Zeezo’s co-owner Mark Modeer calls his downtown costume store “my childhood run amok” — but the fun façade rests on a team that has navigated rapid growth and sudden change, and weathered its share of storms.
The dramatic explosion of online sales, shifts in popular culture, national tragedies and even television shows have all impacted the costume industry, and Zeezo’s along with it. Along the way, Zeezo’s has constantly adapted to become a Colorado Springs mainstay and small business success story.
Zeezo’s wasn’t always Zeezo’s. In fact, Mark’s aunt bought his first Stein’s Theatrical Make-up Kit from The Stage Door — a costume shop on the very spot where Zeezo’s now stands — when he was in second grade. Zeezo’s bought out The Stage Door in 1978, and Mark got his first job there at age 13.
“I kept showing up at Zeezo’s after I bought everything, so they eventually put Windex in my hand and made me clean the counters,” he said. “I got fired regularly, for being a goofy kid. I would never have hired me.”
Mark worked there on and off for years, alternating with stints as a magician, until he bought the store in 1993.
“I thought I’d just run it for two or three years, turn it around and sell it,” he said. “That was my story for years, until we decided we were going to have kids and keep the shop.”
Zeezo’s was then in the Majestic building on Bijou Street. Mark and his wife Jessica, who came on board in 1995, continued to expand the business. They outgrew several buildings before settling at their North Tejon location three years ago.
The 21,000-square-foot site tripled Zeezo’s space, and the Modeers have not yet finished expanding. Their online store is finally complete after two years of design and data entry, and this month Zeezo’s will launch online costume rentals in time for Halloween.
“He dreams it and I manage it, is how it happens,” Jessica said. “We carry over 20,000 different individual items, so getting all that on a website and monitoring it is a challenge. The website is finally at a place where we’re happy with it.”
The explosion of online sales irrevocably changed the landscape of costume retail early this century, but the Modeers never saw it as a death knell for brick-and-mortar stores like their own. While online sales are currently “just a couple of percent” of Zeezo’s business, Mark said the website is invaluable for boosting local sales.
“We’re getting over 250 unique hits a day,” he said. “My advice to local businesses is your local website is more important than you realize. Online is everything your Yellow Pages used to be. People carry their smartphones, they’re on Yelp, Google, and if you don’t have a presence there, they don’t know to drive across town and see you.
“If they’re going to [drive across town] it’s because they need something — and they have to know you have what they want.
“So right now our huge website is already completely worth it. If it never grows on a national basis, I will not regret having built it, because it fuels local sales. That’s huge for us.”
Customers still want to touch and try on costumes, Mark said, and the website shows them where they’ll want to do that. In addition, he and Jessica work the sales floor, talk to customers and constantly respond to feedback.
“I think it really hurts the larger chains that try to do costuming, that their person doing the buying is not interacting with customers,” Mark said. “They know they have a SKU and a category they need to fill, but that doesn’t mean they know what the category needs. It doesn’t directly translate.”
Online costume purchases can lead to similar letdowns.
“Customers come in all the time and show us what they wanted, the picture of what they ordered online and it is not the same product. It is chronic, and I don’t even know if it’s malicious,” Mark said. “They don’t understand the different grades that costumes come in, and they don’t know what they’re selling because they are not costumers. People are disappointed regularly.”
The Modeers have built a staff of performing artists, students and makeup artists who bring experience and enthusiasm to the store.
“They’re excited to be here, they’re interested and busy — and that adds vibrance,” Jessica said.
“We don’t have an average customer or an average purchase. If we have, say, a single parent who can only spend $15 on their kid’s costume, they will find things for them on the clearance rack. If we have someone who wants to spend $500, they will find something for them too — and they will treat both of those customers the same.”
Flexibility has been a big drawing card for Zeezo’s employees, who value the fact that the Modeers are committed to working around their hectic schedules. This flexibility has helped Zeezo’s respond quickly and successfully to curveballs that have hit small costume shops hard since 2000.
“A lot of Halloween stores were just not quick to adapt after 9/11 and the D.C. sniper,” Jessica said. “Those were bad years, and we took a painful hit after 9/11 — we didn’t correct course and cut hours fast enough. Even old-timers who’d been in the business for years were looking at changing. But when the recession came we were able to respond much more quickly.”
Cultural shifts had been positive for Zeezo’s, making year-round costuming a reality.
“Popular culture has shifted,” Mark said. “Pre-2000 there were no warrior runs, no mud dashes, no themed light-up bike rides — and there were murder mysteries, but the past 15 years is when they’ve really gone all-out.”
“[The rise of online sales] was a painful shift, but I’ll take that transition any day,” Jessica said. “Our year-round sales are definitely more stable and predictable.”
Zeezo’s is also buoyed by Colorado Springs’ “extremely active and creative arts community” and by solid relationships with the military, religious and school communities.
Zeezo’s is the go-to store for gospel productions, theater departments run by military family services, large school productions, disaster simulations and mission trips, Jessica said.
“We became the big store here, so we now pull out of Denver which is very fortunate,” Mark said. “If there’s a big production that needs theater makeup services and shopping in one stop, we probably outdo anyone in Denver.”
[su_box title=”Zeezo’s” box_color=”#005ac3″]Location: 112 N. Tejon St.
Employees: 16; 30+ part-time through Halloween
Contact: zeezos.com; 633-2571[/su_box]