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Bernie Madoff costumes are expected to be big sellers — inasmuch as people are spending at all this Halloween.
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updated 10/21/2009 12:31:57 PM ET 2009-10-21T16:31:57

This month, instead of ghosts and goblins, or even Bernie Madoff impersonators, it's the economy that has consumers running scared.

Shoppers are expected to spend an average of $56.31 on holiday merchandise. That's down from $66.54 last year, according to the National Retail Federation's 2009 Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted last month by BIGresearch. Total Halloween spending is expected to reach about $4.75 billion compared to $5.77 billion last year.

To lure shoppers, retailers have cut prices and advertised discounts and deals. They are also heavily promoting online sales. Halloween Express, a retailer with locations nationwide, offers a "110 percent guarantee" on any costume sold online. That means that that if within 14 days of a purchase a lower price is found elsewhere online, Halloween Express will refund the difference plus 10 percent.

The reason for such a push online? "There's a lot of competition," says Tony Bianchi, owner of Halloween Adventure, a costume retailer in New York City. Bianchi launched his Web site newyorkcostumes.com last year when he realized that customers were scouting costumes in-store then turning to the Web to find the best deals.

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Knowing that shoppers are scouring the Internet, online retailers are also focused on search engine optimization. "Building our organic page ranking on search engines ... is part of our marketing strategy," says Brad Butler, spokesman for Halloween Express. "The difference between No. 1 and No. 2 in the search engine is almost a 20 percent difference in sales."

What will these searches mean for those handing out treats Oct. 31? Lots of Kate Gosselins or Michael Jacksons running around town. Both are expected to be among this year's most popular costumes, according to various costume retailers. NRF says that witches, superheroes and princesses will be also popular. Avid readers of the "Twilight" series of books and viewers of shows like "True Blood" are likely to make vampires one of this season's hits.

Saving money is also big. That might include a shift from buying pre-packaged costumes to using pieces from closets with affordable accessories added.

Still, some Halloween-lovers don't seem to be letting the economy get in the way of a little fun.

Bianchi, dressed as Batman with a fishing hat, points to a $1,200 costume of Boba Fett and a $1,199 costume of a Halo videogame character on the top shelf of his store.

"We've sold several of these high-end costumes," he says. "When times are good, people want to party. When times are bad, people want to party. There's still money out there."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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