Kevin and Keith Johnson knew at a young age what Halloween-sales analysts recently affirmed: Dressing up in jester hats, cat ears and other whimsical accessories is fun.
The Johnsons are the founders of Elope Inc., and the Halloween season — which is now under way — has long been their busiest time. Sales are three times higher now than the rest of the year, and shipments are leaving their Colorado Springs warehouse from 6 a.m. to midnight daily through the end of September.
To meet retailers’ demand, the brothers have hired 20 temporary employees to work two shifts in the warehouse, assisting their 40 full-time employees.
“Halloween is kind of recession-proof,” Keith Johnson said. “People won’t buy a new car, but they will spend $40 to $100 on a costume for a night of fun.”
Indeed. In 2009, Halloween sales reached a record $6 billion, up 4.2 percent from the previous year. Those sales include candy, decorations, costumes and greeting cards.
Elope’s products can be found locally at stores such as Zeezo’s and Poppy Seed, among others.
The Johnsons didn’t go into the business right away. After college, they spent a few years traveling, mostly through Southeast Asia. When they decided it was time to return home, they sat on the beach in Japan for three days trying to figure out what might work.
They had occasionally set up stands in places like Thailand where they sold hats to help finance their travels, so their overseas experience helped inform their decision. Their love for funny hats, however, started young, when their mother was acting in the theater.
They returned to Colorado Springs in 1993 with items from Nepal, Thailand, Taiwan, India and Indonesia to see what would sell. Their cache of 1,500 colorful, velvet hats sold within two days.
“We both were, like, these hats are the greatest; we love these hats,” Kevin Johnson said.
As it turned out, Colorado snowboarders especially loved the company’s crazy jester and top hats, too. Two years later, when it didn’t snow, the brothers took their velvet hat designs to their first Halloween trade show.
“The very first trade show we went to, on the second day, there was a line of people waiting to write orders,” Kevin Johnson said.
The brothers at first worked with a factory in Nepal, though political upheaval there made trade sometimes difficult. Fifteen or so years ago, in the mid-1990s, they invested in a factory in China, where their facility now employs 200 people, includes dormitory rooms and a cafeteria on site, and makes Elope products exclusively.
Since then, the company, which exports to Germany, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, has seen double-digit percentage increases in sales every year. In 2004, the privately held company’s sales were reported at $6 million. Today, the brothers are more secretive about their revenue figures, but they claim sales are up this year over last year.
“We were impacted a little bit by the economy,” Kevin Johnson said. “But this has been a great year.”
So good, actually, that Elope has outgrown its 55,000-square-foot warehouse at 3755 Mark Dabling Blvd. and recently added two trailers to the back lot to store more inventory.
It’s not just Halloween sales that have helped, Kevin Johnson said.
The brothers’ three-year pursuit of a Disney licensing deal has paid off. This year, Elope has begun to make hats, wigs and accessories that match the ones worn in “Alice in Wonderland” and “Toy Story.” The Mad Hatter hat, with its peacock feather and peach-colored ribbon, has been this year’s hottest-selling item.
“Of course, when you have the license, your sales, double, triple, quadruple,” Kevin Johnson said. “Larger companies don’t want to mess around with knock-offs — they want the official one.”
Of course, Elope still offers a multitude of designs, the majority of which are conceived by the Johnsons and their six-member design team.
Some of the merchandise is on display at Elope’s office, where it looks and feels like party central with silver streamers hanging everywhere and lots of colorful art and furniture. The design team meets regularly to brainstorm new products — rocker dudes, animal hats, beer goggles and more. Elope’s 200-page catalog has more than 2,000 products.
This year’s Halloween must-have accessories revolve around the fast-growing Steampunk genre — Victorian-era science fiction. Elope has designed gizmo glasses, gold monocles and machinist goggles to outfit inventors of yesteryear.
Figuring out what people will buy is a matter of “keeping an eye, and ear, to the trends,” said Matt Meacham, an Elope designer.
The design team has already dreamed up next Halloween season’s hats and accessories and is working on items for 2012 — all of which are top-secret for now.
No wonder they called their company Elope. It’s an acronym for “Everybody’s Laughing On Planet Earth.”