In this story, there are no skeletons in the closet. They are, instead, on display for all to see.
Back in July, Home Depot did something unusual: It pre-released its Halloween lineup online, and almost immediately, it sold out of everything. It may have its Halloween past, and an unlikely product smash, to thank.
In 2020, Home Depot debuted a 12-foot, $299 skeleton that one would think had a limited market. Yet this budget-breaking, assembly-required monster sold out before last October. In fact, Home Depot reported its most successful Halloween in 2020.
Now the massive skeleton is coming back, and make no bones about it, it’s possibly bigger in 2021. The creature – dubbed “Skelly” by fans – has a legitimate social media following, a growing list of motivated buyers and “play” in terms of future ongoing sales. This is all in part to Home Depot’s savvy and measured stewardship of the unlikely sales sensation.
Bigger Skeleton, Bigger Basket
What makes the skeleton so appealing is the timing of its audacious excess – rattling the human psyche following seven months of pandemic-caused caution, isolation and cutting back. Skelly not only stands tall, it stands for something. It is an outlet of expression (including frustration) as well as an act of control.
Here are five ways Home Depot is adding meat to the bones of its surprise phenomenon.
1) Stretching the holiday season. In July, when Home Depot pre-released its Halloween products online – skeleton included – it was months before the traditional kickoff of Halloween sales season. But Home Depot was following an apparent hunch, and it was on to something: 45% of consumers said they planned to start Halloween shopping in September or sooner, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). “We had a sneak peek … online and just sold out (of) our pre-released Halloween products almost immediately,” Home Depot Chief Operating Officer Ted Decker said during an August earnings call. “That's a very strong indication that people are still going to engage in decorating.”
2) Luring shoppers into its stores. The skeleton shortage is creating a treasure-hunt environment that could encourage foot traffic. Fans are making Big Foot-like claims of seeing “Skelly” in the flesh at select Home Depot stores. A dedicated, 20,000-member Facebook page, “12 Ft Skeleton Halloween Club,” for example, alerts shoppers if “Skelly” is spotted at a specific location. Lance Allen, Home Depot’s decorative holiday merchant and creator of the skeleton, has said, revealingly: “While many of our popular Halloween products are already sold out online, customers could be lucky enough to find the skeleton along with other Halloween décor in stores.” This enticement of discovery is a core component of a good in-store experience.
3) Allowing joint opportunities. Just as the leg bone is connected to the hip bone, product makers want to be connected to Skelly. In 2020, several consumer brands incorporated images of their goods with the skeleton on social media. Impossible Foods posted the skeleton staring into a pile of giant meat-free burgers. Natural Light appears to have photo-shopped a 24-pack into the skeleton’s hand. And Sour Patch Kids, unable to get their own skeleton, superimposed a 12-foot “Kid” on a front lawn. So far in 2021, Budweiser is marketing a Budweiser Bud Can costume (for $45) to “dress up consumers’ Home Depot skeletons,” according to AdAge. These efforts can expand skeleton awareness via the marketing halo. One co-branding study shows that advertising on a premium publisher’s site caused a 67% “halo” brand lift.
4) Adding “cross-bone” product extensions. The skeleton is a lesson in how to add on to predictable product expansions. Compatible items in Home Depot’s “Grave and Bones” collection include a “Bone Throne,” a spider more than 5-feet high and a 6.5-foot gravedigger. Some items even outprice the skeleton – an 8-foot animated Ferry of the Dead is priced $399, and a 5-foot haunted hearse (with smaller skeleton) is $429. But beyond the predictable decor, there are a variety of devices Home Depot can sell to help ensure the skeleton remains anchored in a desired position, such as bungee cords and even cement (it does come with a stand and stakes, but might become unstable in wind).
5) Offering big-boned value. At nearly $300 a pop, Home Depot’s skeleton cost more than the entire Halloween budget of the average American household – nearly $103, the NRF reports. The retailer could have tested a higher price in July, but it did not. Instead it upgraded the skeleton by adding a power adapter for its LCD eyes. This attention to price consciousness might reflect a sensitivity to price gouging. Third-party sellers are buying up and trying to sell the skeleton at jacked-up prices, which shoppers have noticed. And research has shown that price comparisons, or “external reference pricing” is more important to maintaining customer loyalty than simply meeting price expectations.
Driving The Nail Into The Coffin Of Consumer Deprivation
This Halloween, Skelly will reveal much about how consumers face the fear of unpredictability, as well as how well they can endure it. Some may perceive the boom in the giant-skeleton population as a $300-per-sale cry for help following a scary 19 months. But retailers and marketers should take it as a shout of “hello!”
And they should follow the shoppers closely. Consumers seldom lead retailers to the grave.
Bryan Pearson is a Featured Contributor to The Wise Marketer and currently serves as a director and strategic advisor to a number of loyalty-related organizations. He is the former CEO of LoyaltyOne.
This article originally appeared in Forbes. Be sure to follow Bryan on Twitter for more on retail, loyalty, and the customer experience.