Selling Cinco de Mayo

By Isabel C. González
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 5, 2005

Cinco de Mayo, a date on the calendar that's pretty much a typical day in Mexico, has become a margarita-drinking, sombrero-wearing chance to party in this country.

It also has become big business for bars, restaurants and retailers, especially the seasonal decorations industry. In recent weeks, the Paper Store in Georgetown, whose customers include party-down college kids, has had to order and reorder Cinco de Mayo napkins, centerpieces and sombreros to keep up with demand.

"Sales are great," says manager Nancy Burrows. "It's about half of what we do for Halloween, and that's our number one holiday."

Today's holiday commemorates the defeat of French troops by outnumbered Mexicans in the town of Puebla on May 5, 1862. But it is not as widely celebrated in its country of origin as Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16, when rodeos, parades, bullfights and speeches celebrate the country's independence from Spanish rule.

"In the U.S., Cinco de Mayo has come to represent a day to celebrate Mexico's culture," says Rahul Desai, co-owner of 100% Mexico Hecho A Mano, a store on 14th Street in Northwest that sells folk art, silver jewelry and home decor made by the country's artisans. "In Mexico it's not such a big deal, but here it's like a Mexican St. Patrick's Day."

Pamela Danziger, the author of "Why People Buy Things They Don't Need" and the founder of Unity Marketing, a market research and consulting firm, says Cinco de Mayo is a small but growing segment of what her company reports is a $14.7 billion seasonal-decorations industry.

"Spending on Cinco de Mayo decorations was about $71 million in 2003 and $71.4 million in 2004," she says, predicting that "it will become as big as St. Patrick's Day."

Party City, a party supply store at Bailey's Crossroads in Falls Church, has dedicated 16 feet of shelf space to a Cinco de Mayo display this spring -- double the space allocated last year, according to store manager Eric Balangue. The store has also added a wider selection of decorations and paper goods. Top sellers include sombrero-and-maracas-dotted table covers ($2.55 to $3.65), chili pepper lights ($9.99 for a seven-foot string) and inflatable cactus centerpieces ($3.99).

"We've had Cinco de Mayo stuff out since mid-March, and I've had to reorder tableware and decorations twice already," says Balangue.

The company, which has 500 stores nationwide, dedicated the cover of its most recent advertising circular to Cinco de Mayo, featuring festive tableware, decor and piñatas shaped like burros, cactus and bulls.

"That's been the biggest surprise for us," says Amy Davidson, vice president of marketing for Party City. "Obviously we sell lots of piñatas year-round for kids' parties, but there's been an increase in interest to use them as Cinco de Mayo decorations this year."

Online party-supply Web sites also have seen a significant boost in Cinco de Mayo business. "Compared to last year, sales of sombreros have increased 17 percent and sales of our cactus string of lights has have increased by 50 percent," says Kadie-Ann Riddell, marketing coordinator for the party-supply Web site, which splashes holiday-related gear on its home page, including maracas (plastic, $11.80 for 24; wood, $29.50 for 24), Mexican flag bandanas ($12.80 per dozen) and glow-in-the-dark margarita glasses ($2.50 each) -- they've sold out of the red ones.

For those whose taste veers toward the traditional, 100% Mexico Hecho a Mano sells papel picado , brightly colored crepe-paper banners cut into different patterns and shapes and hung from walls or ceilings (medium, 10 feet, $10; small, six feet, $6.50).

"It's very authentic," says co-owner Desai. "If you go to a traditional Mexican party in Mexico, you probably won't see plastic chili pepper lights, but you will see papel picado hanging everywhere." The store also sells handblown margarita glasses ($9.50 each), and like papel picado , they've seen a spike in sales for them as the holiday approached.

Charles Allen, a DC-based health care advocate, and his roommate, Raj Sabharwal, are throwing their fourth annual Cinco de Mayo party this year and will tap a few outlets to nail the theme. "Mostly we serve Mexican food, margaritas, and pick up Mexican beers, but this year, we also want to hire a mariachi band and hang a Mexican flag," says Allen. They're expecting about 100 people, 75 more than the first party four years ago.

Some government agencies, embassies and private companies are throwing Cinco de Mayo parties around Washington, too. Rebecca DeParis is the owner of Paris Caterers that has been operating in the District for 33 years. This year, she is producing four events, ranging from 100 to 400 guests. She'll set the mood with traditional Mexican menus and tap into a wealth of props: faux adobe walls, portions of life-size hacienda fences draped with striped Mexican throws, and brightly colored candles on green, red and orange table covers.

"I also love to add calla lilies, which you see all over Mexico and in many Mexican paintings," says DeParis. She displays them in oversize terra-cotta pots -- another Mexican detail.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company