Covid supply chain's latest victims: Halloween shoppers

Roxanne Shakeri went to at least four different stores in the Los Angeles area last month in search of Halloween decorations.

She said she wanted to adorn her apartment in orange and purple lights, witches and maybe even a spooky Snoopy figurine to "get into the spirit" and "make it feel like normal times again" after more than a year of disruption from the pandemic.

But stops at multiple Michaels, HomeGoods and Target stores yielded only a few decorative pumpkins and some other small items.

"Nothing," Shakeri, 28, said, "that I wanted to fill up my entire cart with."

With just a few weeks until Halloween, shoppers across the country are encountering bare store shelves and "sold out" signs online as they hunt for decorations and costumes.

The lack of inventory is another consequence of the Covid-19-related shipping crisis crippling the global supply chain.

Historically at this point in the year, Spirit Halloween would have delivered some 90-plus percent of merchandise to its stores, the seasonal retailer's CEO, Steven Silverstein, told NBC News. But as of Tuesday, the company had only sent out around 80 percent, he said. The rest should be delivered by the third week in October — about a week before Halloween.

Spirit Halloween opened 1,400 locations and hired 30,000 employees this season.

Silverstein said the impact of the shipping delay has been building since spring.

“There was a lack of availability of equipment suddenly in April, when we start shipping,” he said. “And so that has put us back about four to six weeks.”

Marybeth Brock, an owner of Johnnie Brock’s Dungeon Party Warehouse in St. Louis, said last year the store would have had 95 percent of its product already priced and on shelves. As of this week, it was at 75 percent. Decorations have been affected most of all, she said.

This year, the company also has had issues getting large props and some common things, such as the mask from the “Scream” slasher movies.

“We have customers asking for them every day, and we just got those in today. Normally we would have those in the middle of September,” she said Tuesday.

Brock said there were rumblings earlier in the year that her industry could be affected by ongoing supply chain and shipping issues during the pandemic, as other industries faced problems.

"But really, I'd say August is when we're like, 'OK, these containers that were supposed to be there, they're floating around in the ocean. They're at a dock. They can't get unloaded,'" she said.

“We've just been keeping our fingers crossed and trying to stay on top of everything else, so that when the product does come in, we can quickly turn it around and get it out on the shelf,” she said.

Brock, who described her store as “30,000 square feet of pure Halloween party fun,” said the company started to get more inventory in recently, allaying fears that stock wouldn't arrive until after the holiday.

“So we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

But at Chicago Costume in Chicago, General Manager Courtland Hickey has accepted that some costumes and decorations won't make it to the store before Oct. 31.

Hickey said the store is still waiting for delivery of about 25 to 30 percent of the merchandise it ordered.

“It's just a very high number,” he said. “It's across the board. It's not one company; it's all manufacturers. And it's not one kind of product; it's all the different things that we sell. It's all the costumes, the wigs and masks and makeup. They all have different issues when it comes to getting in.”

Reanae Smith, of Texas, who was shopping at the Spirit Halloween store in New York City on Tuesday, said she usually starts Halloween shopping in August. She said she has been “waiting for stuff to show up. Back home, it's really touch-and-go with everything, with Covid going on.”

Smith said she’s also noticed when shopping back home that “for sure there's a lot of empty holes as far as in-stock products wherever we go, especially Walmart. Walmart's been getting hit hard.”

While supply has been unquestionably lower this year, Silverstein said he believes demand also has been higher, stemming in part from “pent-up demand from last year,” when Halloween was effectively canceled.

Silverstein said he believes anticipation is at a high this year because of the sense of magic and escapism the holiday provides at this phase in the pandemic. Even if people can’t find exactly what they are looking for this year, “you're going to find something that you love, because there are so many different ideas and so many different ways that Halloween can be celebrated,” he said.

That's the attitude Shakeri has adopted. Not even an apartment decorated sans witches is dampening her spooky spirit. She said she believes the same is true for others who love the holiday.

"Whether that's digging in the attic of your old Halloween decorations that you haven't put out since last year, since two years ago, or adding to your collection and buying new decorations this year, I think a lot of people are excited for the holiday," she said. "I know I'm excited for Halloween."