Temporary retailers fight over space as holidays approach

GRESHAM, Ore. - The sight of tombstones and fright wigs froze the shopper in the open door. She clutched her sewing pattern in both hands and squinted inside.

Bolts of cloth once filled these aisles, until Hancock Fabrics pulled the plug on the too-small space. Last month, the sewing public's loss became a trick-or-treater's gain. Spirit Halloween Superstore transformed the vacant Gresham shop into one of its 100 temporary nationwide outlets for fake blood and fishnet stockings.

"Well," the shopper told the cashier, her face relaxing as she scanned the orange-and-black panorama. "As long as I'm here, I think I need an eye patch."

Score one for temporary retailers - sellers who dip their nets briefly into holiday or tourist crowds. These aren't just the folks peddling tree ornaments or party costumes. Temporary retailing can be an easy first step for retail novices, like the college buddies who started peddling ball caps from a Boston kiosk and ended up with 400 Lids stores across the country. And it's a brief sales explosion for big names like See's Candies and Waldenbooks, who add temporary holiday locations - complete with paint, displays, phones, cash registers and employees - to push calendars, candy and toys.

The stigma of temps

A decade ago, many landlords viewed temporary tenants as unreliable and schlocky and said that their presence could stigmatize a space as unrentable to a "real" store.

But as publicly traded companies snapped up shopping centers, managers started looking for ways to squeeze money from vacant spaces or from "common areas" in the middle of the mall. Big chains started exploring the world of temporary sales and brought with them a slicker look and more professional behavior. Temporary leases, once the sign of a sick center, became mainstream. These days, experts estimate that big malls can harvest 10 percent of their annual revenue from temps.

Now "it's a divine law that everyone has to have a Hickory Farms at Christmas time," said shopping-center developer Fred Bruning, the owner of Gresham Station and Mall 205, who thinks many malls are overdoing it.

A Halloween superstore

Spirit Halloween Superstores started well before the temp heyday - exactly 16 years ago, when Joseph Marver was suffering through an October slump at his Bay Area dress store. The view from his window was driving him nuts: a line of customers winding around the corner because they couldn't all cram into a costume shop across the street.

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. 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. By the time he had 60 temporary locations, he sold Spirit to Spencer Gifts of Egg Harbor Township, N.J. It continues to add 25 to 30 locations each year.

"I didn't invent temporary sales," said Marver, who still runs the stores. "But I feel like I invented temporary Halloween."

The invention is partly presence - Marver plasters freeway billboards with huge Spirit ads and tries to rent a large storefront as close to a Wal-Mart or a Target store as he can. And it is partly variety - Marver doesn't have just one kind of fake blood, but "the fake blood that coagulates, the thin runny blood, the semi-thick blood and the one that just lays there like a slug."

A permanent department-store retailer, Marver explains, might stock 1,000 to 1,500 Halloween items, hoping they'll move quickly to make room for Christmas.

Marver buys more than enough of 4,500 items. He places his bets in January, basing buys on movie trailers for coming attractions, popular television shows and last year's sales. When he opens in September, he listens to what customers are asking for and can't find.

"You'd better have some money left over for sleepers - movies you didn't know would be a box-office smash and kids were going to want," he said. "You have certain manufacturers . . . who can turn on a dime."

Marver knows he'll be trucking a third of this merchandise back to the company's California warehouse. But the week before Halloween, when other shelves are bare, "we're as fat as cats," he said. "If you've got deep enough pockets to do that, then you've got a successful Halloween business."

For temps, timing is everything. Spirit does 60 percent of its sales in the two weeks before Halloween. Fitness-equipment sales target post-holiday gluttons. But most temps are hot in pursuit of Christmas. Waldenbooks, a division of Borders Group, only wants leases between September and January.

"Calendars don't sell real well in June. You're looking at seasonal products with a seasonal shelf life," said Kevin Kern of Waldenbooks, which discounts unsold calendars to $1 and finally tosses them out in early January. "What a temporary tenant does is to try to maximize sales and get out. . . . You want to be selling roses on Valentine's Day but not the day after."