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Trick Or Treat: What Happens To Vacant Big-Box Stores During Halloween Season? Many Turn Into Pop-Up Stores

Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Chucky and Geoffrey The Giraffe.

Inside this vacant Toys R Us in Seal Beach, California, the horror stars are taking residency inside Geoffrey's old 47K SF retail home.

The interior of a vacant Toys R Us has been transformed into a Spirit Halloween seasonal pop-up shop in Seal Beach, Calif.

With pictures of cartoon kids and the Toys R Us mascot still on the walls after the toy company shuttered its stores just a few months ago, a Spirit Halloween has taken over.

Though the hedge fund that owns Toys R Us has flirted with the idea of bringing back the toy company, for now the retail spaces that the toy chain once occupied have been vacated. 

Pumpkins with scary faces, life-sized dolls of scarecrows and horror villains, giant stuffed spiders and corn stalks decorate the store. Hundreds of costumes and scary masks line aisles. There is even a small makeshift haunted house with screams echoing from a speaker that reverberates throughout the former Toys R Us when an unsuspecting customer steps inside.   

This is no longer America's toy store.

Every year — from September to the first week of November — seasonal Halloween stores set up at retail strips nationwide, often taking over vacant big-box stores.

This is a profitable business model for Halloween companies that operate for a couple of months, for the landlords struggling to fill vacant spaces left behind by Sears, Toys R Us and Kmart, for the retail strip trying to attract crowds and for the city looking for a sales tax generator, said Dan Bacani, Lee & Associates founding principal of the Pasadena office.

"Seasonal tenants have been part of the retail landscape for many years," Bacani said. "It's become more prevalent nowadays since the big-box properties are struggling to find their place in the commercial landscape … more and more of these pop-ups are occupying vacant properties and are extremely vital to the landlord’s cash flow.

"It is also important from a city perspective," Bacani said. "It brings folks to shopping centers that normally wouldn't go. ... The nearby businesses feed off of it. It generates sales. It becomes the anchor for that season."

Toys R Us iconic mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe can still be seen on the walls of a Spirit Halloween store in Seal Beach, Calif.

Though seasonal, Halloween pop-ups are part of a multibillion-dollar Halloween industry.

In September, the National Retail Federation’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, found that total spending for Halloween is expected to reach $9B this year, the second-highest in the survey's history and second only to last year's total of $9.1B.

More than 175 million Americans will celebrate the holiday, with the average person shelling out $86.79, up from last year’s $86.13, according to the survey.

“The economy is good and consumer confidence is high, so families are ready to spend on Halloween this year,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a news release. “Retailers are stocking up to supply children, pets and adults with their favorite decorations, candy and costumes for the season.”

From the commercial real estate angle, companies such as Spirit Halloween, Party City and mom-and-pop operators begin identifying vacant properties and contacting commercial real estate brokers as early as May, said CBRE associate Motti Farag, who specializes in retail leasing and landlord representation.

Every year, Farag said, CBRE prepares a list of different vacant properties available for lease. 

"We do field a lot of calls from the different Halloween or seasonal stores ... that are scrambling to find space," said Farag, who works out of CBRE's Newport Beach office. 

He said due to the demand and competition for short-term vacant spaces for Halloween, in some cases, a Halloween store will sign a one-year retail lease with a landlord just to house inventory and only open during the Halloween season.  

Landlords with empty stores love the seasonal tenants because there is little overhead and the short-term tenants pay a hefty lump sum, Farag said.

Most of the companies pay anywhere from $25K to $45K for three months in a location, with the price depending on the size of the space, which could range from 7K SF to 30K SF.

"These tenants usually write one lump-sized check for the entire three months they are there," Farag said. "There is no need for any tenant improvements."

Lee & Associates' Bacani said in some cases there are lease deals that include a combination of low base rent and percentage rent or profit-sharing.

A vacant Toys R Us has been transformed into a Spirit Halloween seasonal pop-up shop in Seal Beach, California

There are at least 50 Spirit Halloween stores in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, according to the company's website.

Many of the locations are former Toys R Us, Babies R Us, Sears, Staples or OfficeMax stores.

Spirit Halloween spokeswoman Marisa Uzzolino said she could not speak about the company's business model but mentioned there are advantages and disadvantages to being a seasonal store.

"For example, as the economy continues to improve, retailers are beginning to expand their portfolios and vacant spaces are beginning to backfill," Uzzolino wrote in an email to Bisnow. "We do face challenges securing the best locations; however, Spirit Halloween has an excellent real estate team that works year round to scope out and lock in the best locations available."

Though getting a large lump sum or profit-sharing from a company for occupying a retail space for three months could be seen as an advantage for landlords, it is not a viable business model, Bacani said.

Customer demand for these pop-up stores is only seasonal and some seasonal stores just don't work. 

"No landlord is saying to themselves, 'Oh boy, I can't wait for Halloween,'" Bacani said. "Even if they make more money in those few months than they would leasing to a regular tenant, it just doesn't do much for their debt service obligation. It makes their lenders nervous and could create negative comments from the community on why the landlord can't find a tenant.

"Landlords want a tenant to be committed for a number of years," Bacani said. "Is this something you want to bank on as a long-term solution? Absolutely not."