Scariest shopping trend? Halloween and Christmas stores everywhere

Everyone is scouting for good deals in this ghoulish economy, including mom-and-pop Halloween merchants howling for vacant spots in shopping centers and strip malls.

The Halloween stores, which will soon morph into Christmas centers, are popping up in every nook and corner and offering prices like never before.

Plummeting same-store sales, depleting consumer spending and bankrupt retailers shuttering locations have resulted in a lot of prime real estate lying empty. To scare away the horror of zero income, landlords are wooing temporary merchants to help them tide over the difficult times.

The vacancy rate at U.S. regional malls rose to 8.4% in the second quarter, the highest level since Reis Inc., a New York-based real estate research firm, began tracking regional malls in 2000. Mom-and-pop owners who earlier could only aspire to sell their wares out of a small kiosk or cart are now proudly displaying merchandise in enviable locations. Rents are cheaper and the spaces available are bigger.
Les Morris, spokesman for mall goliath Simon Property Group, said in a phone interview that the company is aggressively seeking local entrepreneurs. Simon is telling the little guys that malls, even the premier ones, are no longer inaccessible. Lease terms are flexible and the mall owner is encouraging entrepreneurs to take advantage of the traffic and the company's marketing programs.

Guess, what? Small business owners are listening. Industry-wide statistics on temporary pop-ups are hard to come by, but experts concede they are on the rise this year.

Companies such as Halloween Adventures have opened stores in glitzy locales such as Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill. Flanked by Talbots and JoS.A. Bank Clothiers, the store occupies the former home of Express. Richard Smith, store manager, said the company is trying to get to new locations this year to boost sales.

"We are in Circuit Citys, Linens n' Things -- big, big locations that years ago we probably couldn't get," Smith said.

But the prime spots don't necessarily translate into incessant ringing at the cash registers. I walked into the store the other week when costume prices were slashed by half. Smith said they had to resort to aggressive discounts to stimulate sales.

Halloween sales are projected to be 2% to 3% below last year's, according to America's Research Group, a South Carolina-based consumer behavior consultant. The National Retail Federation projects sales to be down by $1 billion from last year's record $5.77 billion.

"There are lot more stores compared to last year, but these retailers would just be splitting the dollars," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of the consulting company, in a phone interview.

The temporary retailers may feel majestic about the rent deals, but in the end, the customer is still the king. The good thing this year is that consumers have a lot of options ranging from the dollar store to the trendy mom and pop.

Beemer says don't be horrified to haggle. If you find that Darth Vader costume you really like, negotiate like you would with a vegetable street vendor in Delhi. Chances are you will walk home with a sweet deal.
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