Licensors tread wary into the scary U.K. Halloween market

While North America has turned Halloween into one of the largest one-off commercial holidays on the seasonal sales calendar, the festival itself traces its origins to the U.K., where--thanks in part to an influx of North American families in city centers such as London--Halloween is fast becoming a viable consumer market ripe with business opportunities. Yet before international licensors begin checking out the contents of their property treat bags for sweet licensing morsels with which to tempt U.K. manufacturers and distributors, an exploration of the endemic characteristics of the U.K. seasonal market is in order.
March 1, 2002

While North America has turned Halloween into one of the largest one-off commercial holidays on the seasonal sales calendar, the festival itself traces its origins to the U.K., where–thanks in part to an influx of North American families in city centers such as London–Halloween is fast becoming a viable consumer market ripe with business opportunities. Yet before international licensors begin checking out the contents of their property treat bags for sweet licensing morsels with which to tempt U.K. manufacturers and distributors, an exploration of the endemic characteristics of the U.K. seasonal market is in order.

A market on the upswing

While the U.K.’s major costumers began developing Halloween-specific ranges as early as 1995/1996, the past three or four years have witnessed an unprecedented level of growth in the Halloween businesses of British manufacturers. To wit: Following a market test of Halloween costume products in two High Street retailers in 1999, Hertsfordshire-based paper goods company International Greetings signed a European distribution deal with U.S. Halloween supplier CSS Industries in 2000. Supplying a range of masks, vampire teeth, broomsticks and witches capes to six High Street retailers, International Greetings saw sales rise from US$185,000 in 1999 to more than US$1.4 million in 2000–an astounding 757% increase.

Established in 1991 following the merger of British toycos Cowan de Groot Toys and D. Dekker, Dekkertoys joined costume conglomerate César Group (which also owns U.S. costumer Disguise) in 1995 and began manufacturing Halloween-specific costumes and accessories for the U.K. market five years ago. Since then, managing director Clive Jones has noted an annual growth rate of 100% for Dekkertoys’ Halloween business and expects an even larger growth for 2002 with an expanded line of Halloween makeup and accessories.

Rubie’s Masquerade, the U.K. branch of Rubie’s Costume, opened its Liverpool office/warehouse doors in 1996, adding an additional showroom in London’s northwest end in 1999. Rubie’s kids costume range is produced under three product banners–Rubie’s Licensed (current licenses include Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Powerpuff Girls, Digimon and Superman); Rubie’s Halloween Concepts (generic vampires, skeletons, ghosts, pirates and witches); and Rubie’s Generic (kings, cowboys, pirates, astronauts, nurses and princesses). The company also produces year-round and Halloween-specific play accessories including capes, hats, masks and wigs. GM Chris Isitt estimates that Rubie’s Halloween business has doubled each year for the past four years, noting that Halloween accounted for 25% to 30% of the company’s overall business in 2001.

Checking out the retail landscape

The general consensus among industry observers is that Halloween began to gain ground (read: shelf space) in mass-market chains, department stores and major toy retailers around four or five years ago, with grocery chains and card shops quickly following suit. ‘Now everybody has a go at Halloween–even the news agents and confectionery stores,’ muses Isitt.

Such a diverse spectrum of retailers gives way to an equally diverse range of Halloween buying windows. While most of the majors plan for the next year’s stock 11 months out in November, manufacturers are still receiving retail orders as late as two days before the holiday. Also, Halloween’s sell-through window in the U.K. is considerably shorter than in the U.S., with most stores stocking for Halloween just two weeks ahead of the holiday.

Compounding this is the fact that Halloween tends to get mixed in with other selling seasons in the U.K.: Guy Fawkes Day (celebrated on November 5 with bonfires and firecrackers in remembrance of Britain’s most notorious traitor and his plot to blow up the houses of Parliament in 1605) and Christmas. Halloween product is often merchandised alongside Guy Fawkes product, and buyers often select Halloween and Christmas ranges at the same time.

Another market reality worth considering: the year-round dress-up/role play market is big business in the U.K., with ‘fancy dress’ parties figuring high on the social calendars of young Brits. ‘At a certain age, say four or five, kids are very much into costumes and dressing up, although they tend to grow out of that by six or seven,’ says Claire Derry, director of global brands at Link Licensing, a division of London-based Entertainment Rights. Costume companies, therefore, gear their business to the U.K.’s largest seasonal market–Christmas. ‘Halloween is nowhere near the traditional sales we have for Christmas,’ says Rubie’s Isitt. ‘Christmas is still about four or five times bigger than Halloween.’ Liz Holmes, assistant buyer for London-based toy store Hamley’s, concurs. ‘We do a higher-end dress-up line, and people will buy that at Christmas because kids can wear them as party dresses as well.’

The product range Hamley’s stocks for Halloween (costumes and accessories such as wigs and makeup) is sold year round, supplied through wholesaler Smithie’s and costume company Rubie’s. ‘We tend to deal with a couple of topline manufacturers only,’ says Holmes. ‘Every supplier will have a witch costume–you can only do so many, and we’re very limited on space.’ Hamley’s begins merchandising for Halloween as early as the end of September, and simply extends the range a bit and carries a larger-than-usual stock for the Halloween selling season.

