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Halloween costume spillover: The shutdown that went 'Boo!'

Saturday, 12 Oct 2013 | 5:00 PM ET
Government shutdown themed costumes from BuyCostumes.com.
Source: BuyCostumes.com
Government shutdown themed costumes from BuyCostumes.com.

It's scarier than a witch or gremlin: an extended government shutdown that has frightened consumers and markets alike.

As the shutdown and looming debt ceiling remain top of mind for many, the buzz is inspiring the hunt for a clever Halloween costume.

At Halloween Express, sales of political costumes and masks—especially those of Uncle Sam and President Barack Obama—have risen. The company's chief operating officer, Holly Bowling, attributed the increase to a not-so-great economy that's making buyers more emotional.

"In election years, they're very strong and then they taper off as things settle and people get back to their normal lives," Bowling said. "But then when you have a current event like this, it causes a spike."

(Read more: It's alive! Halloween industry scares up big money)

Although there has been an increase in political costume sales, it's too early to gauge the ultimate outcome since most Halloween sales happen closer to the event, she said. Even though 2012 was an election year, Bowling estimates that political costume sales will rise this year from a year ago.

"It used to be that it would just be popular during election years," she said. "Now, it's just a staple."

Bowling said she has seen more sustained interest in political costumes since Obama's first election in 2008.

On Twitter, consumers have already begun brainstorming the best way to illustrate the shutdown.

User @Gliomach wrote, "For Halloween I'll wear a suit and demand candy while doing nothing. This year I'll be 'The Government Shutdown' #halloweencostume."

(Read more: Americans to spend less on Halloween this year: Survey)

Another, @Chelsey_Arline, also tried to capture government inertia through silence, posting, "Thinking of going as the government shutdown for Halloween. I'll tape a donkey & an elephant to myself & if someone says hi I'll say NOTHING."

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BuySeasons, the owner of the Buycostumes.com and CostumeExpress.com websites, has also seen political costume sales increase from 2011. Since the shutdown started Oct. 1, sales of political masks have shot up 140 percent and sales of costumes have gone up 43 percent.

Compared to last year, the overall sales mix is trending more toward full outfits rather than just political masks.

"This year...it's the full look," said Dana Palzkill, the company's vice president of merchandising. "I think the shutdown is less about the people than the pop-culture pieces coming with it."

Due to the media attention surrounding the shutdown, the company adjusted its merchandise, adding Uncle Sam and Abraham Lincoln looks and two more based on a "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring Miley Cyrus as Rep. Michele Bachmann and Taran Killam as House Speaker John Boehner, Palzkill said. The company now has more than 30 costume and accessory options playing off the government shutdown.

(Read more: Macy's CEO: US default would be brutal for retailers)

"Monday morning, the buzz was already going," Palzkill said about the SNL skit. "So we started looking at our product to see what we could make into an outfit."

Uncle Sam and Shutdown Lady costumes
Source: Buy Costumes
Uncle Sam and Shutdown Lady costumes

By Thursday morning, the company had assembled two outfits using items already in stock based on the characters, photographed them and made them available for sale—illustrating the quick turnaround time the Halloween business thrives on.

"Pop culture plays a big part of our selections during Halloween," Palzkill said. "It's not as strong as the superheroes or classics like princesses, but it's important that our customer knows they can come to us for the latest and greatest."

To gauge what's top of mind, BuySeasons employees analyze Google search trends, watch YouTube videos, and monitor the news and late-night TV. A separate skit from "The Daily Show with John Stewart" featuring Smokey Bear also inspired a newly released outfit.

(Read more: Heroes, villains unite for Comic Con)

This political costume bump comes amid what one key retail group is forecasting to be a Halloween season with spooked spending. The National Retail Federation estimates total spending to drop to $6.9 billion, from its year-ago forecast of $8 billion.

The NRF published its estimate for slower sales even before the shutdown ground many government services to a halt and put many consumers on edge, resulting in sales softness at some stores, such as Wal-Mart Stores unit and warehouse giant Sam's Club.

—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @KatieLittle

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