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Millennials Haunting Halloween Stores, Attractions As Business Booms

Three years ago, Albert Garcia noticed a change in Wynwood Arts District during October.

The Miami neighborhood has historically been artsy, with the retailers often embracing festive seasons, from Christmas and New Year's Eve to the area's own art and music festivals. But Halloween wasn't really a big deal, and the crowds paled in comparison to those other events, said Garcia, the chairman of the Wynwood Business Improvement District's marketing committee. 

No longer. 

“The neighborhood has embraced the holiday as a bona fide annual event,” Garcia said. “When we talk about Halloween in particular, I would say it is one of our top five holidays.”

Spirit Halloween Superstore customer Mike Groom trying on a costume at a pop-up location in suburban Atlanta

For communities and retail centers hosting a myriad of Halloween themed-events, pop-up stores, and retailers targeting Samhain revelers, big crowds are becoming the norm. Spending on Halloween merchandise — everything from costumes to candy — has exploded in the U.S. since 2005. Back then, consumers spent $3.3B, according to the National Retail Federation. This year, U.S. consumers are expected to drop nearly $9B during October for the Halloween holiday with 172 million people planning to celebrate the spooky season.

“This year’s total is expected to be the third-highest in the survey’s 15-year history, after the record $9.1B set in 2017,” NRF officials said in the report, which analyzed planned spending habits.

Discount stores and Halloween specialty stores are expected to dominate these sales, taking 78% of all Halloween sales this year, according to NRF. Grocery stores and online vendors will command 25% of the sales each. 

Animatronics lined up at a Spirit Halloween store in Atlanta

What has changed the popularity of Halloween is the same culprit transforming the overall retail landscape: millennials.

“It's becoming a holiday that millennials are celebrating as they come into adulthood,” said Katherine Cullen, NRF senior director of consumer and industry insights. “This is not your Halloween from 20 years ago.”

Costume sales have especially surged over the past few years, with more adults getting into the act. A decade ago only a third of adults polled by NRF had purchased a costume for themselves. Today, that number has risen to half.

Even pets are not safe from the dress-up game, with sales of dog and cat costumes on the rise as well. That may be because Halloween is very conducive to people's Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat accounts, Cullen said.

“It's a holiday that lends itself very much to social media,” she said.

While the numbers do not specify what percentage of sales comes from pop-up locations for Halloween-centric retailers, they are increasingly becoming a common part of the shopping center world, especially as mainstream retailers continue to struggle and shutter locations.

New York-based Winick Realty Group Senior Director Hal Shapiro said there are more than 50 pop-up Halloween stores among its retail properties in the tri-state area, including names like Spirit Halloween. Party City Holdco Inc. — one of the country's largest party-supply retailers — planned to open 235 Halloween City pop-up stores, a 10% increase from 2018, CEO Jim Harrison told stock analysts in August.

“With the retail apocalypse, it's good for everybody,” Shapiro said. “I'm sure a lot of their business is online, but they definitely need the physical presence.”

In Baltimore, the owners of Eastpoint Mall are seeing this benefit at a shuttered DSW store. But instead of a costume shop, two local entrepreneurs transformed the 18K SF space into a haunted house attraction called Bennett's Curse. These attractions vie for the more adult audience on Halloween, which works since more adults are participating in the holiday beyond just handing out candy at the door to trick-or-treaters, Bennett's Curse co-founder Allan Bennett said.

“[People] have $200, $300 animated characters and no one would have thought of buying them 20 years ago. People are embracing a larger annual spend,” Bennett said. “Over the past 20 years, there has been that emerging adult aspect of Halloween that always hasn't been there.”

The Mangler character featured at Netherworld in Atlanta

In the U.S., there are more than 1,500 haunted attractions active in any given year, not including another 3,000 venues run by charities or local groups that are open only on Halloween weekend. The biggest of the big attractions can command huge numbers: The top 3% of all haunted houses easily see upward of 60,000 patrons traveling through their haunted hallways a year, according to TransWorld's Halloween & Attractions Show. People annually spend anywhere from $300M to $500M in ticket sales, TransWorld reported.

That kind of number has retail real estate owners taking notice, especially since many of these haunted venues have a symbiotic relationship with Halloween stores, driving customers to each other.

“Every year, we receive multiple inquiries from [landlords] who want to create Halloween events,” Netherworld co-owner Ben Armstrong said.

Sprawling across 10 acres and two warehouses in suburban Atlanta, Netherworld is one of the largest haunted attractions in the country.

“Halloween was becoming a holiday not just for trick-or-treaters and families but for young adults,” Armstrong said. “[Millennials] will pay for having experience rather than having stuff. And frankly, they love to take photos of it.”