Trick-or-treaters won't get left in the dark this year.
Although some supermarkets reported that sales of seasonal Halloween merchandise got off to a slow start after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many said they expected their stores to fill their traditional October roles as providers of last-minute general merchandise items like decorations, candles, greeting cards and flashlights.
"As far as the nonfood part of its goes, sales are definitely off," said Bob Annand, category manager, general merchandise/seasonal, Roche Bros., Wellesly, Mass., in an interview late last month. "How many people were really in the mood to buy home decor and stuff like that for the last couple of weeks?"
Many supermarkets reported that they no longer do much business in costumes, thanks to competitors like Wal-Mart, but they said they still expect to reap a healthy Halloween harvest by offering an array of other impulse items.
"We're not a destination for that kind of merchandise, so the bulk of our Halloween sales is in the last two weeks," said Pat Scalise, category manager, nonfoods, Dierberg's Markets, Chesterfield, Mo. She said sales through most of September were "right on target for us."
September and October also usher in the strongest season of the year for batteries, and retailers said they usually merchandise them right alongside flashlights in the Halloween seasonal section, if they have room.
"It will be a very big time for us in batteries," said Joel Wilson, general merchandise coordinator, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa. "In fact, that will be one of the everyday things that we'll try to support and promote beyond what would normally be seasonal-type goods."
He said Hy-Vee generally merchandises batteries throughout the Halloween seasonal department, which ranges in size from 8 feet to 72 feet and includes Halloween candy displays. Although many large supermarket chains have been merchandising private-label batteries, Wilson said Hy-Vee generally sticks to promoting Eveready and Duracell products.
"Historically, battery season picks up September through December," said Jackie Burwitz, vice president of investor relations, Energizer Holdings, St. Louis. "First of all, it's hurricane season, but then there's Halloween and the year-end holidays."
She said Energizer, parent of the Eveready and Energizer brands, usually tallies 35% to 45% of its annual sales in the fourth calendar quarter.
In last year's fourth quarter, the supermarket, drug store and mass merchandiser channels sold $826.3 million worth of dry-cell batteries, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Supermarkets accounted for $189.9 million of that total, or about 23% of the market. Mass merchants grabbed more than half the market, with $450.8 million.
Some retailers also have been trying to give batteries a Halloween boost in recent years by calling attention to safety warnings suggesting that consumers use battery-powered lights inside their jack-o-lanterns.
Novelty flashlights are always a popular impulse buy, retailers said. Wilson said Hy-Vee carries some new Halloween novelty flashlights from Eveready and other suppliers. At Roche Bros., Annand said the chain is merchandising some $1.99 novelty flashlights in the seasonal aisle, with batteries alongside.
At Sherm's Food4Less, Medford, Ore., Louise Chambers, general merchandise manager, offers low-end flashlights that retail for $1.24, and she merchandises the D batteries that they require right alongside them. In addition, she was anticipating merchandising some Halloween novelty flashlights that take three AA batteries, which she also planned to merchandise alongside the lights.
Eveready rolled out two silk-screened flashlight designs, one with ghost graphics and another with pumpkin graphics, which are being distributed nationally through Target and Albertson's, among other retail venues. They carry a suggested retail price of $1.49.
In the costume department, however, things have not been as bright for supermarkets.
"As far as really getting into costumes and things like that, we just don't do it anymore because of Wal-Mart," said Chambers. "There's no way you can compete with them."
She said her store stopped selling masks and costumes about four years ago, when a Wal-Mart opened nearby. She said some Fred Meyer supermarkets in the area still sell costumes, however.
According to research from American Greetings, Cleveland, sales of Halloween party supplies, decorations and cards have risen from $1 billion to more than $2.5 billion during the past five years. Americans are expected to spend $70 million just decorating their homes for Halloween this year, the company reported, making it second only to Christmas as a home-decorating holiday.
It is also the largest fall holiday for greeting cards, the company pointed out, noting that adults purchase half of all Halloween greeting cards.
At Sherm's Food4Less, Chambers said she merchandises some Halloween greeting cards in the seasonal department, although other retailers seemed to prefer to place them in-line in their greeting card aisles.
Kristi Marusic, a spokeswoman for American Greetings, said she does not think the company's sales of Halloween merchandise will suffer as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"The tragic events that occurred have given consumers a glimpse at a harsh reality," she said. "Since Halloween is a time to escape reality for most adults celebrating the season, we feel we will be unaffected."
Like batteries and flashlights, candles are another year-round category that supermarkets do well with as seasonal merchandise in October.
Chambers said her store went through three gross of white votive candles -- perfect for illuminating jack-o-lanterns -- last year that were put on display with the rest of the Halloween merchandise.
At Hy-Vee, Wilson said that votive candles "are always a big part of it," adding that stores usually merchandised them along with the rest of the seasonal fare.
Supermarkets grabbed about 32% of last year's fourth-quarter candle sales through the grocery, drug and mass channels, according to IRI, registering $109.4 million of total sales of $345.3 million.
Pumpkin carvers and carving kits also tend to be merchandised with the rest of the seasonal Halloween merchandise, although some stores create outposts in the produce department or outside, near where the pumpkins themselves are merchandised.
"We do lots of pumpkin carvers because grocery stores always have pumpkins, so they had better have the carvers," Chambers said.
At Dierberg's, Scalise said most stores merchandise the carving kits on side wings, although she said "some of our more adventurous nonfood managers" will set up displays in the produce department.
At Sherm's Food4Less, Chambers said her 16-foot seasonal section also includes vinyl table covers with Halloween themes, orange-and-black bowls for candy and black lights -- an unusual decorative item she said was very popular last year.