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Robust sales turn fright into delight

Halloween merchandise flies out of stores as consumers set aside their fears, surprising retailers.

October 25, 2008|Andrea Chang | Chang is a Times staff writer.

Finally, some not-so-spooky news for retailers: With Halloween on a Friday, many consumers are putting aside recession worries and snapping up Batman Joker masks, Sarah Palin glasses and Hannah Montana wigs.

At Hollywood Toys & Costumes this week, shopper Jo Kurtz was pushing a cart loaded with a vampire hunters kit, a coffin, plastic spiders and a necklace made of plastic garlic cloves.

"For some reason, I'm going all out this year," said Kurtz, a voice-over actress from Studio City who planned to spend $500 on the holiday, up from $100 last year. "I don't know -- I'm just having a really fun time and all my friends are doing it too. Anything is a good distraction from reality."

The gloomy reality -- a weak economy, plunging stock market and rising unemployment -- had retailers worried that consumers would remain tight with their spending for Halloween. But with a week to go, many stores said they were out of stock on popular items and were extending hours to accommodate crowds of shoppers.

"The numbers are up from last year already, and we haven't even gotten the rush yet," said Shawn Prochazka, whose Bizzy B stores sell Halloween costumes and accessories. "I'm beefing up my orders to compensate."

Halloween, a relatively inexpensive holiday to celebrate, has been growing in popularity and consumer spending in recent years, said Britt Beemer, chairman of consumer behavior firm America's Research Group.

According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, more people are expected to participate in Halloween festivities this year, with the average person spending $66.54.

"Though the economy is struggling, Halloween sales may be a bright spot for retailers this fall," said Tracy Mullin, president of the retail trade group. "Consumers, who have been anxious and uncertain for the past several months, may be looking at Halloween as an opportunity to forget the stresses of daily life and just have a little fun."

Erich Hamner, 45, who's been hit hard by the stock market in recent weeks, said he agreed.

"I'm a bit depressed about everything. My investment accounts, I'm watching it go down and down and down," he said Thursday while shopping for Halloween items at a Target in West Hollywood. "So this is an escape."

Hamner, who makes custom tiles and countertops, said he typically buys "a couple bags of candy and that's it" for Halloween.

But this year, he estimated he would spend $200 on Halloween merchandise including orange lights, home decorations and rubber bloodshot eyeballs.

Still, many retailers had been anxious that customers would forgo Halloween.

"I was very nervous about this year," said Deanna Jimenez, who runs A Costume Affair, a Halloween shop in Walnut that operates only in September and October. But "people started coming in before we officially opened."

At Bizzy B, Prochazka said he "held back a little bit" earlier this year and spent less than half the amount he usually would on initial Halloween inventory orders.

But stronger-than-expected sales at his stores in Hollywood and Santa Monica have led him to place reorders "just about every day."

Most of Prochazka's Halloween products are made by Leg Avenue Inc., a wholesale manufacturer and distributor of adult costumes based in City of Industry.

This year, Leg Avenue has received about $35 million in Halloween reorders from retailers responding to unexpected demand, up from $25 million last year, said Kunal Thakkar, director of the company's global supply chain.

"With this year's economy, what we saw was the buyers were more conservative with their initial orders," he said. "Now the reorders are flowing in."

Halloween is expected to be widely celebrated this year because it falls on a Friday, which will extend the holiday through the weekend.

That timing provided some relief to retailers, who said they were seeing customers -- especially women -- buy more than one costume to avoid wearing the same outfit two nights in a row.

"For us, when it's all said and done, I think we're going to be ahead of last year because we've got those extra days," said Sean Alarid, manager of Halloween Illusions, a chain of three seasonal stores in Redondo Beach and Torrance.

But some smaller retailers said they were struggling with their Halloween inventory.

"I usually sell out of most of my Halloween stuff by August," said Sue Howison, who co-owns Dark Delicacies, a year-round horror shop in Burbank. "As soon as I get my stuff in usually there's a big rush. But this year I think people are waiting and seeing."

Tony Detzi, vice president of Spirit Halloween, said that because of the economy he "wouldn't classify this as a great Halloween, but it's a good Halloween for us."

The retail chain, which increased from 548 to 628 superstores in the U.S. and Canada this year, would probably see small same-store sales gains over last year, he said.

"There was a lot of concern on our part on how the season was going to go," Detzi said. "But the customers have a lot of resiliency and they decided this wasn't something they were going to cut back on."

Nicole Duckett, an attorney from Hollywood Hills, said she was doing more for Halloween this year despite cutbacks at the law firm where she works.

At the West Hollywood Target, she was buying candy, a Halloween basket and two costumes for her dog, Luci.

"I think everyone is looking for an excuse to have fun -- the economy, the election, it's a tough time right now and I think morale is low," Duckett, 35, said. Halloween "is a way to let go."

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andrea.chang@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Scaring up a profit

Projected 2008 U.S. sales of Halloween-related items and average per consumer

Costumes: $2.1 billion

($24.17 average)

Candy: $1.8 billion

($20.39)

Decorations: $1.6 billion

($18.25)

Greeting cards: $320 million

($3.73)

Source: National Retail Federation

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