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In recent years, Halloween has become a serious money spinner for British business: a survey by GlobalData found that more than half of UK consumers (51.5%) spent money celebrating the event in 2018 – £481 million in total.
If you want another indicator of how big a deal Halloween has become , consider this: environmental charity Hubbub reckons British consumers will throw away around 15 million pumpkins in November this year. That suggests something like three out of four households take part.
You’ll often hear people grumbling that the hoo-ha around Halloween is a sign that Britain has been invaded by American culture. Of course it’s more complicated than that.
For example, trick-or-treating, with costumed children roaming door-to-door, arrived in North America before World War I via Scottish migrants to Ontario, Canada, who brought with them their tradition of ‘guising’.
And pumpkin carving is a continuation of a practice common in Britain and Ireland, the only difference being that we use turnips or swedes – much more difficult to work with but also, it must be said, considerably scarier.
What the US brought to the party was, of course, a relentless commercial focus. There’s more money in chocolate bars and breakfast cereal, with all that branding and ‘added value’, than in apples and turnips.
The commercial argument for Halloween promotions is fairly obvious. October is traditionally a slow time for UK retail and hospitality as consumers simultaneously seek to recover from the financial sting of summer holidays and brace themselves for the big Christmas blowout. Halloween is something to latch on to – a way to generate footfall and stimulate spending.
For now, though, a large chunk of the UK’s growing market for Halloween products is swallowed up by chains and national brands.
High street baker Greggs, for example, had its ‘spooky ring bun’ on sale from the moment the first leaf began to turn, while value supermarket Lidl is pushing glow in the dark jumpers and pumpkin fairy lights, among other disposable delights, in its ‘Monster Market’ promotion.
Smaller independent businesses can benefit too, however.
“Valentine’s, Easter, Halloween and Christmas – those are the four big ones,” says Toni Thorne who runs the Bristol Sweet Shop in the city’s covered market. “We've got a whole Halloween display. In jars we've got jelly eyeballs, jelly pumpkins, jelly brains, just for Halloween. People do come in at this time of year and buy big quantities for trick-or-treaters and Halloween parties. And to decorate Halloween cakes, believe it or not.”
Bristol Sweet Shop's Halloween display.
Tracy Walker runs Altered Image, a fancy dress shop in Great Barr, Birmingham. “Halloween is by far the biggest time of year for us,” she says. “It’s a massive opportunity. But it pretty much promotes itself, we don’t need to run any particular offers. We do lots of social media activity, though, and get the staff dressed in costume up on the dual carriageway to grab people’s attention.”
After Halloween and its close cousin, bonfire night, the next big event on the marketer’s calendar would traditionally be Christmas but those two months can seem like a long stretch, especially in a subdued economy.
That’s perhaps why, in the past few years, having succeeded in raising Halloween’s profile, some have tested the water with other US imports, such as ‘Black Friday’.
The American tradition of big sales kicking off on the first Friday after Thanksgiving, triggering an extended Christmas shopping period, has begun to make tentative inroads in the UK in the past decade.
British supermarket chain ASDA has been running Black Friday promotions since 2013, under the influence of its American parent company, Walmart.
Amazon, an American company with a worldwide footprint, has also done much to popularise the idea.
There’s evidence to suggest that Black Friday is growing in popularity in the UK, especially with younger consumers. Last year, a survey by PWC found that more than 60% of under-45s were interested in Black Friday and intended to buy something in the sales.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics also suggest a general shift in spending in sales promotions from December to November over the course of the past few years. Most pundits put this down to the arrival of Black Friday on the UK scene.
Some businesses have gone a step further into Americophilia – perhaps a step too far – by launching Thanksgiving Day promotions or events.
This year in Manchester, for example, drinks event organisers the Liquorists are running a Thanksgiving 'Mississippi Blues Cruise’. Simon Burgess from the Liquorists told me in an email that it's a way of tapping into an audience that, to paraphrase, has an interest in America and American culture. And because it isn’t generally celebrated in the UK, it counts as something different – 'a fresh twist' – that gives them a chance of standing out in a crowded hospitality market.
Jenny Rosenthal at The Duke’s Head in Putney said the pub had seen increasing numbers of people attending its Halloween and Thanksgiving events every year, with people from the UK and the US both taking an interest.
“With Thanksgiving, it's definitely either Americans or Canadians that are purchasing the tickets and actually looking out for dinners around the city," she said. "But we find that they usually bring friends from different countries as a way to show them American traditions.”
If your business has even the most tentative connection to the US – craft beer, burgers, Harley-Davidson motorbikes, and so on – there might be an opportunity worth seizing.