• February 1, 2023

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Kathleen McKeon, a 36-year-old mother of two, goes all-out for Halloween. She has the best-dressed house on the block. She strings enough lights to make trick-or-treaters squint, inflates a giant cat for the roof and rigs a spider to jump out at anyone who dares approach the front door. Inside, each room is appointed with life-size statues — of witches, ghosts and a harvester of souls — that dance and move along to music.

“We do a little more than most on the block to decorate,” McKeon said.

For McKeon, the holiday begins in July, months before she hangs any decorations. That’s when she returns to her job at Spirit Halloween. Her unabashed enthusiasm for the spooky holiday makes her a kind of poster child for the retailer, which she joined over a decade ago, first as a store employee and now as a district manager overseeing three stores in New Jersey. She’s part of a stable of 35,000 seasonal workers who will staff 1,450 stores this year — many of whom return, en masse, year after year.

Even as many Americans are trying to survive the summer heat wave, Spirit Halloween stores are beginning to spring up in cities across the country. “We are at full tilt right now,” Steven Silverstein, CEO of Spirit Halloween, told Forbes in early August. “We’re in the thick of hiring, we’re in the thick of building stores and we’re in the thick of building merchandise.”

Halloween is scary profitable, behind only Christmas in holiday consumer spending. Last year, Americans shelled out a record $10 billion for Halloween costumes, candy and decorations, up 40% from a decade earlier, according to the National Retail Federation. That was despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Spirit Halloween is the biggest chain devoted to the holiday. Its parent company, which also owns retail chain Spencer Gifts, known for selling lava lamps, Nirvana tees and fart machines, raked in revenue of $1.7 billion last year, up from $1.1 billion the year before, according to Moody’s.

The seasonal retailer got its start in 1983, when a shop owner in California decided to swap his normal inventory of women’s clothing for Halloween costumes. The get-ups sold so fast that he decided to expand, ultimately opening 60 temporary Halloween locations across the Southwest. In 1999, he agreed to sell to the owner of Spencer Gifts, which had 700 mall-based stores.

The company traded hands several more times in the coming years and in 2003, Silverstein was brought on as CEO. A retail executive with priors at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, he had just been fired as president of Linens N’ Things, where he had been for over a decade, and needed a job. “Spencer’s appealed to my funny bone,” said Silverstein, who grew up in a well-to-do household in Miami, where his dad was a cardiologist and his mom worked for an ad agency. He staffed the front desk at his grandparents’ Daytona Beach motel on school holidays.


He inherited tiny Spirit Halloween, which he quickly set about growing. He found he could take advantage of empty storefronts vacated by other retailers, which landlords were all too happy to fill, even if just for a few months. Locations were identified on Spirit’s website by the retailer that used to be there before it fell on hard times and disappeared, like “former Sears,” “former Beals” and “former Pier 1.” Last year, it took over the original Barney’s in midtown Manhattan, filling the once glamorous department store frequented by the city’s socialites with polyester witch costumes, jack-o-lanterns and fog machines. In some cities, it has set up shop in closed churches.


Spirit Halloween will open over 1,400 temporary stores this year — up from 130 stores two decades ago — which vanish after the clock strikes midnight.

It takes about ten days to open a location, and then it’s off to the races. Spirit Halloween has about two months to make all of its revenue, with over 90% coming from in-store purchases. “I liken it to somewhere between a military operation and halftime at the Super Bowl. How did they do that?” said Silverstein.

So it doesn’t send away any last-minute shoppers empty-handed, the retailer aims to be fully stocked until the end of business on Oct. 31. It helps that a large portion of its costumes — think witches, ghosts and goblins — are evergreen, allowing it to pack away as much as 40% of its inventory at the end of each season, rather than discounting it. That stuff gets put into temporary storage units close by, a cheaper alternative to transporting it back and forth to a large distribution center.

Despite the country’s current labor shortage, a high rate of returning employees has helped Spirit keep its outlets staffed during its one-and-only season. At the stores that McKeon manages, half of her employees have worked there previously. Many are teenagers, stay-at-home moms or teachers, looking to make a little extra money, often for the upcoming holiday season. One woman comes back each year to make enough to pay her property taxes, which are a frightening fact of life in New Jersey.

Flexible shifts are part of the draw. Only have time to work two hours, two days a week? That’s okay. McKeon, for instance, has worked at the retailer for just five months in each of the last 12 years. During the rest of the year, she volunteers full-time at her children’s school, where she organizes field trips and runs the library. In the summer, she and her husband have another seasonal business: operating the town ice cream truck.

“People are oriented to coming back,” Silverstein said. “That’s one of our secrets.”

To stay competitive with larger chains like Target and Walmart, Spirit raised wages last year and made it more lucrative for former employees to return. The 30% employee discount at Spirit doesn’t hurt, either, especially for Halloween enthusiasts like McKeon.

“They’ve proven to be nimble with staffing and getting optimal leases,” said Moody’s analyst Joe Tringali. “If it were easy, everyone would do it. That serves as a barrier to entry.”



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