Since it’s founding in 1983, the seasonal chain store has grown ubiquitous across the US, becoming a go-to destination for all things Halloween. Drive past any suburban strip mall during September and October and there’s a high chance you’ll spot a bright orange Spirit banner hanging from the facade of one the company’s 1,400 seasonal pop-up stores.
Thanks to its penchant for inhabiting shuttered retail spaces formerly home to the like of brands like Toys R’ Us or Circuit City, in recent years Spirit has become synonymous with the Retail Apocalypse and the inspiration for countless internet memes.
“I didn’t invent temporary sales,” Spirit Halloween founder Joseph Marver told The Seattle Times in October 2000. “But I feel like I invented temporary Halloween.”
And while Spirit doesn’t disclose sales, parent company Spencer Gifts – the mall-brand known for its gag gifts ranging from lava lamps to sex toys – is estimated to bring in more than $US400 ($AU531) million annually.
After four decades of dominating the Halloween market, Spirit Halloween shows no signs of stopping this year. As the national rate of COVID-19 vaccinations continues to climb, sending more people out trick-or-treating and to parties, the Halloween industry is forecasting record sales of $US10.14 ($AU13) billion, up 20% from $US8.05 ($AU11) billion in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation.
We took a closer look at the rise of Spirit Halloween, and how it went from a small California costume shop to a bonafide holiday powerhouse.
Spirit Halloween was founded in 1983 by Joseph Marver as a pop-up store in the Castro Valley Mall in San Francisco, California.
Before Spirit became one of the most popular destinations for Halloween costumes and decor, the company got its start as a women’s clothing store called Spirit Women’s Discount Apparel.
As sales at his apparel store started to plummet, Marver told The Seattle Times he was inspired to transition to the Halloween business after watching throngs of customers line up to visit a costume shop across the street from his store.
“When the costume shop moved to a new location, Marver put his dresses in storage, loaded his own store with Halloween stuff and slapped a sign on the old costume shop,” Catherine Trevison of The Seattle Times wrote. “It was the best October he ever had.”The next year, he did it again with a temporary space in a nearby mall and sold $US100,000 ($AU132,860) worth of merchandise in 30 days.”
Today the company has 1,400 locations in North America, primarily located in strip and traditional malls.
Its main competitors are Party City and Halloween Express. Halloween pop-up stores compose an estimated 35% of the total Halloween market, according to the National Retail Federation.
Marver set up the stores up to operate as seasonal retail pop-ups, which are typically open from early August through November 2.
The company also has an online store for customers to buy costumes year-round, where it sells products for other holidays and occasions as well.
Spirit describes itself as “the premier destination for all things Halloween, offering one-stop shopping for costumes, accessories, home and outdoor decor, party goods, and our exclusive animatronics.”
The company sells costumes and decor to people of all ages, from toddlers to seniors.
The company has thousands of employees, and in 2021 hired 30,000 temporary staffers for its Halloween season.
In addition to being an opportunity to pick up part-time work, many staffers are serious Halloween enthusiasts, according to Mental Floss.
“I’ve never once worked with an employee that didn’t love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year employee of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, told Mental Floss in 2020. “It’s something that all employees have in common from my experience … It’s a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”
By 1998, Spirit Halloween had started growing rapidly and expanded to 60 stores around the country.
The 80s and 90s proved to be a boom for the Halloween business. The holiday first rose to prominence in the US after World War II, thanks in part to companies like Disney opening up licensing to use characters for costumes. The holiday experienced another uptick in popularity when the Baby Boom generation had children of their own to take trick-or-treating.
According to Marver, part of what sets Spirit apart is its variety and wide assortment of merchandise.
Marver told The Seattle Times that Spirit’s specificity extends to everything from masks to fake blood, and includes everything from “the fake blood that coagulates” to “the thin runny blood, the semi-thick blood and the one that just lays there like a slug.”
By the late 1990s, Spirit’s success attracted the interest of companies looking to capitalize on the Halloween superstore and so Spirit began courting acquisition proposals.
In 1999, Spencer Gifts – the mall-brand favorite known for its assortment of gag gifts and ephemera, which includes everything from lava lamps to sex toys – officially acquired Spirit Halloween.
“We had negotiated the year before, and they didn’t want to come up with what I was asking,” Marver told Bloomberg in 2016. “Now they said, ‘Fine, we’ll do it your way.’ Then they gave me a very nice check.”
With the help of Spencer, Spirit became known for its tongue-in-cheek pop culture costumes that tapped into the zeitgeist.
In 2009, one of Spirit Halloween’s most popular costumes was an incarcerated Bernie Madoff, the financier who pled guilty to operating one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history, which cost investors an estimated $US64.8 ($AU86) billion.
The retailer continued to grow in popularity in the early 2000s, with its array of costumes and masks, including those in the likeness of popular television and film favorites like Homer Simpson.
Marver starts buying costumes as early as January to ensure stores have enough inventory, basing purchases on highly anticipated shows, movies, and other big pop culture moments slated to come that year, he told The Seattle Times.
Spirit even managed to lure notable television personalities of the era, including Kristin Cavallari of MTV’s “The Hills” and “Laguna Beach” fame.
In 2006, the company launched its philanthropic arm, Spirit of Children Halloween. The organization has raised $US77 ($AU102) million to-date to support the child life departments of hospitals around the country.
According to Spirit Halloween, the mission of Spirit of Children “is to make hospitals less scary for kids and their families.”
Despite its success, Spirit Halloween has not been impervious to controversy. In 2016, Spirit came under fire for racial appropriation of Native Americans, and in 2021 it evoked Twitter outrage for a “Karen” costume.
Due to the seasonal and temporary nature of the business, Spirit Halloween typically takes over empty big-box stores …
… and even recently bankrupt luxury department stores, like the now-defunct Barneys New York.
According to Spirit, it “has an excellent real estate team that works year round to scope out and lock in the best locations available,” a spokesperson told Vox in 2018. The company seeks available storefronts near large national chains like Target or Best Buy, where there is already significant foot traffic.
As a result, Spirit Halloween has grown synonymous with the Retail Apocalypse, thanks to its penchant for popping up in abandoned retail spaces.
In 2020, there were a record 12,200 store closings in the US, leaving an estimated 159 million square feet in vacant retail space as the coronavirus ravaged national businesses.