Scrutinizing the long tail of Halloween

Jon Krouse is in a perfect position to help me test a hypothesis about long tail behavior. A co-founder of OnMilwaukee.com (a rare success story among regional online communities), Jon recently joined BuyCostumes.com. This is the world’s largest online retailer of costumes. As you can imagine, the month of October is major crunch-time for him.

Nonetheless, when I instant messaged him the other day to see if I could test an assertion from Chris Anderson, Jon was willing to help. Anderson is a Wired editor and most notably the author of The Long Tail. He contends that for companies with virtual inventories, just about any item they post for sale — no matter how obscure — will sell (i.e., be downloaded for a price) at least once every three months or so. Using sales statistics from Rhapsody.com, he made it sound like this was nothing short of an immutable law.

That’s for virtual inventories. Anderson admits it’s a little trickier for companies with real ones. That’s the case with BuyCostumes. I’ve visited their warehouse, which stores over 13,000 very real SKUs. Yow!.

Companies like this must mark down some items teetering at the tip of the tail before they finally sell. Carrying costs are a constraint that virtual inventory merchants simply don’t have. But the fact is, even real inventory items sell with some price manipulation. Or so Chris Anderson contends. I wanted to know for sure, and asked Jon.

He reported that minor adjustments to price do indeed make the most obscure costumes and accessories sell. Sure, there are the rare dogs, but priced properly, nearly all SKUs generate profits. This is huge, because the number of items offered is a precedent for the industry.

Imagine how many items a bricks-and-mortar costume shop can physically stock. Now consider that at one time quite recently, conventional wisdom was that no one wanted more selection than could be held on a really well-stocked costume shop’s shelves. Or, for that matter, in music store’s bins, or along a bookstore’s stacks.

The web, with its power to categorize, search and suggest, has exploded that myth. Which would mean little to a company like Jon’s if the demand for these products wasn’t so large.

How many sales are anticipated in the next couple of weeks for this humble little online costume shop?

“At our busiest, we’ll be doing 20,000 orders a day*,” Jon reports. Tune in November 1 to see a photo featuring the costumes that my wife and I chose and wore at Jon’s Halloween party, the first in his and Peggy’s new home. 

*It never hurts to advertise. BuyCostumes has major private label deals with major retailers, plus an effective search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising strategy in place.

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