By Suzy Strutner, managing editor at Grow Wire
⏰ 5-minute read
Costume company Elope, Inc. continues to grow after 25 years in business, changing its business model while staying true to its original customer base.
The retailer added B2C to its business model about seven years ago. And when it started managing B2C e-commerce in-house, big shifts resulted.
Elope relies heavily on customer feedback. They’ve raised a group of “fans” (not “consumers”) that includes a sizzling-hot market segment: cosplayers.
Elope, Inc. is built on happiness. The costume retailer—whose name is an acronym for “Everybody is laughing on planet Earth”—designs and distributes whimsical hats, glasses and accessories from a Colorado headquarters where everyone seems to be having a good time.
Elope sells its wares wholesale to brick-and-mortar stores and directly to consumers via its website and marketplaces like Amazon and Walmart.com. It counts about 5,000 retailers as customers and has consistently grown throughout 25 years of continuous change in the Halloween industry.
Elope’s quarter-century of success (and counting) is all about evolving ... while staying true to its roots. It makes a case for growing a “fanbase” rather than a “consumer base” and believing that quite often, less is more.
Business Analyst Elisa Rustenbach and Customer Service Specialist Sarah Nejtek detail Elope’s origin and mission.
Directly to (costumed) consumers
Kevin Johnson started Elope with his brother Keith in 1993 as a purveyor of silly hats. (The brothers originally developed dozens of costume products, Johnson said, but in an early batch, hats sold best and “were the one product we loved.”)
The brand has marked oodles of milestones since: It moved out of houses and into a warehouse, got in with big-time retailers and became a go-to for the lucrative cosplay community. A particularly gangbusters milestone from recent history is Elope’s expansion from solely B2B sales to include B2C. (Today, marketplaces like Amazon comprise one-third of its business. Just five years ago, that number was zero.)
Elope sells via its company website and online marketplaces like Amazon. (credit: elope.com)
It’s no secret brick-and-mortar retail is on the decline. A few years ago, some of Elope’s main customers, including Toys “R” Us, began either consolidating or going out of business. It became clear that Elope could no longer rely on B2B wholesale as its bread and butter.
“That gave us the fire we needed to supplement that lost business with direct-to-consumer [sales],” said Johnson.
He started allowing partners to sell Elope products in marketplaces like Amazon and eBay. Sales increased, and Elope enjoyed direct exposure to its end customers, who gave valuable feedback about what they liked and didn’t like.
Fans, not consumers
Elope places high value on its consumers, who include cosplayers, Halloween revelers and folks simply looking for cat ears to wear grocery shopping.
These consumers are more accurately described as a fanhood, said “marketer of joy” Becca Sickbert. They’re fans of Elope, sure, but they’re also digitally-savvy devotees of the franchises that Elope supports, like Harry Potter.
As such, Elope get lots of customer feedback.
“Fans tell us what they want,” Sickbert said. They do so in “Facebook messages, direct emails, comments on Amazon, tweets, comments on our site, DMs on Instagram … I’ve even gotten voicemails. We don’t care how we get feedback, because it’s so precious. We will never turn it down.”
Rustenbach and Nejtek explain how fostering community among Elope’s fan base contributes to the company’s wins.
Most of the time, feedback is positive: Fans recently raved about the secret wand pocket sewn into Elope’s Newt Scarmander coat, which was designed in-house.
Occasionally, it’s negative: Sickbert said Harry Potter fans sometimes scold Elope for selling Ravenclaw garb that’s blue and silver instead of blue and gold. (The former color scheme appears in the Harry Potter movies, while the books describe the latter. Elope must use the movie’s colors, because its Harry Potter costumes are licensed through Warner Brothers.)
“The best I can do is commiserate [with the fans], because I’ve read every book at least twice myself, and I get where they’re coming from,” Sickbert said. “But we must stay true to how that property is presented in the film.”
Many “Elopians” are franchise fanatics or cosplayers themselves, she added. They’re an active part of the community they serve, a trait that’s common among successful companies.
Roots over resellers
Even after adding a direct-to-consumer sales channel, Elope wanted to maintain its relationships with physical retailers, from big-box stores like Halloween Express to mom-and-pop costume shops. So it made some changes.
The first was instating a minimum advertised pricing (MAP) policy, which established that all Elope resellers had to list items for the same price. Each Amazon seller had to offer Elope’s T-rex hat, for example, for the same $30.95 that it was sold in stores.
The MAP’s main goal is to prevent online distributors from stealing store traffic with ultra-low prices, Johnson said. In extreme cases, online distributors sell items for just a few cents more than their wholesale value.
“The MAP protects a product’s price for all retailers, both online and brick-and-mortar,” he said. “Our brick-and-mortar stores … got us to where we are today, so we’re trying do everything we can to protect them.”
Retailers like Halloween Express carry Elope in-store and on their websites. (credit: Halloweenexpress.com)
However, Elope ran into a problem while trying to enforce its MAP.
“We saw that there was no way to police the internet,” Johnson said. “It’s so vast. There were too many customers to police—hundreds of customers were selling Elope products online seven or eight years ago. So we started cutting down the number of people we sold to.”
Few customers actually abided by the MAP, paid on time and were “great customers,” Johnson said. It was difficult, but Elope let them go. Now, “very few partners” sell Elope products online, and the company itself owns 90 percent of all its goods sold on marketplaces.
Surprisingly, these crackdowns produced positive results from the get-go, Johnson said.
“We sold more pieces at MAP pricing, which was really counterintuitive for me,” he said. “I thought for sure sales would drop. And when we took over our Amazon business from our trusted partners … we actually improved our sales on Amazon by 150 percent.”
The secret, he concluded, was the attention and care that came with tending the business in-house. Resellers may have had more experience with e-commerce than Elope, but their efforts to improve Elope’s e-commerce business were half-hearted because they worked with many other clients. They were no match for the force of a concentrated, singular effort by Elope’s e-commerce team.
Many smaller retailers use third-party listing services to help them sell on marketplaces, Johnson said. He recommends that as soon as retailers surpass $1 million in monthly marketplace revenue, they bring operations in-house.
A fun, fan-fueled future
In the coming months, Elope is angling to strengthen the bond with its audience.
Years after the B2C change, “our business is almost transforming again,” Johnson said. “We’re becoming like an entertainment company because of the content we’re putting out.”
Elope is active on social media, posting both pretty photos of its products and videos suggesting ways to style them. It has partnerships with influential cosplayers and frequently responds to consumer comments. Soon, it’ll debut a reality-style series on its YouTube channel that follows costume designers to celebrations like Comic-Con and music festivals as they teach fans how to make costume pieces.
Elope is boosting the entertainment value of its social posts. (credit: Instagram/elope.inc)
Johnson says that in the past, his business would evolve every five years or so. Now, it’s more like every five months, sometimes fewer.
All this change might frighten some entrepreneurs. But Johnson’s outlook is common of Elopians, who approach challenges with playfulness.
“It’s kind of exciting, because right now we’re at a crossroads where what you did yesterday isn’t going to be done at all tomorrow,” Johnson said. “And that’s fun, because you’re making it up as you go along.”