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Published Friday, May 12, 2017

Lisa Hamilton, left, at her prom in 1985 and her daughter, Skye, right, on her way to the prom in 2016. Photos courtesy of Lisa and Skye Hamilton.

Lisa Hamilton of Durham remembers what she wore to her senior prom: a strapless, cerulean-blue cocktail dress with a lacy fabric that floated slightly below her knees. She purchased it at a trendy boutique in Manhattan with the help of a doting aunt.

And the prom evening? Hamilton is vague about the details. Like most people, she doesn’t recall specifics from events that occurred 32 years ago. But, the dress…that’s an image she savors.

Now the mom of a high school junior going to the prom at Oyster River High, she views the soiree’s significance as a milestone in a girl’s high school narrative. Beginning in January, her daughter Skye spent a month with a friend trying on formal wear around the Seacoast until she zeroed in on a ballroom dress at Madeleine’s Daughter-Formal, an offshoot of a bridal store in Portsmouth that caters to prom wear.

The price tag of the gown that her daughter will likely only wear once? Around $400. Hamilton justifies the indulgence by the pictorial keepsakes her family will frame and cherish. “The dress makes it special,” she says.

The Hamiltons are not alone in indulging for prom. In the Northeast, families dole out an average of $738 on prom night, according to a survey by Visa, Inc. in 2015, the latest year for which data was available. The Northeastern families invest the most into prom night by far than the rest of the country, which ranges from $515 in the Midwest to $596 in the West. That doesn’t even include the added costs of promposals. (Yeah, you read that right, but more on that later.)

And it’s not the rich kids who are dropping the biggest bucks on prom. Visa’s prom survey found families making under $25,000 a year will spend the most for prom—$1,393 on average—while families who make over $50,000 will spend an average of $799.

Saying Yes to the Dress
It’s not surprising that teens aren’t the only ones getting ready for proms. Businesses gear up for them, too. In a typical formal wear shop, prom dresses average around $400, says Helen Dionne, owner of Uniquely Couture Bridal in Bedford and A Day to Remember in Concord. Usually, the parents foot the bill, or at least a portion of it, says Dionne.

Madeleine’s Daughter in Portsmouth, which has both formal and bridal stores, brings in and sells more than 1,000 prom dresses per season ranging from $350 to $900, says store manager Cheryl Jackson.

In the 60s and 70s, says Jackson, the prom was a sweet event you went to with your boyfriend. Decades later, it’s on the scale of a mini-wedding, she adds, with parents joining the fanfare. Jackson says her stores give the same service to high school students as they do to bridal parties. After all, these customers may return when they’re older.

Excursions to find that perfect prom look are a rite of passage. And they’re often as much or more fun than the actual event. “When my friends and I found our dresses,” says Skye Hamilton, “we were sad because the shopping was over.”

Unlike the prom season for limos or florists, which catapults in May, the market for dresses is virtually dormant by March. Brian Fortin, who owns Modern Bride in Bedford, says the shopping begins the day after Christmas, although many don’t commit until February.

At Country Bridals in Jaffrey, owner Cathy Furze tries to maintain inventory under $400. As a small business, she competes with the increasingly popular Chinese knock-offs. She sees customers come in upset their online purchases don’t match what they saw in the picture, don’t fit and are not returnable. “I try to teach them the telltale signs,” says Furze. Does the website have a U.S. address? Can you talk to someone on the phone? Do you get a refund if you don’t like it?

Dionne of Uniquely Couture says the rule of thumb is, “If I can’t buy it for $250, neither can you.” But it’s tough for any shop to compete with the ultimate pro catalogue that is the internet.

Above: Store manager Jill Martell, left, and owner Helen Dionne in the prom department of Uniquely Couture Bridal. Photo by Christine Carignan.

Rebecca Hall is a senior at Souhegan High in Amherst. “In my mind I always think that girls either go for their ideal fairytale prom dress or their ideal red carpet dress,” she says. When she didn’t find apparel that matched her taste in the brick-and-mortar retailers, she searched online. For just under $500, she picked a beaded and sequined champagne-hued gown with a slinky side slit. Pure red carpet, says Hall.

Dionne would like to attract customers like Hall into her stores. Sitting on an upholstered bench near the mirrored dressing stage, Dionne rifles through a box of handwritten cards with lists of prospects. She sells about 600 prom dresses annually but says the store should sell more considering the foot traffic and number of schools in the area. “Kids have the mindset they have to leave town to find their prom gowns,” she says.

They also worry about the ultimate sartorial disaster: showing up wearing the same dress as another student. Although stores register customers’ purchases and the schools they attend. Students often post photos of their dresses on Facebook.

Investing in the Prom Dream
For many teens, prom accoutrements are their first big expenditures. They are also a lesson in economics and time management.

Hanna Tingley of Danville packs up pizza boxes and salads 25 hours a week to save for her senior week at Timberline Regional High. Her parents contributed half towards the $400 dress she bought at The Ultimate, a 10,000-square-foot boutique in Peabody, Mass. that’s so popular, teenage girls wait up to two hours in line for dressing rooms to try on a maximum of three prom dresses from the 7,000 the store sells each year. Tingley says she beat the crowds by shopping in November.

