Halloween stores scare up a lot of cash

An employee at a Chicago costume shop arranges masks.

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KAI RYSSDAL: You're going to be hearing a lot of this next week:

sound: [Doorbell]

...followed shortly thereafter by a whole lot of this:

Multiple children's voices: "Trick or treat!"

Some of you are probably heading out to Halloween parties this weekend, and scrambling to scare up a costume. Luckily, there's an entire industry devoted to helping out procrastinators among you.

Fly-by-night costume shops land in empty storefronts about this time every year. They hawk their hats and their brooms, and by the time November rolls around, they've disappeared.

Marketplace's Caitlan Carroll reports the amount of cash they take with them is almost frightening.


Caitlan Carroll: Customers paw through layers of scary masks and ghoulish decorations at the Spirit Halloween store in Burbank California. This is just one of more than 500 stores Spirit Halloween opens every fall. Employee Vanessa Sands says there's plenty of demand for the usual items:

Vanessa Sands: Lots of pirates, lots of pirates this year, and lots of just bloody things.

You want to be a sexy pirate? $29.99. Crop the top and add some feathers and you can be a scandalous pirate for $119.99. Scott Krugman from the National Retail Federation says 18- to 34-year-olds spend more on costumes like this every year.

And all this for what's really a small holiday. Halloween sales are only expected to bring in about $5 billion -- compare that to Christmas, which is worth almost 100 times that. Still, Krugman says "big-box" retailers like Target and Wal-Mart want a piece of the action.

Scott Krugman: I think retailers are doing a much better job of recognizing trends and adapting. They're seeing more adults spend on the holiday, and in turn are offering more elaborate merchandise.

The invasion of the big-box stores is bad news for the specialty outfits. Chains like Spirit already have their hands full competing for prime store locations with other specialty retailers, says Spirit Halloween executive Tony Detzi.

Tony Detzi: Unlike on the permanent side -- you know, where your competitor is in our world -- you don't know where your competitor is until everybody opens their doors.

Detzi says nailing down spots for the shops is hard enough -- staffing them can be a nightmare. He goes from overseeing 43 permanent employees during the year to 10,000 near the holiday.

They get paid minimum wage or slightly above. Detzi finds them by placing ads on Craigslist and Monster.com... appropriately. Let's see: Temporary workers, temporary stores, relatively low wages. It almost makes them sound like carnies.

Detzi: We get called that quite a bit -- that we're carnival people, that we only come in and set up the tent and leave. But we consider ourselves operating a permanent business on a temporary basis.

Employees in Burbank don't seem to mind their temp status -- some of them are Spirit's best customers. Vanessa Sands is checking out a Little Red Riding Hood costume in her off time.

Vanessa Sands: Usually I'm a fairy, or something full-covered, or a nurse this year. I figured I'd go sexy this year. I'm 30 -- dirty 30, I guess.

Whether it's sexy or sweet, Halloween shoppers have plenty of options. Costume companies like Spirit Halloween, Halloween Adventure and Halloween Express are busting at the seams, because even though this isn't the biggest holiday, everyone knows that it's still the most thrilling.

In Los Angeles, I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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