Party City set for the year's biggest holiday: Halloween

Costumes from Party City, Halloween 2016
Krystina Gustafson | CNBC

As most retailers put the finishing touches on their Christmas plans, Party City is already in the throes of its most critical selling season: Halloween.

With the spooky holiday accounting for 25 percent of its business, Party City has opened 275 pop-up shops, hired 35,000 temporary employees and expanded the seasonal section in its permanent stores by an average of two aisles.

But while preparations start early, much of the execution happens last minute. Because landlords sometimes have kick-out clauses allowing tenants to end a lease early, Party City may not know if it's secured space for a temporary shop until the middle of September, CEO Jim Harrison told CNBC. That gives the retailer a tight window to move product into these locations, and build awareness in a given market.

A real estate rush isn't the only time crunch the company faces. As consumers push back their Halloween shopping each year, some 40 percent of the season's roughly $575 million in sales occurs in the last week, Harrison said.

"It seems like every year it gets later and later," said the CEO, who plans to dress as the Cat in the Hat.

Halloween shifts from a Saturday to a Monday this year, which will likely take a bite out of the adult costume business, Harrison said. That's because fewer adults tend to participate when the holiday doesn't fall on a weekend. As a result, Party City has dialed back its temporary store footprint this season, trimming it to 275 from roughly 335, Harrison said.

Yet he's optimistic the shift won't be all bad. For one, because Monday comes right after the weekend, adults should still head out to parties in advance of the holiday. For another, it should give consumers a full weekend to complete their shopping, and smooth out the spike Party City sees during those final days.

"So many people walk into the store and they go, 'Forget it, this is crazy, you're wearing your brother's costume from last year!" Harrison said.

A stronger economy should likewise spur additional spending. A recent survey by the National Retail Federation trade group found consumers plan to spend $8.4 billion on Halloween this year. That's a record high in the survey's 11-year history. It includes a planned $3.1 billion on costumes, up from $2.5 billion last year, NRF said.

Costumes from Party City, Halloween 2016
Krystina Gustafson | CNBC

Perhaps the biggest shift Harrison has seen in Halloween spending over the past few years is consumers' — particularly millennials' — desire to stand out. That trend has taken on greater significance as social media becomes more popular.

It's also caused Party City, which designs, manufactures and sells its costume wholesale, to beef up its mix-and-match business. Last year, for example, a dozen women could have attended the same party dressed as Spider-Girl and looked different, Harrison said.

"That's a big point of differentiation [for Party City]," he said.

This year, early winners are costumes tied to the "Suicide Squad" and "Ghostbusters" movies, and Disney Junior's "PJ Masks" program, Harrison said.

Despite an expected pullback in spending on adult costumes, Telsey Advisory Group's Joseph Feldman told investors that Party City is at the "top of our list as we shop for Halloween."

Feldman, who has an "outperform" rating on the company's shares, projects Party City's third-quarter sales will rise 5.9 percent, compared with FactSet's prediction for a 5.3 percent lift.

"Once again, Party City appears to have done extensive planning, and is on track with execution," he said.

Retail accounts for $1.62 billion of the company's $2.3 billion in annual revenue, with the remainder coming from manufacturing and wholesaling.