Halloween isn't just kids stuff anymore. It's grown into a commercial event producing nearly $7 billion per year in sales. And despite the attacks of September 11, the National Retail Federation is predicting modest growth in sales this year. Halloween is not normally seen as a gauge of the all-important Christmas season. But this year, some retailers are looking for hopeful signs among the trick or treaters.
The National Retail Federation projects sales of $6.9 billion this year on Halloween costumes, candy and decorations. That's more than two-and-a-half times the estimated spending just five years ago.
Enthusiasm for Halloween has helped Spirit Halloween Superstores grow from one Twin Cities location to four in the past eight years. Here at the Woodbury store, skeletons hang from the ceiling, and all manner of ghoulery greets customers at the entrance. Val Cohn's family runs the operation. She says customers' desire for an escape from the grim events since September 11 is helping to fuel a banner year.
"It's the best year ever for us. People are not holding back," says Cohn. "They're buying just as many bloody arms and bloody legs and just as many gory things as they've ever bought. I've actually had people say to me, 'This is going to be the best Halloween ever - I'm really getting into it this year.'"
Shopper Mariclare Horan says her family isn't holding back on spending after the terrorist attacks. She also says they're not planning to cut back on Christmas gift-buying.
The first week, like many people, I think we were glued to the TV, watching things unfold and thinking in terms of that versus going out and shopping and spending money. Definitely it's gotten better, because weeks have gone on and we've moved on in our lives," Horan says.
National Retail Federation surveys have found evidence the Horan family has lots of company. The trade organization predicts Christmas holiday sales growth of 2.5 percent to 3 percent this year. Spokesman Scott Krugman says Halloween generally is not considered a bellwether. But he says this year the holiday may provide an important view of the consumer's mood.
"Sales are usually modest and represent a small fraction of the industry. However this year the mood for Halloween for consumers, and the fact that they are enthusiastic about celebrating Halloween, shows the shock effect of September 11 is beginning to wear off, and consumers are eager to get on with their lives. This bodes well as we get closer to the holiday season," says Krugman.
The holidays are key for retailers. They represent nearly one-quarter of yearly sales of consumer goods like clothing, furniture and electronics.
Minnesota retailers report some of the initial gloom of mid- September is lifting. Betsy Bockstruck, vice president of Bockstruck Jewelers in St. Paul and Edina, says the outlook for her business has improved over the last six weeks. Bockstruck says she's cautiously optimistic about the holidays. She say sales may benefit from the emotional fallout of the terror attacks.
"I think it's making people very aware of the relationships that they have. And maybe it's a reconnecting of family members and loved ones and friends. People will be in a giving spirit, and want to reach out to people like they've probably never reached out before," says Bockstruck.
But optimism - even the cautious sort - is far from universal. Tuesday, the Conference Board announced its consumer confidence index plunged to the lowest level in seven and a half years. Big layoffs continue. The war in Afghanistan shows no sign of ending soon. The threat of more anthrax or other terror attacks continues. "Things are still weak out there," says securities analyst Henry Kaczmarek, who follows apparal retailers for American Express Financial Advisors. "Things are not improving, and the inventory continues to build. We think there's going to be further price reductions to move that stuff."
Kaczmarek says that might force holiday markdowns as early as the first or second week of November. Regardless of Halloween, Kaczmarek says clothing retailers didn't have a good back-to-school season, and that indicates they won't have a good holiday season either.