette Welling:        Total transformation, so you have to show up looking completely unlike yourself.

Kris Stewart:        Excellent. 

Odette Welling:        Yes. Yes.

Kris Stewart:        That's great. What do you love about your job in terms of the Halloween season?

Odette Welling:        It is totally unpredictable <laugh> but it's one of those nail biters. I love that we can create something completely unique and refreshed year over year. I think that's a challenge in its own. It's the type of role that you have to have a lot of conviction, stay the course and that you put the best assortment you could in front of the customer — if you build it, they will come. Because the majority of the sales come in those last two weeks, those last 10 days. It's a nail biter but it's exciting.

Kris Stewart:        It must be a challenge to make sure that you've got all of the inventory that you're going to want for those last two weeks.

Odette Welling:        Yeah. To really think about that inventory flow — décor starts earlier, then it goes into license and then it's all about the DIY. It is quite the logistical challenge for sure, from a planning perspective.

Kris Stewart:        That sounds very exciting.

Odette Welling:        <laugh> It is.

Kris Stewart:        What excites you about the future of retail?

Odette Welling:        Oh, the constant innovation and evolution of product. 

Kris Stewart:         Mm-hmm <affirmative>

Odette Welling:        And then, I think the future is female. I look at my team and they are just an incredible group of women who are constantly disrupting the industry. I look at them and I see incredible shining stars. I can't wait to see what they do at Party City and then beyond.

Kris Stewart:        That's great. One more question, what's your best piece of career advice?

Odette Welling:        Oh, that's a good one. My best piece of career advice, it's to stay authentically you. 

Kris Stewart:        Mm-hmm. <affirmative> 

Odette Welling:        As you go through your career— I think it's easy to try to replicate what worked for other people or their style or the way they approach things. But I think as much as you can hold on to doing it your way, put your own little twist on it. I think the better off you'll be, the more genuine you'll come across and the better leader you'll be.

Kris Stewart:        Well, speaking of genuine, what are you dressing as for Halloween this year?

Odette Welling:        Oh, I have a couple of costumes. For total transformation it's going to be — don't tell my team, this is a surprise. I'm going to be Chucky. I have red hair so I'm going to put like the special effects, slashes, on my face. <laugh> For the family group costume, we're a Marvel crew so I'm going to be Scarlet Witch.

Kris Stewart:        Nice.

Odette Welling:        Yeah.

Kris Stewart:        Excellent. Keep that power in check. 

Odette Welling:        That's right. <laugh>

Kris Stewart:        Well, Odette Welling, it has been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for joining us today.

Odette Welling:        Well, thank you Kris. I appreciate it.

Kris Stewart:        And thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at retailgetsreal.com. I'm Kris Stewart and this is Retail Gets Real. Thanks for listening.

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