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Partying adults make Halloween big business

Halloween may conjure visions of shrieking kids in princess and skeleton costumes trick-or-treating door to door. But the holiday increasingly has morphed into a celebration by adults.
Image: Weak Economy Depresses Halloween Sales
A Halloween Adventure store, located in a defunct Circuit City site, sells costumes, props and accessories in Burbank, Calif. Such temporary "pop-up" stores are a growing trend, taking advantage of a surplus of vacant retail locations. David McNew / Getty Images
/ Source: contributor

Halloween may conjure up visions of shrieking kids in princess and skeleton costumes trick-or-treating door to door. But this popular holiday increasingly has morphed into a celebration by adults who buy a Dracula or sexy showgirl outfit and head to a party or club.

The shift has accelerated over the past five to 10 years, ushering in a transformation in the Halloween industry, according to retail industry analysts and executives.

More costume sales are going to adults, with some retailers saying the percentage of adult sales exceeds 50 percent. Nightclubs, restaurants and bars are throwing more Halloween parties and events.

Beer and booze companies are cashing in, too, unveiling Halloween ad campaigns and drinks, such as a Pumpkin Pie Martini from Blue Ice Vodka. And this year, with Halloween falling on a Saturday, some parties will last two days.

"Adults use Halloween as their escape holiday," said Shane Dabbs, owner of Santa’s Closet, a costume store in Rogersville, Ala. "It’s an excuse to have a good time."

Halloween generates up to $6 billion in retail sales, according to various estimates, helping to boost revenues just before the industry's crucial holiday season begins in earnest.

This year retailers will be watching nervously to see whether the long economic downturn bites into sales or whether shoppers decide instead to splurge on a weekend of frivolity.

Industry research firm IBISWorld predicts Halloween-related sales will climb 4.2 percent over last year to a record $6 billion as the budding economic recovery spurs consumers to “escape their recessionary woes.”

The National Retail Federation is more downbeat, saying a wobbly economy “has caught up to Halloween.” Still, the group expects Americans to spend $4.75 billion on costumes, candy, decorations and cards, down about 18 percent from lkast year's projection of $5.77 billion. Consumers, on average, are projected to spend $56.31, down from $66.54 in 2008, according to a survey done for the industry group.

As adults increasingly have dug into their wallets for Halloween, retailers have responded by stocking more high-quality costumes and accessories, said Terrie Frankel, co-owner of Frankel’s Costume Co. in Houston. 

“In the past it was pretty junky,” said Frankel,  who estimates that some 80 percent of her costume rentals and sales go to adults.

Frankel bought her business in 1978.

“At that time, it was just beginning to become more of an adult holiday than a kids holiday,” said Frankel. "It has since mushroomed. The trend of adults buying costumes and accessories has accelerated in the past 10 years.”

The under-35 crowd is the key demographic for Halloween, with more than 80 percent of adults 18 to 34 surveyed saying they expect to spend money on costumes, whether for themselves, their children or their pets.

“Spending among young adults without children has increased dramatically over the last five years,” said NRF Vice President Ellen Davis. “Today’s young adults celebrated Halloween vigorously as children. They’re not ready to relinquish that fun.”

Costumes account for the biggest chunk of the spending — about $1.75 billion, according to the NRF, followed closely by candy and decorations. About $250 million is spent on Halloween greeting cards. Retailers report popular adult costumes this year include:

  • Michael Jackson, following the pop superstar’s death this year
  • Zombies, inspired by Michael Jackson’s hit “Thriller” as well as the movie “Zombieland”
  • Vampires, spurred by the young adult “Twilight” books and HBO’s “True Blood” series
  • Sexy Queen of Hearts, nurse and burlesque babe outfits

Across the nation, nightclubs, restaurants, and bars are mixing Halloween drinks, decorating their walls with skeletons and skulls, and sponsoring adult costume contests.

“It’s exploded in the last couple of years,” said Tony Fleith, who organizes a month of Halloween-related festivities at the Barker Lounge, a popular gay and lesbian bar in Denver. “It’s gone beyond ghosts and pumpkins.”

Fleith has decorated the bar by hanging skeletons and other spooky paraphernalia. A ghoul can be seen crashing through the ceiling. The cult movie classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is shown every Thursday in October at midnight. Special drinks such as a tequila concoction called the “Grave Digger” are served. The festivities culminate with a Monster Ball on Halloween night.

“I try to take advantage of the whole month because Halloween has become so popular,” said Fleith, saying it’s “definitely one of the biggest nights of the year” for the bar.

In Chicago, The Underground nightclub is throwing two days of parties. On Halloween night, it’s a “blood-feeding” theme where guests are invited to dress up in costumes inspired by vampire-related books and movies such as “Dracula” and “Interview with the Vampire.” On Sunday, the club will become a “hauntingly inspired setting of skeletons, skulls, spirits and specters.”

“It’s more reliable than New Year’s Eve in attracting people,” said Benjamin Newby, spokesman for Rockit Ranch Productions, which owns the club.

Beer and liquor companies, too, are active in Halloween promotions.

Jägermeister is sponsoring a float in New York's Village Halloween Parade and hosting a Halloween party in the Big Apple. MillerCoors — the Coors Brewing and Miller Brewing joint venture — once again has rolled out an in-store, vampire-inspired promotion for Miller Lite, this year encouraging beer drinkers to “Sink Your Fangs Into Great Taste.”

Temporary stores cater to adults
Stephen Stanley, president of Disguise Inc., a California company that supplies costumes to Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers, said the rise of temporary Halloween stores over the past decade has contributed to the adult participation. And the past year’s economic slump has facilitated the trend, with store operators taking over shuttered Linens ‘N Things, Circuit City and other big-box stores.

Typically, the temporary stores open once the operator secures a temporary lease of, say, 60 or 90 days on a vacant property. New Jersey-based Party City, the nation’s largest party-goods retail chain, said last month it had opened 15 temporary Halloween around stores under the name "Halloween Costume Warehouse." The doors will stay open through early November.

Stanley said the temporary outlets typically are well-stocked with costumes and located in heavily trafficked areas. “That has helped drive the adult purchases," he said.

So while this year’s Halloween will see plenty of young kids trick-or-treating, it also will feature many party-loving adults who remain young at heart. “We’re very fond of saying Halloween is not just for kids anymore,” said Davis of the National Retail Federation.