“The beauty of Halloween is that there are so many different ideas and ways to deliver on the execution. Every year people are more imaginative, more creative, more humorous, more topical…so many great ideas, and so perfect for Halloween.” – Steven Silverstein, WG’85, CEO of Spirit Halloween and Spencer’s Gifts

There are lovers of pop culture and cinema, who might commit to watching one horror movie a day throughout October’s duration. Armchair anthropologists, interested in investigating the cultural roots of modern interpretations of this ancient holiday. Whatever the reason, Halloween re-enters everyone’s life year-after-year and draws lasting fascination from consumers. According to the National Retail Federation, Halloween-related spending is expected to reach over 10 billion dollars in 2023 alone.

For expert retailers and marketers, Halloween is the perfect opportunity to “read the tea leaves in the marketplace, and go in at a level that digs just beneath the surface,” says Steven Silverstein, WG’85, Wharton alumnus and CEO of both Spirit Halloween and Spencer’s Gifts.

Peter Fader, Wharton’s Frances and Pei-Yuan Chia Professor of Marketing, joins Silverstein with undergraduate student Anoushka Ambavanekar, W’25, to discuss how retailers, product designers, and marketers alike work year-long to solve one of the most fun and enduring puzzles of the annual market. 

How experts predict the spookiest, best-loved trends every year 

Voting with the literal proof of their dollars, Fader compares Halloween to the results of a major election in the marketing and retail fields, wherein people demonstrate what their values are, what’s top-of-mind person-to-person, and just how much those integral facts change year-over-year. 

Steven Silverstein opens Spirit Halloween’s flagship store in New Jersey in July 2023. (Image: Spirit Halloween)

“It’s fascinating to explore all of the marketing learnings of psychological consumer behavior that we see reflected on what people choose to spend their money every Halloween, and how those choices change and evolve over time,” Fader explains.

Speaking on the subject of how retailer’s predict Halloween trends, Fader provides another key insight into the market’s dynamic nature. “No matter how much the media pushes people in one direction, saying ‘this is the one hot theme for Halloween this year,’ consumers vote with their feet and their wallets,” he says. “People think that seasonal stores like Spirit just appear with the wave of a magic wand, and somehow have exactly what everyone wants to buy. But the things Steven and his team do are executed on countless different dimensions; from the real estate side to placing their bets months in advance, hoping they will successfully predict or react to the consumer tastes of the moment.”

Managing Director of the Baker Retailing Center, Mina Fader, introduces Steven Silverstein on a Zoom in October 2020. (Image: Peter Fader)

Wharton students who study both retail and marketing receive an education on consumer behavior. This is true for undergraduate student Anoushka Ambavanekar, who sees the popularity of Halloween echoed four essential truths of consumer habits, a learning she picked up in Shiri Melumad’s Marketing 2110 (Consumer Behavior) class. There, Ambavanekar learned about four basic human needs that many theorists believe motivate most people’s actions: Control, Esteem, Belonging, and Meaningfulness. 

Young Anoushka Ambavanekar with a jack-o-lantern. (Image: Anoushka Ambavanekar)

“Halloween and similar cultural holidays speak to our need for meaningfulness, the idea that we as humans need to feel purpose, and to have an impact that lasts even after our deaths,” Ambavanekar explains. “When it comes to our purchasing behavior during Halloween, meaningfulness is also coupled with a motivation for belonging, our need for acceptance and connection with other people.”

Obvious winners, plus some surprises 

When people wander into a store like Spirit, they may be taken aback to see the favorite trends of their childhoods hanging from the racks for the first time in years, sometimes decades. Take Hocus Pocus, for example, the 1993 cult classic to which Disney offered a sequel in 2022. Before the sequel, however, came Silverstein’s team, who approached Disney to propose the development of a Hocus Pocus line of Halloween-themed merchandise. “In that case, we [Spirit] unearthed the franchise; and from that, Disney ended up making a sequel,” says Silverstein. 

Hocus Pocus, a perennial millennial hit, saw enormous commercial success, both at Spirit and on streaming. But buying trends fluctuate through the generations, and those changing interests don’t always align, which is a truth recognized by Ambavanekar. 

“Halloween really changes as you age, and consumer spending reflects that,” Ambavanekar explains. “Before people have children, they might be purchasing two-three costumes for themselves and the events that lead up to October 31. But after children arrive, spending habits shift towards money spent on a great costume for your kid, candy and decorations, and maybe a costume for the adults in the house.”

Dressed as characters from the 1988 film Heathers, Ambavanekar (right) poses with her friends, Diya Amlani, C’25 (center), and Julia Van Lare, C’25 (left). (Image: Anoushka Ambavanekar)

But some years have moments so big, there is no denying the obvious winners. “This year is definitely a Barbie world,” states Silverstein. “But the beauty of Halloween is that while the blockbusters are usually easy to spot, there are so many different ideas and ways to deliver on the execution. Every year people are more imaginative, more creative, more humorous, more topical…so many great ideas, and so perfect for Halloween.”

– Grace Meredith

Posted: October 12, 2023

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