What Are We Searching For? A Holiday Superhero! – PRS IN VIVO – A BVA GROUP COMPANY

What Are We Searching For? A Holiday Superhero!

Holiday time in 2020?  As consumers are trying to find ways to safely celebrate, brands are trying to figure out how to be agile and adaptive to influence the important seasonal sale.

First up on the holiday calendar? Halloween. And in this crazy year, consumers are looking for brands they love to be Superheroes, stepping in to save the day!

Let us take a step back and review what our annual Fright Night means to brands (and consumers) especially in the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID Crisis.

“A spooky night of fun for children,” according to the NYTimes has grown over the years into a billion-dollar industry. In the confection category, IRI estimates that purchases of all seasonal items are one of the top 4 drivers of overall growth, accounting for $4.4 billions of revenue growth in the US alone.

But back in August, reports started circulating that iconic Halloween celebrations were being cancelled. New York’s Greenwich Village Parade, festivities at Disney Parks, Knott’s Berry Farm, and the epicenter of ghostly celebrations, Salem, Massachusetts had announced RIP for their themed events.

So, what has this meant to parents, party goers, and those generous benefactors of Trick-or-Treat candy contributions that kids count on when going house to house?

In the early days of the pandemic, grocery moved decidedly online, but by summer, shoppers were returning to in-store visits where safety measures were reassuring and cases of COVID were low.  Anticipating a challenging sales season, brands and retailers accelerated seasonal packaging and in-store displays into late August, a full month earlier than previously.

According to the National Confectioners Association and IRI, US sales of Halloween candy were actually up 13% for the month ending September 6th!  Counter intuitive?  Perhaps, until you look at other behavior influencing choice. Fear of Halloween being decidedly different this year, potentially motivated stockpiling earlier than usual!

Taking a look at search trend data in the summer, we saw that people were already querying alarming search terms like “Is Halloween cancelled?” as well as searching for the CDC guidelines for safely observing Halloween, which was trending as early as September 8th.  But as searches for CDC guidelines started trending down, searches for Halloween branded bags and ingenious solutions for candy distribution like the “Candy Chute” started trending upwards.

In addition, consumers were searching for alternatives for in-home activities anticipating that traditional Trick-or-Treat rituals might not be possible amid outbreaks growing across the country.  They were looking for guidance, assurances, and inspiration to save a holiday that is poised to be a disappointment.  They needed Superhero brand partners to help them save the day!

Brands who have stepped up to don the Superhero costume stand to win, influencing the seasonal candy path-to-purchase as normal rituals go awry.

Take for example Hershey’s, who has responded to the safety concerns by partnering on a website that maps county by county metrics for Halloween safety.  The site provides color-coded alternatives for celebrations based on the current COVID risk in your area.

For the holiday hosts who go all out, ideas are at a premium, whether it be how to safely distribute treats where house to house is still allowed (or advisable) or placating disappointed kids with in-home substitutes for Halloween fun. Again, Hershey’s to the rescue!

Brands like Mars Wrigley have partnered with gaming companies and created free apps that link to in-store and digital marketing. Participants can unlock points and credits for candy purchases at Mars’ channel partner retailers.  The idea behind “Treat Town” is to give families branded “fun” and introduce “virtual Trick-or-Treating” that can take away the sting of an unprecedented “un-Halloween” and activate some sales in the process.

Despite early growth in Halloween Candy sales, as we get closer to the Witching Hour, 52% of consumers are suggesting that they plan on buying less candy than they have in previous years. For brands, therefore, the stakes could not be higher. It will take some heroic efforts to determine how and where to intercept the consumer across all the available touchpoints along the omnichannel path-to-purchase this Halloween.

The Treat?  Influencing that all important seasonal purchase, when the shopper journey has never been more complicated involving in-store, online e-commerce, and the intersection of both.

Lessons learned through Halloween will undoubtedly shape omnichannel strategies for the rest of the 2020 holiday season and beyond.

For brands searching for superpowers: we know you need agile insights so you can react with a holistic understanding to activate consumers’ choices, even if COVID continues to impact their motivations and behaviors.

In a recent Forbes article Anton Vincent, President of Mars Wrigley North America, spoke about recovery in the confection category, overall challenges posed by COVID, and the intent to leverage learning from Halloween for other holidays to continue to bring the category back.

“I’d say it’s coming back faster than we anticipated, and we want to make sure it’s sustainable over time… I think the idea is really getting closer to our consumers, giving them additional ways to engage… I would say the broader strategy is using technologies to help us drive another season for the category.”

Our OmniPath™ shopper marketing consultancy is helping numerous brands decode the ever more complicated shopper journey. We provide brands with a holistic approach to engaging and influencing consumer behavior along the omnichannel path-to-purchase. Stay tuned over the next few months as we report on what we learn about the 2020 shopping season and how we can help you become those brand heroes that consumers are looking for.

One last thought on Halloween consumer behavior?  Data around past shopper motivations tells us that 55% of Halloween-themed candy is purchased for self-consumption, not trick-or-treating!  We shall see, but it stands to reason that in these scary times, we all could use a sweet, comforting treat!


Jennifer Wachtman is a Director on the Market Development Team, whose primary focus is on driving revenue growth through new and innovative research solutions.  She has 7+ years of experience in market research, 5+ with PRS IN VIVO, and is a graduate of University of Missouri with a degree in Psychology. She is one of the founding members of the development team implementing ground-breaking agile online research methodologies.

She is passionate about applying behavioral science to understand the consumer decision making process and finds time to enjoy cooking, traveling, and spending time with her dog, Madison.

You can see her recent presentation, “Plan it. Test It. Do It. Refining & Implementing In-Store Strategies” from our virtual event series, A Behavioral Conversation here (Password: ABC2020).