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How the Supply Chain Stole Halloween

There’s the classic costume — ghost, witch, fairy. There’s the pop culture homage — Marilyn Monroe, Tony Soprano, The Matrix. Then there are the …

How the Supply Chain Stole Halloween

There’s the classic costume — ghost, witch, fairy.

There’s the pop culture homage — Marilyn Monroe, Tony Soprano, The Matrix.

Then there are the festive ways to embody the zeitgeist, a socially acceptable method for donning an outfit that says “look at me, I am clever” — a meme costume, an obscure reference or a Netflix phenomenon nobody saw coming (looking at you, “Tiger King” and “Squid Game.”)

It was already getting hard to predict and procure an of-the-moment costume, since viral trends often outpace manufacturing timelines. This year, with supply chain woes keeping shelves empty, topical trick-or-treating is harder than ever.

Spirit Halloween stores are trying: The national, seasonal retailer has 1,400 stores this year popping up in abandoned strip malls and even the former Barney’s flagship in Manhattan. But it is tricky to find “Eternals” or “WandaVision” attire there. Even Amazon is risky. In mid-October, consumers had to pay $60 shipping for a $26 “Squid Game”-inspired green tracksuit to arrive in time for Halloween.

“I think what was the challenging part of all of it is there wasn’t anything really on the shelves,” said John Shea of Hazlet, N.J., a Halloween-costume enthusiast who wishes the holiday was “24/7, 365 days a year.” Last weekend, Mr. Shea won an annual costume contest in Salem, Mass., the historically spooky coastal town that turned an unfortunate part of history (Puritans drowning and burning women at the stake for “witchcraft”) into a tourist destination (for people dressed as witches).

Workers stitch tracksuits inspired by the Netflix series “Squid Game” at a clothing factory in Seoul.Credit…Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Though he opted for what he described as a more timeless costume — a 1930s starlet, depicted in the grips of the devil — Mr. Shea said it was difficult to find even small pieces like capes or masks this year. He made his own, with the help of YouTube tutorials.

Supply chain issues have been making everything from Cheerios to toilet paper more expensive since the start of the pandemic. At the same time, Halloween fans have pent-up demand for celebrations after last year’s holiday was subdued by Covid-19 restrictions. Consumers are expected to spend $10.1 billion on Halloween this year, up from $8.05 billion in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation. And an estimated 65 percent of Americans plan to celebrate, up from 58 percent last year.

Shopping at the Halloween Megastore this month in Miami. Halloween fans have been encouraged to shop early as stores have struggled to maintain stock.Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Julie Niederhoff, a professor in the supply chain management department at Syracuse University, explained why this year is a perfect storm for a costume shortage. There are all the reasons the port-to-store supply chain is running at less than capacity — including shortages of truck drivers, warehouse employees and other workers, Covid lockdowns, natural disasters, and container scarcity.

Normally, Professor Niederhoff said, Halloween costumes are shipped in late summer, and retailers can’t necessarily capture late-breaking trends in a cost-effective way. Sourcing and producing a costume typically takes three months at a minimum if a company is willing to pay for some speed. Under current conditions, this would need to have been done six to nine months in advance.

The supply chain is not well equipped to handle trends, especially when a show or image becomes unexpectedly popular overnight — “Ted Lasso,” for example, the resurgence of Britney Spears or Kim Kardashian’s Balenciaga Met Gala full black bodysuit.

Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala in a Balenciaga bodysuit. Supply chains are not well equipped to handle sudden trends.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

“The trends move on really quickly,” Professor Niederhoff said. “They come out of nowhere, so we have very little advance notice and very little staying power and that makes it very hard for large-scale production around a tight timeline like Halloween or Christmas.”

In her own household, her professional expertise is clear in their holiday plans: “I’m always a skeleton. The kids are going as the grim reaper, Young Link from ‘Zelda,’ Luz from ‘Owl House,’ and as yet unknown,” she said. “But we do homemade costumes so we’re safe from this specific supply chain glitch.”

It used to be easier for retailers to predict which costumes would be popular because major studios would be releasing long-anticipated films and the creation of costumes and other merchandise would be part of those launches. Now, what’s popular is more of a surprise.

Even for Andrea Bell, the director of insight for the trend forecasting company WGSN, it sometimes feels like trends come out of nowhere.

“The challenge with Halloween costumes predictions are twofold: There is a secrecy aspect fueled by virality,” she said in an email. “Beyond the surprise element, there are so many more cultural inputs influencing costume choices.”

In the 1980s, popular costume choices were largely driven by movies, music videos and TV shows. “These days we have memes, influencers and cultural moments that provide endless costume fodder,” she said.

Only a few items remained in the Halloween section of a Target store in Miami on Oct. 13.Credit…Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Though the pandemic has exacerbated supply chain disruptions, to some extent they do occur regularly because of inclement weather or accidents. When that happens, manufacturers can contact retailers, explain they’re low on certain products and encourage retailers not to advertise them or promote them online.

“It sort of works itself out behind the scenes and customers don’t really notice,” Professor Niederhoff said. “With something like Halloween candy, retailers can’t say, ‘Hey, let’s not advertise Halloween candy this year.’”

Mr. Shea said he visited a Spirit Halloween store and was able to find some of the classics — cowboys, doctors, “sexy nurses.” He saw some pop culture costumes, but they were more evergreen than topical, like outfits inspired by the ’90s movies “Hocus Pocus” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

He ultimately took a Halloween-aisle-half-full attitude.

“I think it was good in a way and it was bad in a way that the chains didn’t have a lot of things,” he said. “It made people think a little more creatively about what they were putting out there.”

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