Bridging the Halloween demo gap

Widely viewed as a family occasion in the U.K., Halloween tends to skew towards the lower end of the kid demo, with little activity on the teen side. ‘There seems to be a gap between kids up to about 10 or 12 and adults in their mid-20s,’ says Isitt, stressing that Rubie’s has a teen business–it’s simply tailored to the general fancy dress market as opposed to Halloween.

However, that could soon change if Hamley’s has its way. Based on past years’ sales, accessories are a hot category for the retailer, especially among its adult customer base. ‘Three or four years ago, we would have sold a lot of things along the lines of the Scream mask, and although we still do sell a lot of that, people are tending to go for more of the accessories and makeup as opposed to a full face mask.’ Thus, accessories is the way Hamley’s will go as it looks to set up a girls area in 2002–one that could cater to Halloween merch.

Licenses edge in on generic costumes

Licensed character costumes are big business in the U.K., with Rubie’s and Dekkertoys divvying up the hottest kid licenses the British market has to offer. That said, licensed costumes tend to perform better year round as opposed to during short-term holiday windows like Halloween. ‘Around Halloween, people are thinking witches, wizards and vampires,’ says Holmes.

Even so, there is a market for Halloween-themed licensed character merch, albeit a limited one. ‘Licenses have to be very specifically related to what Halloween was originally all about, so Universal Monsters, Dracula and Frankenstein have been traditionally strong for Halloween,’ says Rubie’s Isitt. The wizard theme reigned supreme in 2001, however, with Isitt claiming the Harry Potter costume license grew the company’s Halloween business by an additional 25% and Holmes citing Potter and generic wizard costumes as the top sellers of the 2001 season.

While Harry may have worked a little magic in opening U.K. Halloween market doors to licensed characters, a mere three years ago, the market wasn’t nearly as receptive. Link Licensing has trotted out book series-turned-TV property Goosebumps each year for the past three years, signing on candy manufacturer Bon Bon Buddies for a line of confectionery. ‘That did OK for a couple of years, but nothing spectacular,’ says Link’s Derry. ‘We even looked at trying to get the Rubie’s costumes distributed over here, but we just couldn’t get retail support for the idea. Retailers tend to do their own event product around a generic theme–red devils, witches or pumpkins.’

As with all licensed product, retailers are the gatekeepers, and licensors increasingly believe that the key to Halloween lies in finding an appropriate retailer willing to create themed promotions around licensed characters. ‘Retailers are becoming more interested in creating themed events throughout the retail year, and Halloween is one holiday that has been alighted on with more vigor recently,’ says Ian Downes, managing director at Saban Consumer Products. Downes is hoping that there’s scope to develop Casper the Friendly Ghost (to which Saban holds U.K. rights) in that forum.

To test the market, Saban negotiated a retailer-specific deal for a Casper Halloween cake (from licensee Lightbody) sold exclusively through grocery chain Asda last year. The cake was the number-two bakery line in sales during the two-week period that it was in-store, ‘and on the back of that, we’ve had more rounds of discussions with licensees about using Halloween as a launchpad for Casper,’ says Downes.

Downes was in talks with retailers for a Halloween 2002 exclusive on Casper at press time, with plush, paper goods, confectionery and costume categories also on the table. ‘We’ve had good dialogue with a company that’s developed a very specific Halloween catalog. At the moment, it’s doing generics, but I think it sees that there is mileage in having a branded character in there as well,’ says Downes.

Other licensors currently considering taking their characters door-to-door on the Halloween merch scene include TV-Loonland and BKN. ‘Ultimate Book of Spells has a good deal of applicability to Halloween product,’ says BKN managing director Anthony Temple. ‘But that will probably be something for future growth and forward development–there isn’t really a big enough market for us to develop specific programs for Halloween.’ Currently in discussions with costume companies on UBOS, Temple may consider launching Halloween-themed product as early as 2003.

While Loonland Merchandising UK has two properties in its arsenal that naturally extend to Halloween applications–Pongwiffy and Little Ghosts–’the issue from our standpoint is that Halloween isn’t a big enough event to make it worthwhile to develop licensed product for just one day,’ says head of licensing and merchandising John Knox. The Loonland solution? Encourage licensees to create regular licensed product that could double as Halloween product: ‘Costumes mainly, and the jokey elements of consumer products that kids like–all things horrible, slimy and disgusting.’

Yet how many licenses will the market bear? Do industry insiders foresee a day when Halloween will become the giant ad for licensed characters that it is in the U.S.? Dekkertoys’ Jones predicts that it may take another five to 10 years for the holiday to reach that level of commercialization overseas.

For now, the way forward in this relatively immature market appears to lie in ‘fitting the right character to the right occasion, rather than trying to force a character to fit a particular opportunity,’ muses Saban’s Downes. ‘I think at the end of the day, it’s a one- or two-week opportunity at the most, and I’m not sure that people are prepared to gear up specifically for that short a time period.’

A Halloween Who’s Who…

Paper goods manufacturers

International Greetings

Hertsfordshire, England




Leeds, West Yorkshire (England)



London, England


Marks & Spencer

London, England



Hayes, Middlesex (England)



Hertsfordshire, England



London, England


Costume manufacturers


Hertsfordshire, England


Rubie’s Masquerade

Wallingford, Oxon (England)


Candy manufacturers

Bon Bon Buddies

Gwent, England



London, England


Kinnerton Confectionery

London, England


Nestle UK

Surrey, England


Swizzels Matlow

Derbyshire, England


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