“A lot of my money is going to prom in general,” says Tingley. She’s budgeting $75 for hair, $50 for shoes and $25 for earrings.

The prom checklist for any teen may include tanning, makeup and manicure/pedicure services, purses, jewelry, flowers, and a stretch limo. Beyond the dress, alterations may add another $100. Groups of friends also chip in for a pre-prom dinner and perhaps leasing a post-prom venue. The guys rent tuxes for around $150 and may buy their date’s prom tickets which in NH run from $40 to $70 per person.

Skye Hamilton scheduled her hair and nail appointments months ago at Hair Excitement in Durham. She’s working at Dunkin Donuts and babysitting to pay for the extras. Jamie Furtak, the salon’s manager, says she sees a boost in business for two consecutive weeks in May. But the business she gains from those appointments extends far beyond prom. “I have clients who are regulars now who I styled for prom,” she says.

At Manhattan East Hair Design Studio in Peterborough, at least two Saturdays in May are booked with appointments for updos, which take at least an hour and cost around $70. Bill Brock, who owns the salon with his wife Stephanie, says he doesn’t go looking for business, but clients bring in their daughters. Manhattan East also partners with Conval High School to offer a free hair service to a student who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

The Promposal
Remember when just asking someone to the prom made you nervous? That’s nothing compared to what today’s teens expect. It’s not enough invite someone: It’s got to be a production.

In just the past few years, promposals have become a national phenomena as teens try to outdo each other in the art of romance, all while videotaping the popping of the question in front of large crowds at, for example, school gyms or public parks. Often teachers, parents or fellow students are in on the surprise.

A quick search on YouTube reveals students bringing six-piece bands and flowers, helium balloons and professional dancers to accompany their soliloquies. Some proposals are more daring. To prove how crazy he was to go to prom with his girlfriend, a Connecticut teenager parachuted 10,000 feet from a single-engine plane shouting, “I hope she says yes,” in between gasps at the breathtaking scenery.

Visa began tracking the cost of promposals in 2015, and they are adding significantly to the cost of the big night. The elaborate prom invitations are costing, on average, $324, with teens and their families in the Northeast spending the most—$431 on average (see chart).

Nonetheless, in Yankee-entrenched NH, frugality and innovation may eclipse exorbitant showmanship. Not to mention, few teens have budgets for skydiving. Students are more likely to write their queries with markers on poster boards or use their musical talents to serenade potential dates with original songs. Many scour Etsy for promposal teddy bears, tee shirts, key chains and other tchotchkes.

Arriving in Style
“Showing up to prom in a limo is silly,” says Sarah Mueller, a junior at Oyster River High in Durham. “Because no one cares what [vehicle] you show up in.”

Fortunately for the luxury transportation industry, her outlook is not universal. Michael Campbell owns Grace Limo, a 27-year-old family-run business with offices in Manchester, Portsmouth and West Lebanon. From the end of April through June, the company receives 50 bookings for proms.

A 24-passenger limo coach from Grace Limo. Photo courtesy of Grace Limo.

These days, Campbell says, stretch limos are less popular. Students are paying attention to costs and parents crave safety. Therefore, the $1,300, 24-person party buses, which are roomy enough for standing, are more likely to hit the road to proms than the $700 nine-person sedans because more people can split the cost.

A lot of parents don’t want their kids driving themselves, says Rae Pierson, who coordinates events for Grace Limo. “Especially in the rural areas when the route to remote dance locations like the Atkinson Country Club involve windy back roads.”

Adventure Limo in Keene serves five high schools in the Monadnock Region. Prom bookings comprise 20 percent of its business in May, the firm’s highest grossing month. “It’s a fun part of our business,” says British-born Peter Allen who heads the company. “And very American. We don’t have proms in England.”

Awareness of underage drinking is heightened compared to 20 years ago, says Allen, and limo drivers have strict rules about placing backpacks in trunks and banning any type of bottles in the car.

On occasion, drivers wear more hats than chauffeurs and watchdogs. Allen remembers one prom evening he spent over an hour with a young man whose girlfriend broke up with him. “He just needed someone to talk to.” This spring, Allen expects to get calls about his antique cars like the 1957 Cadillac and the 1963 Rolls Royce. He also recently invested in a $100,000 stretch Hummer.

Inquiries continue to come in May, just as they do for flowers.

Jody Gage of the Fortin-Gage floral shop in Nashua sells a few hundred corsages and boutonnières annually. Sometimes prom attendees want the same kind of sit-down consultation for a $39 corsage that Gage usually reserves for a $1,000 wedding arrangement, he says. The more elaborate corsages with wired pearls, glitter spray and lace ribbons take about 20 minutes to create. Gage calls them “a necessary evil” because of their labor intensity compared to price. “But it’s an opportunity to build customer relationships,” he says.

From left: Jody Gage, owner; Robin Pike, design manager; and Jill Gage, owner of Fortin-Gage floral shop in Nashua. Photo by Christine Carignan.

And that is the true profit in prom—repeat business. “We have multiple cases where I have seen a senior prom and then they return to us for a wedding,” says Pierce of Grace Limo. Businesses that capitalize on proms need to think strategically with an eye towards the future. Because when it comes to milestone moments, patrons are more likely to splurge than skimp.

More prom stories:
Prom Pressure
Prom on a Budget

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