By Bill Rautenstrauch
Observer Staff Writer
Halloween isn't what it used to be.
A decade or so ago, it was a minor diversion, a one-day shot, an unofficial holiday reserved mostly for kids.
Back then, parents purchased or made costumes for the youngsters and bought a bag or two of candy to hand out at the front door. On Oct. 31 the kids went to parties and then trick-or-treating.
And that was that. Halloween came and went in a flash.
But today, Halloween is bigger, better, and lots more fun. It's a weeks-long season that starts at summer's end and stretches deep into the fall. It is celebrated by adults and kids alike.
For retailers especially, the buildup and not the day itself is the thing. People shop for Halloween-related merchandise from mid-September on.
Smart business owners everywhere incorporate Halloween into their overall marketing strategy.
On a national scale, profits are huge. According to National Retail Federation figures, Americans spent about $7 billion on Halloween in 2002, $586 million in home decor items alone.
It's a beloved season all across the country, and in Union County, too.
Doug Campbell, owner of McGlasson's Stationery on Adams Avenue, said that Halloween retail sales can't compare to those of Christmas, but they are significant.
"It's something we want to do every year," Campbell said. His store sells a large line of gift items that in the fall includes Halloween cards, spooky home decor and novelty items, and Halloween candy.
Campbell's wife Carol does the merchandising for McGlasson's. She said she starts stocking Halloween items around Sept. 1.
"For us, Halloween has evolved into the second-most important fall holiday, behind Christmas and ahead of Thanksgiving," she said. "People love to decorate for it, and some of them go all out."
As a group, downtown retailers put extra thought and care into Halloween marketing.
Most city center stores are decorated for the occasion. And the La Grande Downtown Development Association stages an annual trick or treat event for youngsters.
Parents like the event because it is safer for the kids, said Doug Campbell, association president.
"There's always quite a bit of interest in it. It's done in the afternoon when there's some light left, so it's a safer environment," Campbell said. He noted the association is improving on the event this year, adding a scavenger hunt.
The National Retail Federation notes also that large discount stores annually grab the lion's share of America's Halloween profits. In 2002, discounters like Wal-Mart and Target raked in 39 percent of nationwide Halloween spending.
Predictably enough, Wal-Mart is
La Grande's foremost seller of Halloween-related merchandise.
Pumpkins are sold outside, and inside, shoppers find masks and makeup, costumes and candy pails, black lights, electric jack-o-lanterns, witches, monsters and ghosts that dance, laugh, talk, sing and scream, and more.
The packaging is sleek, and the marketing techniques slick. Most of the talking, singing, screaming toys come in a box with a clear plastic front, and a hole near the bottom. A customer can stick a finger through the hole and push the button that makes the toy do its thing.
"We're pretty optimistic about Halloween. We've got some good merchandise," said Steve Lovin, Wal-Mart manager.
Lovin, an experienced retail store manager, agrees that America celebrates Halloween as a season rather than just a holiday.
"The difference between now and the way it used to be is that we've got a bigger selection of merchandise and a longer time to sell it," Lovin said.
He noted that at Wal-Mart, decor items sell well earlier in the fall, and novelties and costume-related items later on.
Lovin said the store starts its Halloween sales about Sept. 1. Many Thanksgiving and Christmas items start appearing on shelves at that time also.
"Thanksgiving and Christmas are the more popular holidays. People really look forward to them," Lovin noted.
Lovin said candy sales seem to be running higher than usual this Halloween.
"We're selling a lot of the basic type candies, the ones people are familiar with, and not the novelty stuff like candy corn," he said.
At BiMart, another major
La Grande discount store, the Halloween season starts about mid-September, said Manager Jeff Thomas.
Like WalMart, the discount store sells costumes, decorations, novelty and decor items, and candy lots of candy.
"It's always a good thing, when you sell 15 to 20 pallets of candy in a month. We're talking hundreds of cases of candy," Thomas said.
He noted that the Halloween season coincides with fall hunting seasons, giving candy sales an extra boost.
Rite Aid, a third La Grande discount store, also carries a line of Halloween items and a big selection of candy.
Area grocery stores may not emphasize Halloween as much as the department and specialty stores do, but they still work hard to capture a share of the money consumers spend on the holiday.
Shop'n Kart on Island Avenue begins its marketing push about Oct. 1, said Manager Bob Kretschmer.
"We set up our candy displays about then, though we've got a lot of competition. Other stores shoot the pins out from under us in candy sales," he said.
Like Thomas, Kretschmer sees a plus in the fact that hunting seasons coincide with the Halloween season.
"Hunters buy a lot of that candy," he said.
Shop'n Kart, like WalMart and a couple of other outlets in the area, orders a truckload of pumpkins each Halloween, and earns modest returns on it. Kretschmer said the store is annually victimized by Halloween tricksters.
"We set the pumpkins out front, and we sell what people don't steal," he said. "A lot of them end up smashed on the pavement."
Kretschmer said he doesn't consider Halloween a major marketing event, but added that sales help the bottom line.
"It's not a real significant thing, but it all adds up at the end of the year," he said.