Who Are the Folks Behind Halloween Pop-Up Stores?

October 28, 2010

There may be no surer sign that Halloween has become an American national holiday than the plethora of Halloween “pop-up” superstores that seem to, well, pop up (hence the name) out of nowhere, and vanish right after the last pumpkin has been taken from the window. Shops like this present their own “monster” challenges and questions (not to mention the obligatory ghoulish puns, including “spooktacular” costumes, a “boo-doir” (dressing room), etc., and prices that don’t “terrorize”).

So who better to speak with than Keith McDonald, 38, an independent owner of the store Monster Halloween, in Minneapolis.

When did you first open?  When is “opening day” generally?

This is our second year. We open from September 1 to November 15. After Halloween, we have a two week “fire sale.”

Was this always your favorite holiday, or  just a great business idea waiting to be filled?  Can you say a little bit about how the idea for the business evolved?

I have a partner, Mark Steffen, and we’re both serial entrepreneurs. Halloween’s always been one of my favorite holidays, so I was looking into opening a “pop-up” store for awhile, but there are big chains that made it difficult to find a way in. I met a guy who had a bunch of Halloween stores offer to “mentor” me through the process, so that’s how it came about.

How do you find these big empty storefronts that are just waiting (and willing) to have such a temporary client? Do you tend to move to different locations each year?

One of the scary things about this business is we start looking around in the summer for a location, and it takes about a month or more to find one with a suitable size that’s easily accessible and with a landlord willing to go with a short-term lease. But the suppliers want you to order your costumes back in January and February. So it’s a big risk that you’re going to find a location, and that it will be appropriate for what you’ve ordered.

Since you’re only in there for a couple months, why would a landlord accept you when he might end up passing up a long-term client?

If we sign one on August 15 for September 1, the store would likely be empty anyway, and the attention that we bring to the location with customers and press turns into a boon for the property owner.

Does “Monster” have any input into deciding what costumes to make, anticipating what will be the big sellers in a given year?

We have customers who come in and ask us for things to carry. This year the BP oil spill is very popular. We carry a “BP” shirt with the slogan “Bringing Oil to America’s Shores.” We have a whole wall with about eight different Lady Gaga looks, including a wig with old pop-cans in it. As it gets closer to Halloween, more people are asking for Lady Gaga. But it’s risky. Back in the winter, we thought “Avatar” was going to be huge, but it’s not as strong as we thought, so we have to carry the inventory.

I suppose many people wonder how do you make a profit, considering the costs of moving in and out, setting up, hiring temporary staff, etc. Can you elaborate a little on the process?

Great question. We don’t know if we’re going to make money or not. It comes down to the last week. Last year, the 30th and 31st accounted for 50 percent of our revenue. If there’s a big storm that shuts down the freeways, we’re going to be screwed. Then we don’t make money, but carry inventory over to the next year.

Does MH sponsor any special Halloween events?   Tell us about your in-house make-up artists and other in-store events?

We’re locally owned and operated and offer a unique shopping experience for our customers. Women sometimes spend two hours trying on outfits in our “boo-doir.” The city has a Halloween party Costume Contest in the First Avenue bar – that’s where Prince began, with “Purple Rain.” We sponsor it and give cash prizes for best costume. This year they’re expecting 3,000 people. We also have make-up artists at the store for another city event, the Zombie Pub Crawl. This year they had 10,000 zombies. They were trying to break the Guinness world record for most zombies.

What do you do the rest of the year?

I have a full-time day job, doing business development for a communications company.  So I work at the store at night, with some flexibility in the day. But Mark and I are also looking into manufacturing our own costumes. We have our own ideas for ones that would sell.

Some Halloween superstores are considering turning into all-year party stores. Are you considering doing the same?

We’re thinking of transitioning into a Christmas store and maybe an all-year party store, but a lot depends on what happens between now and October 31.

You must have strange experiences with customers.

Well, I’ve had people coming in asking for blood. Not fake blood. Real blood. I suppose that qualifies.