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One thing you can’t buy online? Holiday nostalgia

Angela Wator hopes the in-store shopping experience draws consumers to her Chicago-based party store Festive Collective, above.

Angela Wator hopes the in-store shopping experience draws consumers to her Chicago-based party store Festive Collective. Courtesy of Bash Party Goods

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A record number of U.S. consumers did holiday shopping over Thanksgiving weekend this year — nearly 190 million, up 14% from last year — according to a National Retail Federation survey, with the convenience of online shopping continuing to drive purchasing.

But brick and mortar is far from obsolete. Research shows that many people, particularly younger shoppers, value the experience of shopping in a physical store. Some retailers are taking note, creating elaborate in-store experiences that can’t be replicated by a computer screen or smartphone.

Investing in the brick-and-mortar shopping experience is especially important when you’re in the holiday decor business, like Angela Wator, who owns the party supply brand Bash Party Goods. Wator says nostalgia is one thing that you still can’t quite buy online.

“Everyone is trying to recreate that holiday of their childhood, but online shopping wasn’t a part of our childhood holiday experiences,” she said.

Wator says children usually respond to the store’s kitschy, vintage-style decorations.

Wator was working in corporate retail as a visual merchandiser for Urban Outfitters when she noticed a hole in the party supply market.

Miniature disco balls have become one of Bash Party Goods’ best-selling products.

“I throw a lot of parties, and I couldn’t find party supplies that reflected my own aesthetic and other friends my age,” she said.

That led Wator to launch a line of millennial and Gen Z-oriented party supplies in 2015, selling primarily online and wholesale. She hoped to open a brick-and-mortar store within five years. But after running the business out of her studio apartment for a year — and dealing with inventory stacked floor-to-ceiling in her living space — she prioritized getting a physical store.

In 2016, Wator opened Festive Collective, a storefront, warehouse and design studio in Chicago carrying Bash Party Goods and a few other local brands.

Wator installs a holiday display at her store.

“I started out selling paper plates, napkins, paper garlands, the basics that you would need to throw a birthday party,” she said. “And I now have an entire section in the warehouse that’s just dedicated to tubes of miniature disco balls.”

Every year when the holiday season rolls around, Wator and her team close Festive Collective for a few days while they overhaul the store’s displays.

“We strip everything out of the store. We cover the windows. And so when we take the paper down the last day, there’s this big reveal to the neighborhood,” Wator said.

“We really try to create a sense of nostalgia,” Wator says of Festive Collective’s holiday displays.

The goal is to turn the store into a holiday destination in its own right — one where visitors can also do some shopping.

“We really try to create a sense of nostalgia,” Wator said. “I feel like that’s what drives most holiday purchasing. And, particularly for our customers, that’s something that they’re not getting in the online shopping experience.”

A memorable in-store experience can turn one-time shoppers into repeat customers. It can also help shift the holiday shopping focus away from bargain hunting and toward locally produced goods.

“I love watching people move throughout the space and spend more time choosing deliberate products — for gifts, or even for themselves — just knowing that they’re making more meaningful purchases rather than buying anything that’s on sale at a big box store,” Wator said.

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