How Dance Retailers Are Managing Their Comp-Season Business in Unpredictable Times

Traditionally, comp season revenues serve as a bridge from the busy back-to-school and holiday seasons to spring recitals. With the pandemic upending all things dance, here are comp-season tactics for this year from three veteran dance retailers.

Beyond the Barre's store, featuring two walls full of merchandise and some tables and racks in the middle
Beyond the Barre’s comp business is second only to back-to-school, but owner Danielle Hernandez is changing up the inventory she focuses on this year. Photo by Filip Zalewski

After the back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons, competition teams usually become the focus for dancer retailers. This year will look a lot different, though. Many dancers are planning to return to the stage this spring—and studios and competitions have implemented new safety precautions and rearranged the traditional performance format to make their events safer for all participants. But some competitions have been canceled, studio enrollment is down, and some comp teams remain uncommitted to a full schedule of events. What’s more, pop-up shops at conventions that were a large selling opportunity for retailers are no longer sure bets. With so much still unknown about the course of the pandemic, best practices for the upcoming season are still up in the air.

To learn more about how stores are navigating this year’s unpredictable competition selling period, and for tips on how to make the most profit, Dance Business Weekly reached out to three veteran retailers who have extensive experience serving the competition market.

Remember the Evergreen Must-Haves and Must-Dos

Normal best practices for comp season don’t need to be completely swept aside this year. While the season is not the largest source of revenue for most dance retailers, it does serve as a useful bridge from the busy fall to the end-of-year recital sales. “The timing works out really well,” says Jennifer Ward, owner of The Station: Dancewear and Studios in Kalamazoo, MI, who says her staff is less busy during this time and can give extra time to the needs of competition dancers.

In past years, dancers started shopping for upcoming comp events as early as November, but the bulk of competition shopping began after the new year. Some studios order their custom costumes directly from costume companies, so local dance retailers tend to focus on selling must-haves, such as tights and shoes, as well as accessories. Ashley Kelly, owner of Dance Depot in South Daytona, FL, usually sees larger orders of costume accessories that are not part of the typical dress code, like fishnet tights or black dance shoes. Check-ins with studios help her curate her inventory and receive stock in by their deadlines.

This year, Kelly expects the same to be true, noticing that many studios are picking up right where they left off before the shutdown last spring. “When a studio has a brand, they want to represent that brand as best they can,” she says. So while many may be getting creative to save dancers some money, Kelly says that those who usually go all out with custom costumes, accessories and bedazzling will likely do the same this year.

New fashion items that helped dancers stand out among the crowds usually are big sellers during this season. “Dancers want to stand out at conventions and master classes, so having a leotard that they love is a way to feel great and makes it easier for event officials to identify promising dancers,” says Ward, who in the past has sold a larger number of fashion leotards and skirts during the later winter months. Over the last two years she has seen an increase in these items for solo and duet costumes and expects that trend to continue this year, as many parents she has spoken with find themselves stretched thin and are asking studios in her area for more versatile costume options.

Danielle Hernandez, owner of Beyond the Barre in Westwood and Englewood, NJ, adds that garment bags and rolling wardrobes have usually been big sellers for her during this time. Hernandez places competition sales revenue just under back-to-school, due in part to the large number of custom group orders she fulfills. She often marketed those services door-to-door, visiting studios in person to let them know she can customize team warm-ups, booty shorts or tops. Similar items have outsold leotards this year, since more dancers in her area are taking classes virtually and their dress codes are looser, or they’re taking classes in outdoor studio spaces. However, instead of in-person promoting, she now relies on Instagram to advertise.

Stay Open-Minded, and Think “Versatility”

Staying flexible is key to making the most of this year’s comp season—from stretching out the time frame that you typically focus on competition-season sales to marketing more versatile items for dancers. Right now, no one knows exactly what they will need or when they will need it, so dancewear and accessories that are the most versatile will be more likely to sell—dancewear that can double as a simple costume, for example, or warm-ups that can be worn backstage or to and from class. Retailers can stretch out their selling season by marketing higher-priced competition best-sellers as holiday gifts. Ward has been selling leotards that can be accessorized for a solo costume or worn to class. “Having something they can try on before they buy, that fits beautifully and is long-lasting” have been factors customers are showing more interest in, she says.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped Hernandez from buying. “I’m just buying differently,” she says. For example, she does not expect to sell large dance or garment bags this year since the price tag on those items is often high and cannot be justified when many event dates in her area are still tentative. Instead, she’s focusing on ordering a smaller run of fashion items that dancers can wear to competition or virtual classes, and letting them sell out. She plans to stick with that model through the winter. “I’m being conservative because I don’t know what I’ll wake up to,” she says.

A shelf containing dance bags, leg warmers and other accessories
Displays at Beyond the Barre: Tights, jewelry and haircare accessories are always popular with comp-season customers. Photo by Filip Zalewski.

Communicate With Studio Owners

Communicating with studios is more important now than ever. Kelly says that she is able to fulfill unique requests in a timely manner by checking in with studio owners in the months leading up to competitions. Kelly has had studios approach her with special requests in the past, but this year she won’t wait for them to call her, she says. She is planning a fitting event in November and plans to create a newsletter specifically for studio owners that will go out beforehand. “That will give me time to start researching any specific needs they may have,” she says. She also plans to use the newsletter to highlight a few items she’s seen studios use in the past that they have purchased elsewhere, “as a reminder to think local first,” she adds. “I would likely include things like earrings, headpieces, rhinestones, skin-tone tights and shoes, garment bags, changing stations, pointe paint, butt glue and lashes.”

Bridging the Revenue Gap Anyway

Competition needs may be up in the air as studios try to accommodate parents by defraying costs where they can. Kelly has spoken with a studio that plans to reuse costumes from last year, and Ward has already fielded requests for more simple leotard and skirt options. While it’s hard to predict now how you will need to diversify your inventory, one constant that retailers can count on selling this winter is dance basics, like shoes and tights.

Encouraging bulk orders is another way to bridge the gap. Hernandez says that her customer count is lower so far this year at her Englewood store (although it is higher in her Westwood location), but those who do shop with her have been buying more in one shot to avoid having to make frequent trips out. For her younger dance customers, that means buying two pairs of tights or shoes at once—a size that fits now and the next size up for six months from now.

For Kelly, chatting with studio owners in the late fall can lead to group orders. Already, she says, she has had a request for a unique shoe one studio will compete in this winter, as well as a custom leotard and matching skirt. “I am grateful they are looking to me for them,” she says.

In the end, Ward says, she just wants to be there for whatever needs studios have and support them through this unpredictable time. “I would like to see all studios have a big bounce when this ends,” she adds.

Libby Basile is a former editor in chief of Dance Retailer News. She reports regularly on visual merchandising, retail strategy and store design.