The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (2024)

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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. Today the company has 1,450 locations in North America, primarily located in strip and traditional malls. Marver set up the stores up to operate as seasonal retail pop-ups, which are typically open from early August through November 2. 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 has thousands of employees, and in 2021 hired 30,000 temporary staffers for its Halloween season. By 1998, Spirit Halloween had started growing rapidly and expanded to 60 stores around the country. According to Marver, part of what sets Spirit apart is its variety and wide assortment of merchandise. 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. With the help of Spencer, Spirit became known for its tongue-in-cheek pop culture costumes that tapped into the zeitgeist. 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. 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 $77 million to-date to support the child life departments of hospitals around the country. 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. Though execs start identifying pop-up locations in November, an estimated two-thirds of Spirit Halloween stores return to the same locations each year. 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. 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. Spirit's ubiquity in abandoned retail spaces inspired a popular meme on social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit. Most recently, the meme has been used to satirize everything from the 2018 government shutdown to Facebook outages. But regardless of the Twitter jokes, Americans still can't get enough Spirit Halloween. FAQs

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Bethany Biron

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The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (1)

  • Since its founding in 1983, Spirit Halloween has become the go-to destination for all things Halloween.
  • Today the company has 1,450 locations in North America, primarily located in strip and traditional malls.
  • In recent years, Spirit has become the source of countless internet memes, thanks to its ubiquity in shuttered retail spaces.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (2)

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The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (4)

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With Halloween expected to reach pre-pandemic participation levels this year, Spirit Halloween is ready for a record-breaking year.

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."

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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 $400 million annually.

After four decades of dominating the Halloween market, Spirit Halloween shows no signs of stopping this year. The National Retail Federation predicts an increase in Halloween participation in 2022, with an estimated 69% of consumers indicating they plan to celebrate, up from 65% in 2021, contributing to estimated sales of $1o.7 billion.

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.

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Spirit Halloween was founded in 1983 by Joseph Marver as a pop-up store in the Castro Valley Mall in San Francisco, California.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (5)

Ben McCanna/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Source: Vox

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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.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (6)

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 $100,000 worth of merchandise in 30 days."

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Today the company has 1,450 locations in North America, primarily located in strip and traditional malls.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (7)

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.

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Marver set up the stores up to operate as seasonal retail pop-ups, which are typically open from early August through November 2.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (8)

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.

Source: Spirit Halloween

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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 rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (9)

The company sells costumes and decor to people of all ages, from toddlers to seniors.

Source: Spirit Halloween

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The company has thousands of employees, and in 2021 hired 30,000 temporary staffers for its Halloween season.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (10)

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."

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By 1998, Spirit Halloween had started growing rapidly and expanded to 60 stores around the country.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (11)

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.

Source: Bloomberg

According to Marver, part of what sets Spirit apart is its variety and wide assortment of merchandise.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (12)

Jill Brady/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

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."

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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.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (13)

Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

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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.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (14)

"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."

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With the help of Spencer, Spirit became known for its tongue-in-cheek pop culture costumes that tapped into the zeitgeist.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (15)

Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

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 $64.8 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.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (16)

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.

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Spirit even managed to lure notable television personalities of the era, including Kristin Cavallari of MTV's "The Hills" and "Laguna Beach" fame.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (17)

In 2006, the company launched its philanthropic arm, Spirit of Children Halloween. The organization has raised $77 million to-date to support the child life departments of hospitals around the country.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (18)

According to Spirit Halloween, the mission of Spirit of Children "is to make hospitals less scary for kids and their families."

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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.

—Helen Shivers (@thecroakerqueen) October 3, 2021

Source: Vice, New York Post

Though execs start identifying pop-up locations in November, an estimated two-thirds of Spirit Halloween stores return to the same locations each year.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (19)

Amanda Krause/Insider

Source: Forbes

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Due to the seasonal and temporary nature of the business, Spirit Halloween typically takes over empty big-box stores ...

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (20)

... and even recently bankrupt luxury department stores, like the now-defunct Barneys New York.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (21)

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.

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As a result, Spirit Halloween has grown synonymous with the Retail Apocalypse, thanks to its penchant for popping up in abandoned retail spaces.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (22)

Advertisem*nt

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.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (23)

Source: Forbes

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Spirit's ubiquity in abandoned retail spaces inspired a popular meme on social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (24)

According to Know Your Meme, the meme's origin began in December 2015 when Imgur user meatybeefy included Spirit Halloween in a viral "rundown shopping mall starter pack" image.

Most recently, the meme has been used to satirize everything from the 2018 government shutdown to Facebook outages.

—tammy golden (@tammygolden) December 22, 2018

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But regardless of the Twitter jokes, Americans still can't get enough Spirit Halloween.

