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No Kidding?

When it comes to children’s costumes, some parents will stop at nothing to make sure their little one is dressed exactly how they want to be for Halloween. But is there really a big difference between a princess and a Disney Princess? A wizard and a Harry Potter wizard?

There can be, and as retailers, it’s important to know how to appeal to both sides. Because while children’s costumes are still license-driven — children are usually pretty set on which character they want to portray — licensed characters can also create demand for non-licensed products. This is why pirates, princesses and the like have had such a strong presence for the past few years.

Mixed Merchandise
At The Lippman Co. in Portland, Ore., Mel Heywood said they’ve only been selling costumes for about three years now. While they started with just generics, they quickly learned that kids and adults ask for particular licensed characters that are so popular, they have sort of become basics — Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Superman/Batman, Wonder Woman, the Joker, Harry Potter characters, Star Wars characters, etc.

“Halloween is the one time where we let our 'no licensed merchandise’ rule slide, and we experiment with licenses from the proven categories,” Heywood said, acknowledging the fact that they don’t carry licensed party products in the store. “But we always have much more selection for the 'unique generics’ than licensed characters, as unique generics like hot dogs, gorillas, 'gag’ costumes, etc. stand out from the usual devil/ghost/witch fare.”

Cheryl Kerzner with Disguise, a division of JAKKS Pacific, agreed that most parents wouldn’t usually deny the child who is set on dressing up as their favorite famous princess or superhero. But on the other hand, without a more generic offering, customers wouldn’t be able to dress up as the most traditional characters identified with Halloween — a ghost, witch, zombie, etc.

“So when the holy grail of Halloween is having the most unique costume at the party, offering a broad selection is critical to the success of any manufacturer,” Kerzner said. “With television, movie and books being so impactful to the latest trends, having the hottest licenses in the store contributes to a significant percentage of the business.”

But for Darin & Nancy Tiep at Party Land WLA in Santa Monica, Calif., children’s costumes are a minor part of Halloween sales, with generics making up a majority of the store’s offerings. Tiep said one of the problems is that they’re required to order early.

“It’s the immediate movies and events that happen a month or two months before Halloween that are in demand, and it’s too late to react at that time,” Tiep said. “And it might have something to do with the cost. Licensed costumes are priced way out of line with generic designs, and there is much more flexibility in selling the costumes and accessories for generic costumes.”

And witches, devils, princesses, doctors, pirates, etc. don’t run the same risk of going out of style, as even these generic offerings are influenced by pop culture and other current events — think vampire and princess movies, along with tween rockers and wizards.

Accessorize
As we all know, Disney Princess is a mainstay in the girls segment. Now with Tiana being added to the Disney Princesses umbrella, Kerzner expects to see a bump in sales resulting from the movie release and its appeal to a broader demographic of girls.

“A lot of the longevity of licenses is based on what the licensor is doing to keep it alive through cross-merchandising into other categories,” she added. “As well as spring-boarding into other iterations of the original such as books, comic books, animation, live-action, etc.”

For example, with boys, characters such as Transformers, Spider-Man, Iron Man and G.I. Joe have been top-selling styles. Disguise is seeing the increase in popularity of other Marvel characters beyond just Spider-Man with the blockbuster theatrical releases of Iron Man, Wolverine and the upcoming releases of Thor, The First Avenger and The Avengers in 2011/2012.

But licensed or generic, if the costume is a high-quality product and a fun character, it will be a hit.

“I’ve seen way too many costumes in both the licensed and generic categories where the manufacturer has cut corners and short-changed both us and our customers, so if you can, examine the quality of costumes before ordering,” Heywood recommended. She also suggests putting costumes on mannequins and making your displayed mannequins look special — use pin spot lighting, fact placards about characters, etc. and turn it into an object like at Universal Studios — and the kid will “have” to have it.

Carry special stuff alongside the basics, as you’ll get the groups of customers comparing prices with the local dollar store and you want to be prepared. However, you also need to make yourself known for the specialty, unique items you select and carry.

“The biggest part of our Halloween sales comes from accessories,” Heywood added. “Get a big selection of non-licensed, good-quality wigs, hats, capes, gloves, hosiery, etc. Buy and merchandise your accessories with as much care and planning as you do the full costumes.”

She added to remember the importance of creating a selling environment where the customer can combine a variety of accessories to create their own version of a licensed character. They’ll spend the same amount of money (or more) as they would on a pre-packaged deal, but it will seem like more of a value.

“Plus, it stimulates their imagination.” she added. “They’ll see your store as a fun, unique shopping experience and come back during the non-Halloween season!”

Originally posted Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2010