Halloween brands make a spirited attempt to save the COVID-haunted holiday
“Things are getting spoooooky,” read a recent email advertising costume promotions from children’s brand Carter’s. Indeed, when the top costumes are expected to be a hazmat suit and a plague doctor, it hardly gets spookier than Halloween in a pandemic. Despite the holiday falling on a Saturday this year, normally a boon for retailers and brands, the coronavirus has hampered the potential of a blockbuster night. As a result, brands are getting creative with their marketing and digital endeavors in order to attract consumers, who experts say want to spend, but may still be reluctant due to the economy.
“Consumers love this holiday and will be looking for ways to celebrate despite a different environment,” says Katie Thomas, who leads the Kearney Consumer Institute, an internal think tank that studies consumer trends.
Brands have their work cut out for them. Some 42 percent of Americans plan to celebrate Halloween this year, according to an early September survey from data intelligence company MorningConsult, which had no comparative figure from the prior year. But the survey found that 15 percent of consumers say they are nervous to celebrate Halloween as they normally would due to the pandemic.
Last year consumers were expected to spend a near record $8.8 billion on the Oct. 31 holiday, according to the National Retail Federation, which has yet to release its spending predictions for 2020.
Yet there is still potential for spending—if brands tap into trends like digital initiatives and do-it-yourself projects.
“COVID changed the definition of what is essential,” says Inna Kuznetsova, CEO of 1010data, a provider of analytical intelligence to the financial, retail and consumer markets. She notes high growth in categories like lawn care and toys. “While you may think toys are an extra expense, in many families it becomes a necessity when kids are cooped up at home and parents need to work,” Kuznetsova says.
Brands that meet that need could be the winners this October.
Many appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach with their advertising. While some brands such as Carter’s, Hanna Andersson and Pottery Barn have been promoting their costumes via email messaging, few retailers are spending on TV. According to Kantar, no major Halloween advertising has aired yet this year. Last year, a total of $181.2 million was spent on Halloween-themed ads, Kantar found, noting that widespread advertising did not begin until mid-September last year.
While the timing of Target’s marketing campaign, beginning on Sept. 20, will be similar to last year, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based chain says Target began pre-orders in July for its adaptive costume assortment for special needs consumers. The company was running Halloween promotions on its homepage in August.
In early August, Spirit Halloween, the retail chain of pop-up Halloween stores, began opening its 1,400 locations—earlier than last year. Dressing rooms have been revamped with capacity restrictions, a spokeswoman says. The company has debuted inflatable costumes and candy scoop bags to help with social distancing guidelines. Spirit also has a unique line of face masks.
“We have an entire bag of tricks, and treats, to let enthusiasts know Halloween is here to stay,” the spokeswoman says.
Only 7 percent of consumers say their kids will trick-or-treat this year in the same way they normally would, MorningConsult found. Depending on state and regional regulations amid COVID-19 numbers, going door-to-door might not even be allowed in certain places. To that end, experts say brands should focus on community-level promotions.
“Brands should invest in localized marketing and data, to adapt quickly and manage inventory, as they accommodate different rules,” says Thomas. “Brands can also jump on the bandwagon of a close-to-home Halloween celebration, by enabling neighborhood trick-or-treating in a local park, a toned-down Monster Mash, or a screening of 'Hocus Pocus.'”
Many marketers are also investing in digital opportunities. Spirit created Halloween-themed video call conference backgrounds in July, and is now using social media to encourage house décor.
Mars Wrigley recently announced Treat Town, an app that provides a “digital Halloween Trick or Treating experience,” according to the candy brand. In October, consumers can use an online portal to create their own avatars and visit the virtual homes of friends and family to earn candy credits that are redeemable for actual confections.
Experts also expect do-it-yourself and crafting, which rose in popularity during pandemic lockdowns as bored consumers explored new hobbies, to continue to be a trend for Halloween. Andy Mantis, head of data insights at 1010data, says his company has seen large year-over-year growth in crafting, knitting, embroidery and sewing.
“It wouldn’t be surprising to see more costumes as home projects—you gotta keep everyone busy, half the time the kids are in school but they’re at home the other half,” he says. “All of these home projects are growing and we’ll expect some of that to go into Halloween.”
Lion Brand Yarn Co. has already been reaping the benefit of consumer interest in DIY. The Carlstadt, N.J.-based brand saw ecommerce sales grow 75 percent from March through July—many sales were from first-time buyers to the 143-year-old retailer. This will be the brand’s first Halloween with its new glow-in-the-dark yarn, a product Lion Brand Yarn is playing up in its marketing. The company plans to host an online costume contest across its social media platforms.
“We’ve tried to make Halloween fun at home,” says Shira Blumenthal, Lion Brand Yarn’s brand ambassador who hosts a daily show live online.
Experts expect most buying around the holiday to occur online—and specifically at those essential retailers such as Walmart, Amazon and Target that have already been attracting new customers during the coronavirus because of their convenience. Target’s curbside pickup’ grew 734 percent in its most recent quarter compared with the year-earlier period, CEO Brian Cornell said on an earnings call last month.
Mantis notes that such stores have “picked up a disproportionate share of new customers during COVID and they do sell a lot of Halloween-related goods and services.” He adds that this could make the retail environment more competitive for traditional party supply stores.
Kuznetsova agrees. “We have seen is the natural affinity for majority of population to buy online,” she says. “We have seen the leap forward in adopting the new behaviors—it’s likely the trend will stay.”