Is a pretzel a treat?
Snyder's of Hanover would like you to think so. It's promoting pretzels as candy stand-ins for people who want to protect the teeth and waistlines of this year's crop of trick-or-treaters.
"Pretzels are the original better-for-you snack," said Michael Brookhart, director of marketing for Snyder's, which is selling Halloween Snack Sacks, 36 little packs of bite-size pretzels in a bag decorated with a jack-o'-lantern.
Even better for you, according to the Cabot Creamery Cooperative, is cheese. More precisely, the three-quarter-ounce chunks of reduced-fat cheddar Cabot is offering this season because "sugar shock," as the promotional materials put it, can be "scarier than ghosts and ghouls."
"We think cheese is a great alternative," said Jed Davis, director of marketing for the Montpelier, Vt.-based company.
(For those children who are counting, the pretzels and cheddar bars have 50 calories a serving, and one serving of Milky Way miniatures -- about five little bars -- contains 190.)
The Halloween aisles are loaded with healthful options. In Kraft's ghost-laden displays, there are bags of Ritz Bits peanut butter sandwiches, Teddy Grahams crackers and Miniature Oreos in bags adorned with pumpkins and orange leaves.
If you want your costumed visitors to avoid calories altogether, you can dish out what's advertised as the "no sweet treat": mini-cans of Play-Doh, sold in packs of 20 with a black cat on the bag.
The no-candy-at-Halloween idea leaves a bad taste in some mouths.
Shelly McMillan of Los Angeles said her 6-year-old son Alistair wasn't too happy when one neighbor handed out cheese-and-cracker packs last year. Children tell one another on the street which houses to avoid, she said, and they single out places that don't have candy.
"If you give out Halloween carrots," she said, "you're going to get a revolt."
But it's grown-ups who do the shopping, and Cabot said that after it began plugging Halloween cheese last year, sales jumped almost 30% from the year before.
Snyder's found that its pretzel promotions in October were such a hit -- double-digit increases in each of the last three years -- that this year it added peanut butter pretzel sandwiches to its Halloween lineup. A Play-Doh spokeswoman said that because of the success of its trick-or-treat campaign, the company would sell Christmas- related stocking stuffers this year.
"We're always on the lookout for things like Halloween -- holidays that we don't usually pay attention to," said Davis at Cabot, which also wants people to think cheese at Cinco de Mayo and on Super Bowl Sunday.
For a range of companies, the "micro-holidays have become a huge growth opportunity," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. If Kraft places Ritz crackers in the Halloween aisle, shoppers might be persuaded to "buy it now before the holiday is over."
It's fairly inexpensive for companies to change packaging around various seasons and holidays, said Valerie Folkes, a marketing professor at USC. And in an increasingly fragmented marketplace, every little bit helps.
"If it bumps up sales incrementally, it can mean a lot," she said.
Snyder's Brookhart insisted that money spent on nonchocolate goodies wouldn't go to waste.
"When given the option to pick healthy snacks," he said, "kids will."
Alana Caudillo of Wilshire Vista, who tries to have her 5- and 6-year-old daughters eat wholesome food year-round, said that when she put nourishing items in pinatas at birthday parties, the children didn't seem to mind. Just like at Halloween, she said, "they grab everything."