For most businesses that operate in the Halloween season, 2020 might prove to be frightful. The coronavirus pandemic could have a somber effect on Halloween parties and trick-or-treating.
“I don’t think anybody in the haunted house business will have the same expectations as last year,” said Larry Kirchner, the operator of a popular St. Louis haunted house called The Darkness and HauntWorld.com, a website that provides supplies and news to other haunted house operators. “Once October is gone, it is gone, and we won’t get it back.”
Haunted houses tend to be attractions where many people congregate in close quarters, making them a potential hot spot for COVID-19. Kirchner said most haunted houses usually open in September, but many are waiting until October this year. Kirchner owns three haunted houses but will only operate two this year, and he is limiting the number of days they will be open.
“It is not only a matter of getting enough customers, but also enough staff to run the haunted houses. Staff don’t want to be exposed either,” he said. “Plus, we have more expenses in staying open this year, including renting washing stations, spraying the houses with antibacterial spray, and providing customers with hand sanitizer.”
About 58% of people in the United States say they will celebrate Halloween this year, according to the annual Halloween survey conducted by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insight and Analytics. That’s down from 68% in 2019. Overall, Halloween spending is expected to drop from $8.8. billion last year to $8 billion in 2020.
To what extent it will impact costume retailers is unclear. In 2019, 47% of respondents said they’d dress up in a costume. The percentage is about the same this year. Yet, only 22% of men and 24% of women will be taking their children trick-or-treating. That’s a drop from 27% and 30%, respectively, last year.
That may be why September sales at Lynn Saunders’s Halloween costume shop are down about 30% over 2019.
“We started September fairly strong, but in the last week, we have really seen a drop-off,” said Saunders, owner of Hocus Pocus in San Antonio. “I wonder if that is related to the CDC.”
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Halloween guidelines. It listed attending large Halloween parties and trick-or-treating as high-risk activities.
Additionally, some local governments are imposing restrictions. While San Antonio has not yet made a decision on whether to permit trick-or-treating, other localities, such as Los Angeles, have decided to prohibit it.
Saunders has spoken with other Halloween retailers who are struggling as well. This Halloween season is, in an emotional sense, particularly difficult.
“Expectations that this would be a great year were so high,” Saunders said. “This year, Halloween was going to be on a Saturday for the first time in seven years. It was also going to be a full moon, and daylight savings time was ending. Sales would have doubled. Unfortunately, the purchases we made in January reflected that.”
But not all retailers have seen their bottom lines fall into a trap door.
“Sales were good this month. Overall, our sales are flat this year, and flat is good,” said Kyle Zurcher, a part-owner of Zurchers, a party supply store selling in Utah and Idaho. “We are moving forward optimistically.”
Business appears to be up for online costumer retailers.
‘We saw an initial drop in our overall costume sales back in March and April but are currently seeing a growth from our year-over-year sales,” said Henni Kristiansen, a public relations specialist with HalloweenCostumes.com. ‘We believe that the increase in sales is partially due to consumers wanting to avoid shopping in-person during the pandemic, our strong online presence, and massive selection of exclusives.”
That would be consistent with data from the Halloween survey. In 2020, 29% expected to shop online for Halloween, up from 25% last year. This year, 32% expect to shop in a retail store for Halloween, down from 36% in 2019.
One industry that is not getting a scare is confectioners. It would seem that candy makers face a tough year, given that the Halloween survey found fewer parents willing to take their kids out trick-or-treating and fewer respondents willing to hand out candy. But for the month ending on Sept. 6, candy sales in the U.S. were up 13% versus the same period last year, according to the National Confectioners Association.
“I think people are finding other ways to celebrate Halloween, and their creativity is pulling them toward their favorite candy memory,” said Lauren O’Toole Boland, the director of communications for the NCA. “I think a lot of parents want to share that with their kids this year more than ever.”
It may also be that candy gives people some respite from the doom-and-gloom of the coronavirus season.
“Chocolate has an uncanny ability to boost your mood,” said O’Toole Boland.
But there doesn’t appear to be any boost coming for the haunted house industry. In 2019, the Halloween survey found 22% of both men and women planned on visiting a haunted house. This year, those numbers are only 16% for men and 14% for women.
During the summer, a group of haunted house operators and owners of similar attractions formed a coalition called the Alliance for Interactive, Seasonal, and Location-based Entertainment to lobby Congress to change the Paycheck Protection Program, the small business aid program created in the March CARES Act pandemic relief package, to help the haunted house industry. The “industry has been unable to benefit from PPP in any meaningful way,” AISLE said in a statement in August.
Kirchner, who is part of AISLE, said he thinks that the haunted house industry is at least a billion-dollar-a-year business, and it is not just American customers they may be losing this year.
“Most of the rest of the world doesn’t go trick-or-treating,” Kirchner said. “For places like China, Japan, and England, Halloween means visiting a haunted house. American businesses supply haunted houses for places all over the world. It is a big export industry.”