Commentary

Retail Spending Turns Halloweenish

Halloween is finally upon us, after having haunted the retail aisles since around, oh, the Fourth of July, and the kiddies will be out in force this evening. In fact, “A majority of Millennials aged 15-25 now claim Halloween as their favorite holiday in a survey by social video chat provider ooVoo,” as Michal Clements reports on ChicagoNow. Santa’s day ran second — 39% — to 51% for the ghouls and goblins and zombies and things.

Clements consults a few other studies and divines that Millennials will spend about $500 million on haunted attractions — both standalone houses and special events at amusement parks — alone. “There is significant opportunity for brands beyond candy makers and costume designers to connect with Millennials through Halloween promotions or product offerings,” she writes.

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And don’t you know they’re figuring that out.

“A growing parade of restaurant chains — from Olive Garden to IHOP to Krispy Kreme — will offer free eats around Halloween in order to lure traffic during a seriously slow time,” USA Today’s Bruce Horovitz reports

How slow?

“Restaurants are like ghost towns on Halloween,” Derek Farley, “a restaurant industry PR guru” (hmmmm, now there’s a clever costume idea), tells Horovitz. 

Kids under 12 can get a free Halloween “Scary Face” Pancake at IHOP; Chipotle is running its annual “Boorito” promotion where all customers dressed in a costume can get a $3 burrito, and Krispy Kreme is giving away a free doughnut to anyone who walks in, Horovitz reports. (Go ahead, see if you can eat just one.)

In case you’re wondering what will show up at the door tonight, beyond the usual suspects, the top five “most-searched” costumes as of a couple of weeks ago, according to Google Shopping via MarketWatch’s Catey Hill, were:

  • Minion (a character in the Despicable Me animated comedy series);
  • Breaking Bad (one of AMC’s hit shows about a meth dealer that ended this year);
  • Fox (likely spurred by Ylvis’s “What Does the Fox Say” YouTube video);
  • Duck Dynasty (an A&E reality TV show about a family that makes products for duck hunters);
  • Miley Cyrus (a good-girl-turned-bad pop star noted for “twerking” at the VMAs).”

Oy. Coming to a doorstep near us?

Anyway, it appears that the holiday itself has seen better days. Like last year. The National Retail Federation (NRF) says the 158 million Americans who will celebrate in 2013 is down from the high of 170 million people in 2012. And total spending on everything Halloweenish, including costumes for pets, will be only (my modifier) $6.9 billion — $1.1 billion less than last year.

Why are we less festive, besides general ennui about the government, fear that our emails to old flames are being hacked by secret agents in dark rooms and the tragic victory of the Boston Red Sox in the World Series? (Okay, begrudging congratulations to all the Yawkeyites out there). Here’s why:

“Higher payroll taxes coupled with a weak economy and mediocre job growth are causing consumers to tighten their budgets,” according to the NRF. Its president and CEO Matthew Shay told CNBC that we’re living in an “either/or” economy.

“Consumers may purchase big ticket items or discretionary items, but not both,” the NRF says. “For the 25% of adults who said the economy will impact their spending plans, the haunted holiday may not make the cut this year.”

But erstwhile Halloween revelers are not the only ones who will be tightening their belts with a resulting hit on retailers.

“Retailers and grocers are bracing for another drain on consumer spending when a temporary boost in food-stamp benefits expires Friday,” Shelly Banjo and Annie Gasparro write in the Wall Street Journal. “The change will leave 48 million Americans with an estimated $16 billion less to spend over the next three years and comes just months after the expiration of a payroll tax cut knocked 2% off consumers' monthly paychecks.”

Grocers, discounters, dollar stores and gas stations will be the hardest hit, and Wal-Mart and Target have lowered their sales forecasts for the rest of the year, Banjo and Gasparro report.

Reminds me of a controversialTED talk by Seattle entrepreneur Nick Hanauer — “Rich People Don't Create Jobs” — and his subsequent, equally contentious call for a $15 minimum wage on Bloomberg.com. It’s hard to argue with one basic point he makes in the Ted Talk, which was initially deemed too “mediocre” to post:

“I have started, or helped to start, dozens of companies,” he said, “and initially hired lots of people. But if there was nobody around who could afford to buy what we had to sell, all those companies, all those jobs, would have evaporated.”

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