Feb 1, 2011
Back to Basics
Haley Beiter, Special to Party & Paper

Emphasize modern trends while relying on old Halloween traditions

One of my fondest childhood memories is staying up late and baking cookies with my dad. Even today, the smell of snickerdoodles will take me back years to my parent’s kitchen, begging to taste the dough, rolling cookies in cinnamon and sugar and anxiously watching the oven.

Memory can be a powerful thing for everyone, especially consumers. For instance, not many people can see doily hearts without thinking Valentine’s Day. Candy canes equal Christmas at any time of year. And black and orange scream Halloween to nearly all of the population.

The basic elements of every holiday have been drilled into the minds of consumers year after year. That’s why retailers shouldn’t bend over backward to reinvent Halloween. To get customers thinking about the spookiest time of the year, just stick with the basics and let their brains do the rest.

Turn Something Old Into Something New
As part of the holiday industry, it’s easy to quickly tire of the same old boring Halloween traditions. Black and orange decor. Jack-o-lanterns. Witches on broomsticks. Skulls. Cobwebs and spiders. Most store retailers have seen it all and done it all, more times than they can count. Luckily, offering innovative and fun changes to the same holiday elements doesn’t mean reinventing the entire holiday. To get consumers thinking about their Halloween party, retailers just need the basics.

“Part of the power of something like a jack-o-lantern is that it’s only seen once a year,” said Dr. Evan Palmer, assistant psychology professor at Wichita State University. “That’s part of what makes it so specific and representative of Halloween. It’s not used for other things. Black and orange is a configuration that is very distinct and high contrast. Even children recognize it, because it’s only associated with this particular time of year and, of course, candy.”

All holidays come with traditional elements, but every year also brings new and different trends. Retailers have the tricky task of making traditional elements seem fresh for consumers. But creating a blend of those memory-triggering traditions with what’s new in the industry isn’t always easy.

“Halloween is an interesting holiday, because there’s this balance between tradition and something that’s current and new every year based on our culture,” Palmer said. “The tradition is the black and orange and jack-o-lanterns, and the kinds of stuff that families do every year, but the newness is found in what everybody is dressing up as.

“It’s this strange holiday where the latest trends in society – like Lady Gaga – are on display in the form of costumes,” he continued, “but at the same time you have this tradition that goes along with it in terms of black and orange, carving pumpkins and trick or treating.”

Stick with the Basics
While trying to innovate, retailers should take care to not stray too far from the basic elements for different reasons, according to Palmer. Too much innovation can leave consumers wondering how to recreate their favorite Halloween traditions with retailers’ new, yet not-so-traditional items and merchandising.

“Change and innovation are still good. It grabs attention,” Palmer said. “You stray too far, however, and you lose that knowledge base that consumers have. So if you’re trying to innovate and do something new, you’ll probably have more success pushing new costumes and trends in decor than you would trying to change the colors to purple and green.

Also, no matter what method retailers use to attract consumers, due to everyone’s previously encoded memories, it takes more than a fancy window display to get them on the Halloween track.

“Classical conditioning – the colors, music and smells being associated with a particular holiday – are going to be largely responsible for the associations that consumers have with basic holiday elements,” Palmer said. “That’s a very old system in the brain, and is something that just kind of happens on its own. But when you encode a memory, you also encode all the other stimuli in the environment at the time that it happened.”

For retailers, this means that seeing Halloween inventory isn’t always enough to get consumers thinking about purchasing items for their big Halloween party. For a lot of people, getting in the Halloween state of mind happens with a variety of triggers, like the smell of crisp autumn air, the sugar rush from trick-or-treating as a child and everything in between.

Palmer also warns against getting consumers thinking about Halloween too far in advance, which could be detrimental to sales closer to Halloween.

“Be careful about putting out inventory, advertising or merchandising too soon. If you put them out too early, people will see it, but they habituate to that stimulus you’re offering and just get used to it,” Palmer said. “Eventually, they don’t even notice it anymore. So getting a jump start on Halloween too much ahead of the season can hurt in the long run.

“People will essentially just learn to ignore it; get over the novelty of it,” he continued. “When the time comes to actually get serious about buying things, they’ve already habituated to your displays and it’s not very meaningful.”

Keep the Classics Alive
It seems every year is the same thing – ghosts and goblins, pumpkins of all sorts, and the classic jack-o-lantern face grinning at his inevitable return. But these are the things that take consumers back to a time of trick-or-treating as kids, to their favorite parties and to their best Halloween memories – ones that they’ll try to recreate with the help of party retailers.

Try taking a break from the same boring icons by featuring items that add a bit more green and purple to the standard black and orange. Or take a chance on tableware with a new, fun pattern. And there’s always the ever-changing array of costumes to make the most spooktacular holiday of the year seem a little less ordinary.

Customers will appreciate a new twist, almost as much as they love making a new memory with the timeless traditions they’ve always loved.

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