When one thinks of a stereotypical momand-pop shop, it might conjure up images of a storefront in an old neighborhood of an even older city. When you walk in, there are members of various generations of the family minding the shop, perhaps ranging from grandma running the cash register to a grandchild — or even great grandchild — coming in after school to stock shelves and tidy up. Arlene’s Costumes in Rochester, New York, isn’t unlike that notion of an old-school retail establishment. Its namesake, Arlene Stephens, who started the costume shop with her mother Mildred “Molly” Stephens back in 1956, is still a big part of the operation. Arlene’s business partner is her sister, Donna White. Their staff is made up almost entirely of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews. Arlene’s didn’t just grow as a retail and rental costume business over the years — there are currently two locations — it has also grown in other ways, most notably over the past decade-plus in the way it has created a presence well beyond the brickand-mortars’ physical boundaries.
The business doesn’t just have a website for the sake of having a website. The online presence includes a full ecommerce operation through its eye-pleasing, welldesigned website, not to mention Arlene’s has a strong social media following that’s growing quickly. Terry Sinopoli, granddaughter of White and great-niece of Stephens, handles social, ecommerce and marketing. “We’ve been doing ecommerce for about 10 or 12 years, but we just redid our website,” Sinopoli said. “We started pushing social media a few years ago and that’s really started to take off, and the social media helps tie right in with the website. “A big thing for our website is the inquiries page. We get a lot of inquiries through that. A lot of them don’t even come from social media — though we do get a number of people from Facebook — it’s just someone who was online searching for a costume or theatrical makeup or whatever.” Arlene’s Costumes’ social media following is growing rapidly. At press time, its Facebook page had more than 3,600 followers, more than 2,300 on Twitter and nearly 2,600 on Instagram. “Social media is really about reaching out,” Sinopoli said. “It gives us a direct link to our customers.”
At Arlene’s, being part of community is simply the way business is done. That includes patronizing other Rochester-area businesses whenever possible. “When we redid our website, we interviewed a lot of companies and we went with a local one (Scriptable Solutions),” Sinopoli said. “We prefer to keep our business local as much as we can. We get our bags locally; we get some of our balloons local.” Shopping local is just one small part of that philosophy, however. Arlene’s participates in or sponsors numerous events and fundraisers, including the popular Ugly Disco, a ‘70s-era-costume dance party that raises money for the Golisano Children’s Hospital. “We also participate with a window washers group that come dressed as superheroes when they go the children’s hospital,” Sinopoli said. Arlene’s Costumes has sponsored or worked with several other organizations, including the Rochester City Ballet. Sinopoli feels deep involvement should be limited to a handful of organizations, however. “You really need to select a few organizations that are your bread and butter,” she said. “We get a lot of requests; I mean, we get requests every week. For the most part, we do try to do something when somebody asks. … People seem to appreciate that we are involved. I think it brings credibility.”
Arlene’s Costumes has two retail locations, but Sinopoli calls its rental operation the “backbone” of the business. “We have thousands of costumes,” she said. “They are all very high-quality and theatrical costumes. … We have a very full Santa (collection). We’ve got stuff for the Easter bunny season and all those holidays that pop up throughout the year, like St. Patrick’s Day. “People will rent a costume to take with them on a trip, like if they are going on a cruise. School plays and theater companies, obviously. Fundraisers are big around here.” Another good revenue producer for Arlene’s is its on-location airbrushing and face-painting services. The company has been offering face painting for 25 years. “We do a lot of school parties and end-of-theyear celebrations. A lot of schools have lock-ins and things like that,” Sinopoli said. “We do pretty much any major sporting event in the area, all the college sporting events, and we only charge between $3 and $8, which is cheaper than what you normally see.”
While online retail does open up new avenues for sales — theatrical make-up is a big seller for Arlene’s — it also is demanding, Sinopoli cautioned. “Be ready to dedicate a lot of time, because business doesn’t end at 4 o’clock,” she said. “We are given a day or maybe two, depending on the time of day the order comes in, and once you’re in, you’re paying monthly on a lot of sites. My advice would be to talk to as many people as you can and ask as many questions as you can of the company before you start.”