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (25)

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The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse (2024)

FAQs

The rise of Spirit Halloween: How the Spencer Gifts-owned chain took over American strip malls and turned itself into a meme of the Retail Apocalypse? ›

Spirit's ubiquity in abandoned retail spaces inspired a popular meme on social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit. According to Know Your Meme, the meme's origin began in December 2015 when Imgur user meatybeefy included Spirit Halloween in a viral "rundown shopping mall starter pack" image.

What is the story behind the Spirit Halloween store? ›

Spirit Halloween's start

Joe Marver created the Spirit Halloween business model, a pop-up store catering to Halloween revelers. Starting with his first pop-up location in the Castro Valley Mall in 1984, he grew Spirit Halloween to 60 seasonal stores nationwide before it was acquired in 1999.

Are Spencer's and Spirit Halloween owned by the same company? ›

Spencer Spirit Holdings operates two unique retail brands, Spencer's and Spirit Halloween. Spencer's started out as a mail-order company in 1947 and expanded into its current recognizable locations in malls in 1963, growing to a national chain by the mid-70s.

What does Spirit Halloween do with unsold merchandise? ›

Spirit takes back all unsold merchandise at the end of the season. Spirit looks for consignment operators in markets where we do not have company stores or already established operators.

Why is Spirit Halloween so successful? ›

Anticipation and Tradition: It's a Halloween Thing

Their seasonal pop-up stores make the most of this anticipation. As Halloween approaches, the stores pop up for a limited time each year, and this transient nature encourages customers to embrace the Halloween season with open arms.

What happens to Spirit Halloween employees after Halloween? ›

Many people take job transfers over to Spirit Halloween's sister company, Spencers, which is year round so no need to worry about what season it is. They go into other retail stores like spencers which spirits is apart of. Since spirit Halloween is a seasonal job after Halloween you will have to look for another job.

Does Spirit Halloween disappear? ›

In fact, it continues all year. The inventory carryover from season to season is “very minimal,” a representative for Spirit Halloween said. But costumes that were not sold and remain in good condition are stored for the next spooky season.

What happened to Spencer's gifts? ›

After opening approximately 450 stores under the name Spencer Gifts, Adler sold Spencer Gifts to entertainment conglomerate MCA in 1967. In 2003, Spencer's Gifts was completely rebranded after being put under new management, and with the change become known only as just Spencer's.

Does Spencer's sell baby clothes? ›

Spencer's, the brand since 1889, has been built on strong family values and always offering high quality babywear at affordable prices.

What company owns Spencers? ›

Can you return a worn costume to Spirit Halloween? ›

To return an item, it must be unworn, have the original accessories, be in new and resalable condition, and in the original packaging. You must return an item within 30 days of you receiving it. You may request a refund by returning an item in-store or online, in accordance with the terms below.

Where does unsold merchandise go? ›

Unsold items go through a complex journey involving distribution centers, liquidators, and vendors before they end up in landfills. This process is costly and inefficient, making it cheaper for companies to dispose of items rather than resell or recycle them.

How much does a Spirit Halloween store owner make? ›

The average Owner and Operator base salary at Spirit Halloween is $30 per hour. The average additional pay is $0 per hour, which could include cash bonus, stock, commission, profit sharing or tips.

Is Spirit Halloween owned by Disney? ›

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.

Who is the target audience of Spirit Halloween? ›

It's a model that has proven successful, helping it to claim the title of the largest Halloween retailer in the United States. But it's not just about the scary props and candy. Spirit Halloween also reaches out to those who might have outgrown trick or treating but still harbor a love for the spooky season.

What did Spirit Halloween used to be called? ›

Spirit Halloween was founded as Spirit Party & Costume Co. sometime in 1983 by Joseph Marver after he had decided to compete with a pop up Halloween store that opened near his clothing store Spirit Women's Discount Apparel.

Is Spirit Halloween owned by Walmart? ›

In 1999, Spencer Gifts purchased Spirit from Marver. While the company has no permanent location – all of the over 1,500 stores are pop-ups – the pull of costumes, props and candy provides Spirit a unique corner of the retail market. "We have a sort of ubiquitous flexibility." Silverstein said.

How did Joe come up with the name Spirit Halloween? ›

Career. Spirit Halloween was founded as “Spirit Party & Costume Co.” by Marver in 1983 after seeing a Halloween costume shop pop up nearby his women's clothing store "Spirit Women's Discount Apparrel". Marver decided to compete with the Halloween store and open up his own, thus "Spirit Halloween" was born.

Where is Spirit Halloween based out of? ›

Our Home Office is located just minutes from the beach in Egg Harbor Township, NJ. At Spencer's and Spirit Halloween, we do the right thing always - integrity, fairness, respect, and transparency are our foundation.

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