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Halloween retailer unmasks her party supply experiences

By Cindy Atoji Keene
If Charlie Sheen had his meltdown last autumn instead of publically beginning to crash and burn later in the spring, the actor’s haggard face might have been Halloween 2010’s hottest mask, said iParty’s Dorice Dionne. Instead, trick-or-treaters last year had to settle for Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and characters from the hit TV show, Jersey Shore.

And this year’s big costume? Although Angry Birds, zombies, and pirates are expected to be hot, the real frontrunner hasn’t hit yet, said Dionne, head of marketing and merchandising for the Dedham-based party retail chain. “Popular culture can take over, latch on, and push a costume to the forefront,” said Dionne, who says that the “in” mask is usually very celebrity-driven. “When Sarah Palin caught on a few years back, we weren’t expecting that, and needed to quickly find her eyeglasses and the right kind of wig to copy her trademark hairdo.”

Staying on top of customer demand is nothing new to Dionne, who remembers her first year of business, when the founding West Roxbury store ran out of almost every Halloween costume in the last two days before Oct. 31. “I ran over to a local fabric store, bought every Halloween item they had and resold it all,” said Dionne, who also turned the pipe cleaners and plain headbands into devils and cats headpieces. “We never run out of Halloween these days but we still try to do whatever we have to do to make shoppers happy.”

Dionne has been in the business for over 20 years, long enough to remember when party supplies – today everything from flying toys, grass hula skirts, whoopie cushions, and candy-filled squirt guns – were merely commodities such as cups, plates, and table covers, sold mainly by janitorial supply companies. “I wanted to make it fun to shop for a party,” said Dionne, who tackled several business ventures with business partner/husband Sal Perisano, before circling back a decade ago to their current retailing operation, which today has roughly 52 stores, each stocked with over 20,000 items.

Q: Running a retail business takes a lot of trial and error. What's an example of a learning experience that you've had throughout the years?
A: At three o’clock in the morning, one of our managers got a call from the police. A 12-foot inflatable pumpkin, a decoration on the roof of our Saugus store, had managed to free itself and make its way across Route 1. Sounds like a B monster movie. We got a big fine for that one. That's just one of the many unforgettable stories I can tell.

Q: How do you get the store ready for Halloween, one of your biggest seasons?
A: Halloween preparations start as early as August. The stores have a very detailed layout of product display. All the shelving fixtures, which are normally 4-5 feet, go up to 8 feet, and we compress and move the baby, wedding, and gift wrap sections to the back of the store. Halloween will take over the first 1/3 of the store, so when the customer walks into the store, they know we’re in the business of Halloween.

Q: You’re charged with making sure stores and website have the costumes that people want. When does costume-planning start?
A: I’ve already started going to New York showrooms and previewing the first line of 2012 costume samples. This is just the beginning. For four days in December, the major Halloween costume companies show their products in a major trade show located between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. I’ll be leaping over snowdrifts to run to meetings, navigating packed hallways and elevators, talking with vendors and looking at masks and accessories. The whole industry is there, trying to decide what the big sellers will be, with final orders put in by February.

Q: What’s the latest party that you personally have had?
A: I spend so much of my time immersed in everybody else's parties that I'm embarrassed to say that my big bang-up galas happened over ten years ago – you know, those parties where you move the furniture out of a two-bedroom apartment and move in the bistro tables with umbrellas and hope for the best.

Q: What do you plan to be this Halloween?
A: The last costume I made was called “flotsam and jetsam.” I took a fishnet and attached beer cans, flip flops, and other assorted items you might find at the bottom of the ocean. I tend to dress up in very unflattering attire, although I’m not sure why.

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