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Business Feature

Prom is big business

4/3/2024

Cassidy Marks, owner of Stacey’s Bridal, Prom, and Formalwear.
Photo by Colson Thayer

Prom season is here. The annual tradition for high school juniors and seniors promises to bring more glitz and glamour each year. For many young people, this may be their most photographed event since birth. Vying for the attention of parents and students are local businesses promising to help prom-goers show up in style — and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. From the dress to the tux, the flowers and the ride, prom ends up costing some pretty pennies. But many local businesses that cater to prom consider their products or services an investment into one of the most memorable nights of one’s life. After all, prom is only a once (or twice) in a lifetime event. 

The dress

“We always hear at the checkout counter… ‘My wedding dress cost less than that,’ ” said Cassidy Marks, owner of Stacey’s Bridal, Prom, and Formalwear at 11161 Plum Drive in Urbandale.

Perhaps it’s an exaggeration. Perhaps not. According to Marks, their average prom dress costs $500 with their whole selection in the range of $250-$800. Despite the price tag, Stacey’s continues to see success for two main reasons.

“There are really big prom shops in Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha. They come here because they want a different experience, and they want to wear something unique that not everybody else is wearing,” Marks said.

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Each August, Marks places an order for about 1,500 unique prom dresses. Her selections include all of the latest trends like feathers, fringes, sequins, capes and more. Combined with their leftovers from last season, the shop carries close to 2,000 dresses. Shoppers begin making their rounds in December. Prom-goers better hope they have found something by March, because Stacey’s has already sold 1,000. In the summer, Marks is already picking out the styles for next season, starting the cycle all over again. 

Marks prides herself on the variety of her inventory. She carries sizes 000-30, which she says is rare for formalwear stores. She said Stacey’s has enough of a voice to drop some lines and designers who do not have inclusive sizes. When they offer more, she is more willing to purchase from them again. 

“I think it’s important for everybody to look and feel beautiful at least once in their lives,” she said. “So one thing that really separates us apart is that you don’t just get stuck in the back corner because of your size. You are in with everybody else… They’re all together, and you don’t just have one dress to pick from.”

Another aspect of the experience at Stacey’s is their consultants. For logistical reasons, the store cannot have each shopper, their friend and a parent walking through the aisles. Instead, every three or four dressing rooms has a designated consultant who is their personal shopper. Marks said they are highly trained to listen to customers’ needs.

Stacey’s Bridal, Prom, and Formalwear has hundreds of dresses available for prom.

Marks primarily hires young girls who can relate to prom-goers. These seasonal employees earn commissions based on the quantity of dresses sold, not the dollar amount. There is also an option to tip consultants at checkout. Marks said she sees numerous $50, $75 and $100 tips. 

“When they get to the register, we just constantly get the most positive feedback without even asking for it,” said Marks. “ ‘ Emma was so wonderful today; she knew exactly what would look perfect on her.’ Or, ‘Sally gave us her phone number and the girls are going to connect about med school.’ ”

But, of course, the industry does not come without its challenges — most notably, online competition. 

“The last thing you want is to be used as a try-on store,” said Marks. “Use my staff, my time, my building, and damage my dresses for you to turn around and buy it somewhere else.” 

Marks described it as a catch-22. Customers will complain about prices rising in stores, but they do not want to see the stores close either. Oftentimes, foreign retailers will steal designer images to turn around and sell a cheaper product online. 

“Our consumerism, in general, really needs to look hard in the mirror and determine our priorities,” Marks said. “Are we going to pay for American goods… or are we going to continue outsourcing?”

 

The tux

The offering of men’s apparel at Stacey’s has undergone a major change. Rather than continue renting tuxes, they have opted to sell them instead. At the tail end of an already busy prom season, it was tricky to get hundreds of boys in the store to try everything on the week of prom. Plus, if something did not fit, it would be difficult to get a replacement. Getting the tuxes back in decent condition was another challenge.

“It was really bothering me that these boys and their families and parents had to throw away over $200 to rent a tux or suit for a few hours,” said Marks.

So, Marks decided it was time to add menswear to her line in 2024. While still early on, she has found that customers can often buy suits and tuxes for the same, if not cheaper, prices. 

 

NPI Limo Service’s stretch limousine is a popular choice for prom-goers.

The ride

After finding the perfect outfit, the next step might be to book a ride to the dance. NPI Limo Service, based out of Urbandale, offers a black suit and red carpet service for prom-goers. The company has a fleet of nine vehicles that can accommodate groups of almost any size. They rent out their vehicles for a minimum of three hours with an option to increase by 30-minute increments. Pricing is not standardized as it depends on the location of the event, gas usage and length of use.

“A majority of the runs, we pick them up. We usually take them to dinner, and then we drop them off at the dance,” said Brady Johnson, owner of NPI Limo Service. “The kids usually have their vehicles there at the dance to get themselves home. Some parents don’t want that. They rent through the whole evening, which is great for us.”

The company charges a $100 deposit to reserve the vehicle. The rest of the balance is due after the event. Oftentimes, groups split the cost among themselves and pay cash to the driver on the day of.

During the month of April, the company is almost entirely booked up. With proms going on each Saturday, Johnson recommended that groups reserve a vehicle at least 30 days in advance.

For each ride, at least one 18-year-old must be in the vehicle. Otherwise, there is no restriction on riders. For prom groups, there is a strict zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. A partition is typically between the driver and riders; however, during prom rides, the partition is down. If alcohol is found, the ride is immediately suspended. 

“[The rides] do cost a lot of money, and the parents are usually responsible for the kids, and we’ve had nothing but great outcomes from proms,” said Johnson. “We have very respectful kids that do decide to get in our vehicles.”

 

Jane Allbee, Boesen the Florist’s wedding and event consultant, at the 3801 Ingersoll Ave. location.
Photo by Colson Thayer

The flowers

About a week before the dance is the best time to order corsages and boutonnieres. Boesen the Florist, in Beaverdale or on Ingersoll, offers a wide variety of options to perfectly match the color of a girl’s dress. About 25% of corsage and boutonniere orders are placed online. The rest are typically an even split between moms and boys placing an order in-store.

“If the guys are the one coming in, I’m pretty much the one that is deciding what color,” said Jane Allbee, Boesen the Florist’s wedding and event consultant at their Ingersoll location at 3801 Ingersoll Ave. “There’s a big difference if the mom will handle it… They will think they’re the one that is going to the prom.”

The typical price for a corsage is $35 but can increase depending on the number of flowers, its size and add-ons like ribbons. Most of the time, whoever is ordering the corsage will also order the boutonnieres so they match. If a girl were to go to another shop, they might have slight differences. 

Only 1% of prom orders are requested to be delivered because most want to see the final product in person. Plus, if there are any issues, staff can fix it in-store.

For each Saturday in April, Boesen typically sells 100 corsages and almost the same number of boutonnieres. This number remains about the same year to year; records from previous years help them predict how to order inventory. Allbee suggests orders are picked up on the day of the event; however, they can last in the refrigerator for a month. 

Prom is not just a night to remember; it supports a sector of the economy that continues to thrive and grow. Since annual prom traditions do not change much year to year, businesses can easily predict the needs. Word-of-mouth and social media also play key roles, as prom’s best moments are often talked about and posted. A prom business’ best marketing and advertising are students telling each other about how great their night was or how good they looked, recommending a local shop for next year. While the trends of each dance continue to change, one thing remains clear: the business of prom will do its best to stay on trend and create one of life’s most memorable nights. ♦

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