Halloween shoppers in Manatee not spooked by economy

jsalman@bradenton.comOctober 25, 2012 

MANATEE -- Sales are on the rise at specialty Halloween retailers this October after an eerie economy scared consumers from the market the past three years.

Goblins and ghouls are big business in Manatee County, where seasonal costume shops, pumpkin patches and fall festivals generate millions of dollars in consumer spending.

With an economy on the mend, more local shoppers this year are willing to dig a little deeper into their pocketbooks to trick or treat.

"We're starting to see it pick up," said Robin Middlebrooks, a manager at Party City in Bradenton. "People are coming in, and we are really hoping for another late rush."

Consumers are predicted to spend $79.82 on average for supplies this Halloween season -- 10 percent more than last year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.

The U.S. total for Halloween spending is expected to reach $8 billion.

Although candy and costume sales for children are traditionally steady, retailers say the biggest increases this year have come with adult apparel, party supplies and decorations -- items put on hold when personal finances are thin.

And even though hard times still haunt many, families are getting tired of putting off their spooky festivities.

A record 170 million people plan to celebrate Halloween this year, or nearly 72 percent of all Americans -- the most in the survey's 10-year history.

"We get a nice bump for it," Florida Retail Federation spokesman John Fleming said. "We're closing out what has been a pretty good year for retail, and to keep that going through Halloween and the Thanksgiving shopping weekend, we'll be pretty happy."

Spirit Halloween, the nation's largest specialized Halloween retailer, would not comment on specific sales trends.

But the company said finding short-term lease space for its 1,000 stores, including the ones in Bradenton, Sarasota and University Park, has become increasingly difficult -- a sign the economy has turned the corner.

Halloween-related retail sales are stimulated by as much as 30 percent when the holiday coincides with the weekend, according to Spirit.

That hasn't happened since the pits of the recession in 2009.

The company attributes progress over the last few years, even with Halloween falling on a Wednesday next week, to growing consumer confidence.

"In general, the economy is starting to see an uptick," Spirit Halloween corporate spokeswoman Crystal Baxter said. "There's that drive to go out and celebrate. Halloween is one day of the year people can dress up and be whoever they want."

The retailer has correctly predicted every presidential election since 1996, based solely from its mask sales of the leading candidates.

So far this year, Barack Obama holds a 60-to-40 percent edge over GOP contender Mitt Romney.

"We still have seven days left, so there's plenty of time for Romney to catch up," Baxter said.

At the Hunsader Farms pumpkin festival in rural East Manatee, tens of thousands of patrons have packed the farm since the fair opened Oct. 13.

Aside from the local traffic, the event has provided a boost to area hoteliers from the performers and Halloween enthusiasts coming into town.

"We have people coming from around the whole state -- it's amazing," said David Hunsader, one of the farm owners. "They stay in our hotels and visit the festival for a day or two."

Even pumpkins are selling off the racks.

The pumpkin patch at Trinity United Methodist Church on Manatee Avenue in Bradenton is on pace to sell out this year after receiving a shipment of 1,000 new pumpkins Tuesday.

All of the proceeds from the sale benefit the church's scholarships and missions.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.

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