Dressing up at Halloween isn’t just for kids. Nowadays retailers, too, transmogrify into ghoultastic visions every year.

The big five, in particular, have been ramping up the in-store theatre over the past few years. Competition to be the spookiest supermarket - in terms of the products in the Halloween aisle and especially the look of the aisle itself - is fierce. But there’s no doubt the tactic is getting shoppers down the aisles.

It’s also helping boost sales of the retailers’ homegrown Halloween lines. Although branded tricks and treats currently outsell own-label products by nine to one, own label grew faster than the brands last year [Kantar Worldpanel]. As Halloween looms again, there’s everything to play for - so how are the retailers planning to compete this year?

That Halloween is big news for UK retail is well established. Just as trick or treating, once frowned upon by Brits, has caught on, so the festival as a whole has become more popular. The Halloween period now ranks behind only Christmas and Easter in sales potential - and some believe the Easter Bunny shouldn’t get too comfortable in second place.

“Halloween is a very significant opportunity, which all retailers could further exploit” Herwig Vennekens, Haribo

But although overall sales remain positive, the previously rampant growth of Halloween is starting to slow. Value sales of Halloween-related confectionery - defined as themed packs, miniatures, multipacks and sharing bags - grew 2.6% last year [SymphonyIRI 4 w/e 5 November 2011]. It’s a slight slowdown on 2010’s 5% growth, but the market still raked in £68m in the eight weeks leading up to 31 October [SymphonyIRI] - no mean feat.

Asda clearly understands Halloween’s significance. Each of its 544 stores throws itself into the event, and last year it introduced a ‘Monsterville’ theme, rebranding entire sections of stores (complete with sound effects).

Crucially, staff are encouraged by Asda’s head office to “take ownership” of stores and “bring their personality” to the shop floor. The response, says Asda, is always enthusiastic. Indeed, the success of its Halloween displays has prompted the retailer to make in-store theatre part of its year-round sales strategy. Every week, the store with the most imaginative fresh produce display will be acknowledged with ‘star points’, to trade for items from Asda’s reward catalogue.

The numbers suggest Asda’s approach is working: in the past five years, it has grown Halloween sales by 22%, with last year its “biggest ever”. As a spokeswoman says, it’s “impressive, considering Brits didn’t really celebrate Halloween until 10 years ago”.

“In-store theatre works,” confirms Haribo MD Herwig Vennekens. He should know - Haribo’s Trick or Treat Bucket was the second bestselling Halloween confectionery last year, beaten only by Cadbury’s Screme Egg [SymphonyIRI 8 w/e 5 November 2011]. “There is no doubt it supports impulse purchase. Halloween is a very significant opportunity, which all retailers could further exploit.”

However, Vennekens adds, “it isn’t just about having space, it’s also about stocking products that suit the occasion. Once you have attracted shoppers to the aisle and you have engaged with them in a fun and exciting way, you want them to make a purchase.”

Asda has no intention of falling down on that score, either. Although it will continue to prioritise trick-or-treat treats, non-food will play a bigger role this year. Asda plans to push make-up and accessories such as “wings, tutus and wands” and the Walmart-owned retailer will also be investing further in a big trend from the US: adult costumes, which it says were “huge” last year.

What of the other supermarkets?Last year, Tesco offered parents the chance to buy kids’ costumes via its “spooky Halloween Facebook store”. This year, it’s planning to step up what it does in-store.

“We’ll be looking at how we can bring the Halloween atmosphere to all our stores,” says Tesco event manager David Cahill. “In larger stores, we’ll be putting together a Halloween ‘shop’ near the front of the store, where customers will be able to pick up everything they might need for trick or treating or parties.”

“With impulse buys at the till, it’s really simple for indie retailers and c-stores to get involved” Amy Beresford, Kraft Foods

The retailer says the festival is a “great time of year” for its bakery fixtures in particular. “Halloween is our third-biggest seasonal event,” adds Tracy Deacon, Tesco new product development manager for cakes. “We enjoy the chance to get creative.”

Waitrose, too, has its eyes on the cake market, tapping the home baking trend that The Grocer reported on last week (Focus on Home Baking, 28 July 2012). It plans to offer Halloween-themed cupcake stands, cookie cutters and pumpkin-shaped moulds. After foam masks and bunting proved popular in 2011, it will also grow its non-food range to include face paints and finger tattoos.

Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, is boosting its range of round-pound novelty treats and says it expects own-label sales to be “bigger and better” this year. It’s also targeting pesky kids by teaming up with Warner Bros to offer a wide range of Scooby-Doo-themed products.

But it’s not just the mults chasing a slice of the pumpkin pie. “With impulse buys at the till, it’s simple for independents and convenience stores to get involved,” points out Kraft Foods brand manager Amy Beresford.

Simple, yes - but many independents could be doing much more to capitalise on Halloween, says AF Blakemore group marketing director Richard Harman. It is, he stresses, “a bigger opportunity than simply offering sweets for trick or treating”.

“Halloween is a bigger opportunity than simply offering sweets for trick or treating” Richard Harman, AF Blakemore

Spar MD Debbie Robinson agrees and goes so far as to say: “It’s the second-biggest sales event in the calendar. It’s bigger than Easter. We should carry right through to Bonfire Night to make the most of the opportunity.”

Traditionally, however, Halloween has been perceived as a one-night-only event - meaning shoppers are often reluctant to splash out, and retailers can benefit from canny pricing. In this respect, independents could do worse than learn from the pound shops. “Single price point stores are popular because they offer an attractive solution on a shoestring budget,” says Stuart Lane, commercial director at Leaf Confectionery.

This October, Poundworld plans to offer a “fantastic selection across trick-or-treat, dress-up and party accessories and decorations”, says Poundworld trading director Chris Edwards Jr. A Poundland spokeswoman, meanwhile, says the retailer will be releasing a “high percentage of new products”, mainly “easy pick-up” party goods, as well as a new “on-trend” light-up range.

There’s certainly a lot going on. Although Elzane Pretorius, SymphonyIRI insight director, business insights, warns Halloween “may be nearing saturation point”, it seems retailer investment and exciting NPD is keeping the season in freakishly good health - at least for now.

Fright club: Adults join in the Halloween fun