In the neon-lit maze of the modern-day grocery store, the temperature is always chilly, strawberries never go out of season, and the Halloween season starts as early as August.
Stroll the seasonal section at an area Giant and see them on the shelves: Spooky Hershey’s Kisses and marshmallow cats. At Safeway, there are bags of Nerds with zombies on them.
While retailers have long displayed holiday offerings well before the season — the phrase “Christmas creep” applies to this phenomenon — experts say the practice is reaching new extremes in an era of intense competition.
“I can say in the past 20 years I’ve never seen Halloween candy being sold this early,” said Phil Lempert, a consumer trends analyst and founder of the website Supermarket Guru.
To Lempert, it’s a naked attempt by the stores to extend the season for Halloween candy buying. Get customers hooked in August, the logic goes, and they’ll be chasing the sugar high through the new year.
“Most people are gonna start eating it,” Lempert said. “They’re not going to wait till Halloween.”
But local chains such as Graul’s and Eddie’s say they plan to wait until after Labor Day to put up their displays of orange-packaged candy corn and ghoulish fun-size bars.
“We traditionally wait a little further than the other stores,” said Kate Graul, who works in the chain her family started in the city in 1920. Graul says August is too early to put out Halloween candy. “It just seems like you’re pushing one holiday after the next.”
A spokesman for Giant Food stores said Halloween candy started shipping the week of Aug. 3, and shelves are gradually loaded up with holiday offerings as shoppers mentally prepare themselves for what’s to come.
“That’s probably a little crazy,” said Susan Hovanec, carrying a watermelon back to her car in the parking lot of the Giant on 41st Street, where a display of Halloween candy was already up. “The holidays go 24-7.”
Some attribute the practice to broader pressures on the grocery industry. Retailers might find a competitive edge in being the first to set up their holiday displays, John Karolefski of grocerystories.com said.
“It is a very competitive marketplace,” Karolefski said. “I think that just plays into the competitive nature of the business.”
In the past few years, the industry has faced what Karolefski calls “death by 1,000 cuts”: competition from both online and brick-and-mortar retailers.
Despite the presence of food deserts in many parts of Baltimore, the overall number of grocery stores in the area increased more than 50 percent from 2009 to 2014, going from 200 stores to 304 stores, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s a trend seen elsewhere in the United States as well.
“In many metro areas around the country we have an overstocked marketplace of grocery stores,” Karolefski said. More recognizable names such as Safeway and Giant face competition from newer discount retailers such as Aldi, as well as from big-box stores such as Walmart and Target that are increasing their grocery sales.
And many stores now offer free or low-cost shipping. As a result, he says, “Traditional grocers are trying to do anything they can to maintain their customer base and attract new customers.”
There are other factors, too, that make candy an appealing item for retailers to stock up on. Unlike iceberg lettuce, Karolefski says, “M&M’s don’t go bad in a year.”
Lempert points to high level of stress among Americans. A survey last year by the American Psychological Association found that most Americans said they consider this “the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember.”
“At a time where people are very nervous about the world, whether it’s climate change or politics or so on … eating a sweet treat makes people happy,” he said.
But in featuring candy this early, Lempert says, stores risk alienating health-conscious consumers looking to reduce their sugar intake.
“I think that there’s a huge fallout especially with this era where people are trying to eat healthier,” he said. “If you’re a vegan and you get a store circular and the first thing that you see are turkeys, you’re gonna be turned off to that store,” he said. Similarly, Halloween candy in August, he said, is “a turnoff to some consumers.”
For shoppers, it’s a hair-raising sight.
“It’s still summer,” said Sharon Booth, 58, loading her plastic-bagged groceries into the trunk of her minivan as the sun shone on the parking lot of the Hampden Giant on a code-red afternoon. “Who’s really thinking about Halloween?”