The Cybercritic: Party Supplies

An avid reader of glossy lifestyle magazines, The Cybercritic loves the idea of throwing theme parties. And in fact, The Cybercritic’s parties do tend to have a theme: that of chaos.

So in hopes of surprising my guests with niceties such as paper napkins that match the paper plates, I decided to shop early and online for the supplies I’d need for my annual daylong, “invite everyone we know and a few people we don’t” July cookout.

Typing “party supplies” into Google brought up 1.98 million matches. Most of the URLs on the first page were unfamiliar and similar: PartySuppliesHut.com, PartySuppliesShop.com, Party-Supplies-Store.com. IParty.com (www.iparty.com) rang a bell, though, so I headed there first.

On the left side of the home page were drop-down menus that let you shop by milestones (baby shower, retirement), seasons/holidays, and themes. Another menu was devoted to birthdays, with subcategories such as Age Specific, Favorite Character, and Top 20 Parties. Yet another menu directed you to “specialty shops” such as Costumes and Bake-It-Yourself; the last drop-down menu offered party-planning suggestions.

Below the menus was a link to iParty en Espanol. This was a savvy idea — at least in theory. In practice, though, the three party packages featured included English-language invitations. Worse, there was no mention of quinceaneras, the often-sumptious coming-of-age parties thrown for many Hispanic girls on their 15th birthday.

Two more links led to iPartyTalk Magazine (with articles such as “Balloon Basics” and recipes for Lucky Potato Salad) and Kids Birthday Club (a promotion with ice cream purveyor Carvel, home of Fudgie the Whale — though why Mr. Carvel thought folks would want to dig into a calorie-laden ice cream cake in the shape of a two-ton mammal is beyond The Cybercritic’s ken).

One of the offered themes on the drop-down menu was “summer,” which seemed as good a place as any to start. The center of the summer page featured a Barbeque Party Pack that was too cutesy for The Cybercritic (the paper plates and napkins were adorned with Mary Engelbreit-esque illustrations of aprons and yellow-mustard dispensers on a red-and-white gingham background). Below that were links to a fish-shape platter, flower-adorned flip-flops, and an inflatable beach ball. Additional links suggested other summer-themed parties, and a box on the right offered links to unbundled products such as invitations, decorations, and balloons.

Among the other themes in the summer parties category were Birds of Paradise, Tropical Birds, Tropical Luau, and Tiki Luau. Who knew so many nuances existed? The Party Packs were certainly convenient and value-priced: The Tropical Luau pack, for instance, consisted of 8 invitations, plates, cups, and sets of cutlery; 16 napkins; a tablecloth; 30 balloons; 2 rolls of curling ribbon and 2 streamers; candles; and a plastic palm-tree tray for $32.59.

The a la carte selections were more sophisticated. That’s where I found tiki torches, plastic cocktail shakers, and CDs of Hawaiian and luau music. But if I hadn’t been The Cybercritic but rather a casual shopper, I wouldn’t have bothered looking farther than the theme page; nothing I’d seen on the site so far indicated that I’d find anything suitable for adults (let alone adults who can consume copious amounts of alcohol) here.

The search engine was another pleasant surprise. Entering “cocktail” produced three pages of results — not just a broad range of cocktail napkins but also coasters, drink parasols, and even faux ice sculptures. If iParty were to ask my advice, I’d suggest it highlight some of these more worldly offerings on its home page, so that harried suburban moms shopping for SpongeBob SquarePants party hats know to return when it’s time to plan their adults-only Saturday night soirees.

I would also suggest that iParty.com include a catalog request link in addition to a page of information about its stores. But in terms of navigation and ordering, everything went smoothly — as smoothly as I hoped my summer party would.

The home page of Oriental Trading Co. (www.oriental.com) looked a little more generic than that of iParty. Whereas the former featured Miami deco shades of aqua and pink, the latter was abundantly white, with a few images and lavender trimmings. Then again, the bare-bones design is in keeping with that of Oriental Trading’s print catalogs — flimsy pages of “made in China” gift-bag goodies and decorations at bargain prices.

The home page did include several nice features, though. There were separate links to Security/Privacy, Safety News, and the Better Business Bureau. Another link offered visitors $5 off their next online order when they send a Tell-a-Friend e-mail. You could shop by product type or by theme. And below links to several specialty stores (the b-to-b Website, wedding supplies, crafts) were a couple of glowing customer testimonials.

