I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Spirit Halloween. For obvious reasons. It’s the only seasonal, dedicated Halloween-only store successful enough to have multiple locations in every US state. And it’s one of those special kind of stores that is more than a store. Visiting one is almost like going to a theme park or a haunted attraction (especially for kids). Years ago, I remember their selection being pretty limited and their prices being absurdly high. But they seem to be upping their game a little year by year. Their prices are still on the high side, but they carry so much STUFF now, much of it only available there, including so many aspirational, $300-and-up animatronic decorations that I never buy but always sort of consider.
When I first started writing about Halloween around 15 years ago, well, it’s a little embarrassing but I used to review retail stores based on their Halloween presence. Walgreens, Target, Home Depot, Costco, Michael’s, etc. And of course, the actual Halloween stores. Back then there was a second national franchise option: Halloween Express. Their prices were even higher, and their selection worse than Spirit, but it was at least an alternative. Their last Arizona store went away somewhere around 2011. They still exist now but with far fewer locations.
Then there was Halloween City, which was actually just Party City’s Halloween section split off into a few standalone stores. That only lasted two or three years in this state, and while you can still go to any Party City and see pretty much the same thing, it was cool having it be its own store. There’s just something about a whole store being dedicated to just Halloween that feels more special than a seasonal section within a normal store.
Of course, every state also has its own smattering of local costume shops and such – many of which transform themselves into ad hoc Halloween stores during the Season. Phoenix had, for the longest time, a city staple called Easley’s Costume Shop in downtown that was great. There you could find costume parts and accessories you couldn’t get anywhere else, along with professional quality costume makeup that’s difficult to obtain even online. Alas, they were forced to finally close after decades of service due to, well, Amazon (let’s be frank). And the owners didn’t hide their bitterness about that fact.
The closing of Easley’s was a painful blow to anybody who cared about Halloween, or really, the concept of small business in general. Not to get too soapbox-y here, but the promise of the internet was to expand the retail universe so that consumers had unlimited options at their fingertips, and businesses once hampered by geography could now access an unlimited pool of potential customers. Instead, Amazon’s ravenous takeover of the retail world ended up consolidating virtually everything into a single place on the web. And while their selection may appear endless, it’s actually just the illusion of variety created by thousands of Chinese dummy retailers sourcing the same handful of sweatshop factories for their dirt-cheap wares.
And yet Spirit thrives. They obviously have a good business model, no doubt aided by the theme park aesthetic of their stores which can’t be replicated online. And they’re actually, weirdly a sustainable brick and mortar business, because they spend the 10 months of the year they’re not open securing existing retail spaces that are normally sitting empty. Which has an uncanny knock-on effect when you visit a Spirit store that you remember from childhood as a Toys R Us or Foot Locker or Office Max or whatever. I’m anticipating the day they set up a Spirit inside of a former Best Buy.
All that being said, I do feel vaguely disconcerted that Spirit Halloween is now an effective monopoly in this specific sector. It’s not their fault, and you can of course still buy the same category of product in so many other places: Target, Walmart, grocery stores, Party City, Site Which Shall Not Be Named… But as I’ve hopefully articulated above, there’s something different about a true blue Halloween store, and there’s gotta be room in the market for more than one big one.
There’s room for improvement in the Spirit model too. The Halloween aesthetic being so important to its appeal, you’d think they’d put more effort into giving the stores a spooky vibe in the music they play. But as I’ve bitched about countless times in the past, they all play Top 40 radio with a few obvious Halloween songs thrown in here and there. Nothing kills the vibe of watching an 8 foot animatronic pumpkinheaded scarecrow spew fog from its mouth like Katy Perry suddenly blasting from the speakers. *Note: This may be the oldest thing I’ve ever typed.
A potential Spirit competitor wouldn’t have to work hard to improve on the spooky aesthetic. Dim the lights a little, play appropriate music and atmospheric sound effects, maybe throw in some fog. It still has to function as a store, obviously, but I’ve seen it done better with my own eyes.
Where it’ll be tough to compete with Spirit is in the licensed product. Over the years Spirit has doubled down on officially licensed, exclusive costumes and decor from the likes of Nightmare Before Christmas and Hocus Pocus (Disney), to Trick R Treat, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, IT, Minecraft, and on and on. I tend not to use movie characters in my decorating, but any kid shopping for a costume is going to want to be Iron Man, not “flying robot hero”.
Nevertheless, Spirit is ubiquitous enough that I have faith another company will eventually come along to claim a piece of the pumpkin pie. I only hope it doesn’t wind up being Amazon…