Fright Night is a retailer's delight

Steve Tarter

The economy may be scarier than the holiday this year, but shoppers aren't being spooked out of spending money for Halloween.

Business has been brisk at area Halloween stores such as Halloween USA, one of 149 outlets owned by Gags & Games in Livonia, Mich., at the Northpoint Shopping Center.

"We're down to the wire and running out of things," said Peoria manager Dave Milligan, surveying the ghosts, goblins and grinning jack-o'-lanterns in the store, displayed in what used to be a supermarket.

From a national perspective, it's too soon to call the season a screaming success but stores have been busy, said Gags & Games marketing manager Amy Gajda.

In addition to masks and costumes, the store also provides decorative items like air-blown inflatable items that have been expanding in popularity, she said.

"More adults are getting into Halloween. One way to do it is to decorate your home," said Gajda.

Decorations are going up despite the economic downturn, according to a national survey by the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation. It said the average person plans to spend $66.54 on Halloween this year, up from $64.82 in 2007.

"Though the economy is struggling, Halloween sales may be a bright spot for retailers this fall," said Federation President Tracy Mullin.

There's a bright outlook at Peoria's Halloween USA store, where Stephanie Sanchez of Bellevue was shopping with her two children, Nathan, 9, and Emili, 10, last Friday.

"I dress up and go trick-or-treating with them," said Sanchez, noting that her Halloween shopping trip would include the Spirit Halloween store in Westlake Shopping Center as well as area Wal-Mart and Target stores.

"I've always loved Halloween. After the trick-or-treating, we do a family wienie roast," Sanchez said.

There's been no shortage of customers at Halloween USA, said Michelle Dixon, who has worked at the store's cash register the past month. "Every two hours, we get another rush of people," she said.

It's also been busy at Spirit Halloween, a Halloween superstore owned by New Jersey-based Spencer Gifts, said manager John Hessing.

A store that's only open two months out of the year - September and October - has to have a little something for everybody, he said.

But in the final week before Halloween, some items sell faster than others, said Hessing, adding that Halloween masks for political candidates have been popular. Note: The store is out of Obama masks.

Last-minute shoppers still have plenty to pick from, said Hessing. "We'll be open until 10 at night this week and until 8 p.m. on Halloween," he said.

One costume store that doesn't disappear after Halloween is the Costume Trunk, where owner Steve Spain has catered to Halloween trends for more than 30 years.

"This week will be real crazy," said Spain, citing a big interest in Batman and Joker disguises, following the success of the "Dark Knight" film earlier this year.

Regarding the Joker, Halloween USA manager Milligan observed that "Guys are choosing to do their own make-up rather than going with a mask."

Pirates, dance hall girls and Disney characters from Snow White to "High School Musical" fame are all popular looks this fall, said Spain.

"We're seeing more masquerade balls that involve more formal costumes, not so much Freddie Krueger," he said. Spain's rentals range from $25 to $150 for the 1,000 or so outfits he has on hand.

Not everybody plans in advance, he said. "We get people who drop by (Halloween night) on their way to a party," said Spain, who keeps his store open until 7 p.m. all this week.

All those costumes and face paint usually leads to candy and those sales have been sweet, said John Elliott, public affairs manager for Kroger's central division, a Midwest region that encompasses more than 150 food stores, including Peoria-area outlets.

"Candy sales have been extremely strong all year and we're doing very well on Halloween candy sales," he said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260