I selected the Themes tab and was directed to a page featuring links to eight themes that also displayed more customer testimonials — well done! Choosing a 1960s theme brought me to a page touting “more than 150 Retro/60’s items! Have a blast with the past!” Next to a photo of what looked like an animal-print gym locker for a Barbie doll were links to seven product categories, including Costumes & Accessories, Stationery, and Novelties. Below those were links to best-sellers such as Transparent Ooze Lamps and Tie Dye T-shirt Notepads; two more testimonials; and a handful of rather lame “Idea Starters”: “Keep the peace at family reunions, picnics and parties by keeping little hands busy with the far out [sic] fun of small toys and games.”

After visiting the Decorations page I realized that I was unlikely to find what I was looking for here. If I were an eight-year-old girl, though, I’d have hit the jackpot: plastic glitter-filled lamps and flower-power mirrors abounded.

Taking another approach, I selected the Party Supplies link at the top of the page. (The site’s design ensures that you can get to the basic product and theme pages with one click regardless of how deep into the site you are.) From there I selected Tableware; nine pages of matches followed. While there were loads of novelty toothpicks and plastic straws, paper plates were sorely lacking.

Since Oriental Trading apparently catered to kids, I decided to see if I could buy birthday-party supplies for a soon-to-be four-year-old who wants to be a ballet dancer (or a gas-station attendant) when she grows up. I typed “ballet” into the search engine; only three matches returned — a ballet-slipper lamp, a ballet-slipper light-switch cover, and a tote bag decorated with a ballet slipper. Typing in “ballerina” produced 14 matches, though. Hmmm.

I dropped several of the impressively inexpensive items — stickers, bendable ballerinas, magnet kits — into the shopping cart. Each time I did, the shopping-cart page offered photos and links of additional items I might be interested in. Unfortunately, these items were wedding decorations. Thanks, but no thanks.

I next ventured onto something called Plum Party (www.plumparty.com). With its trendy type fonts, striking color palette, and catchy category headings (Reasons to Celebrate, Entertaining Stuff), my spirits rose.

According to the About page, Plum Party resulted from the frustration felt by two gals regarding a lack of “witty and practical” party items and gifts: “We always have in mind that woman (she’s French in our minds) who knows how to tie that scarf just right so that she’s transformed from working mother to something more like Audrey Hepburn.”

The 19 subcategories on the Theme Parties page included Break-Up/Divorce, Good Fortune, IRS (!), and Yoga Serenity. I started with the Pony Party, but this theme was better suited to those who dream of owning a pony rather than those who, like The Cybercritic’s crowd, bet the ponies. The 21 items offered were distinctive, though: carrot-shape chocolates, equine hanging lights, a pony pinata. The Good Fortune theme was merchandised just as cleverly, with shamrock stickers, fortune cookies, and a cake in the shape of a horseshoe.

Whereas Oriental Trading’s search function was overly literal, Plum Party’s was too lax. Typing in “napkin” brought up 37 matches — including items such as the Moss Planter and the Candle Kit, which did not include napkins but were, according to the copy, nifty places in which to store napkins.

I nonetheless placed two packs of zebra-pattern paper napkins in my shopping bag. But when I hit the “continue shopping” button, I was brought back to the home page, not the previous product page or category page I’d been on. On a site like this, where you want to encourage multiline orders, this sort of inconvenience could lead to smaller-than-expected order sizes.

And while I’m complaining, may I add that a search for “plates” didn’t turn up any zebra-pattern plates to match the napkins. A search for “zebra,” however, did call up a zebra-stripe chip-and-dip platter.

Checking out gave cause for more complaints. Shipping costs weren’t provided until after I’d filled out my address information. And at $6.95 for standard shipping — and $16.95 for what Plum Party called “express shipping,” meaning three business days! — I wasn’t surprised that the site waited to hit me with the sum. Overnight shipping is “available on request,” but there were no details on how one could make the request.

After selecting standard shipping, I wanted to go back and change it. But when I hit the back button on my computer — no other option being available on the site itself — I ended up back on the home page. Thinking that perhaps I’d made a mistake, I repeated the process. This time hitting the back button landed me on a blank page.

At this point I decided that a theme wasn’t critical to my party’s success. Or perhaps my guests would be amused by eating off paper plates adorned with smiling hearts and swatting at a flamingo-shaped pinata. And after a few margaritas, they likely wouldn’t care if the cups were shaped like ice cream cones. And if they did, that would simply mean more margaritas for The Cybercritic.

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