Goodwill workers at 22 Baltimore-area thrift stores spent the past year stashing away pirate paraphernalia, leather jackets and scarecrow-esque flannel in preparation for the nonprofit group's busiest season: Halloween.
Goodwill joins the ranks of many thrift stores nationwide that hail October as their primary sales month thanks in large part to bargain costume shoppers. Nonprofit agencies and for-profit resale shops look on Halloween the way traditional retailers view the Christmas season.
Halloween draws everyone from kids to co-eds, and the season can increase thrift stores' revenue 35 percent to 40 percent, according to Goodwill.
"It has always been our biggest holiday time," said Tom Gentry, Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake Inc.'s sales director for the Baltimore area. "The majority of it's a yearlong process. ... Whatever we receive in, we stockpile and save until that season comes out."
And with Halloween spending expected to top $5 billion this year, secondhand vendors are doing their best to make sure that their growing list of competitors - from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to temporary costume stores - doesn't take away market share. Several thrift shops are expanding their advertising and highlighting the merchandise they offer to remind shoppers to think of resale shops for their costumes.
"There is more competition, so we have to get more creative," said Sheri Marzolf, vice president of marketing for Bellevue, Wash.-based Savers Inc., a for-profit thrift chain with 104 stores in 23 states. "We've been able to expand our assortment of goods to meet the demand of our consumers."
Savers has steadily increased its marketing budget over the past few years, including adding television advertisements in hopes of attracting new thrift customers in addition to seasoned secondhand shoppers. Goodwill planned more print advertising this year and is using radio spots and exterior store banners to attract customers.
Jo Frank, 34, and her daughter Kayla, 8, scanned the racks at Goodwill's Eastern Avenue thrift store in Baltimore recently in hopes of finding a cheerleader costume with a skull on it, which Kayla saw at a store in Towson.
"We usually come here to buy regular clothes," Frank said, "but my daughter was like, `Can we get a costume if I find one?' "
After much deliberation, Kayla decided on a white shirt with black-capped sleeves, which she plans to fray and decorate with a skull. They also bought a blue skirt, which her mother plans to dye black. The total cost was about $2.
"Compared to the $30 we saw at the other store, this is a cheaper route," Jo Frank said.
Customers like her and her daughter are the ones that thrift shops hope to keep appealing to this time of year and during future Octobers. The stores resell donated items that others don't want, offering clothing at prices that often range from 50 cents to a few dollars.
"I think a big part of the appeal for thrift store Halloween costumes is obviously the price, but you're certainly going to be unique if you find your costume in a thrift store," said Diane Smith-Melloy, manager of one of the St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores in Madison, Wis. The nonprofit has four stores, and at the largest, sales often jump 20 percent in October.
The secondhand Halloween frenzy isn't limited to thrift store giants.
Oct. 30 is the busiest day of the year at Killer Trash, a vintage resale store in Fells Point, said owner Elaine Ferrare.
"I do a lot of special buying for Halloween," Ferrare said. "People have been coming to me for 15 years in a row."
Ferrare supplies the store with finds from vintage warehouses, estate sales and yard sales across the country, she said. She did her most recent perusing in New York and Florida, collecting items for period costumes such as flapper girls, she said.
"We find the pieces of clothing and put them together to give the illusion of the era," she said.
Killer Trash's prices range from $5 to $100. The average costume piece sells for about $20, Ferrare said.
Halloween spending has exploded during the past few years and is projected to increase more than 54 percent this year, to $5.07 billion, compared with $3.29 billion in 2005, according to the National Retail Federation.
Plenty of retailers are taking notice. Flashy temporary Halloween stores are sprouting up in larger numbers. They often provide the largest selection of costumes and help meet the demand, which is surfacing earlier each year, for costumes, decorations and accessories.
"We know that the competition is getting stiffer," said Gentry of Baltimore's Goodwill. "We want to get people in that mind-set to come look for costumes now."
Halloween has always paid off for thrift stores, said Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. Several thrift shops take cues from their competitors and set up separate areas in their stores devoted exclusively to costumes and other Halloween-related merchandise.