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Halloween has become big business

Candy? Check. Pumpkins? Check. Spray tan, professional dye job and elaborate costume for your dog? Check, check and check.

Gone are the days when Halloween spending consisted of a pot of greasepaint and a few bowls of candy corn. Halloween is big business. Americans are expected to spend a whopping $6.9 billion this year on theatrical-quality costumes, movie-grade decorations and a host of nontraditional holiday expenditures that have cropped up in recent years.

Jessica Stokes, owner of Buffalo Airbrush Tan on Hertel Avenue, sees her business triple during the weeks leading up to Halloween.

“I was completely caught off guard the first year,” Stokes said.

Turns out the most sought-after accessory for today’s notoriously skimpy Halloween costumes is a pair of tan legs.

Stokes had all hands on deck Thursday and Friday, as women came in to prepare for Saturday’s Halloween house parties, and she is booked again today and Thursday as customers prepare to party on Halloween night.

“They’re wearing short skirts where their legs are revealed, and they don’t want to feel completely pale,” Stokes said. “It’s almost as busy as New Year’s Eve.”

Total Tan, a Blasdell-based chain of tanning salons, ran a Halloween special Thursday, selling Mystic spray tans for $10.31 and spray tan packages at 31 percent off.

Hair is another big concern, according to Marissa Diaz, a stylist in West Seneca.

“We get a bunch of guys who come in the weekend before Halloween, and we’re busy with a lot of women getting touched up before the parties,” Diaz said. “The guys gotta look good for the girls, and the girls gotta look good for the guys.”

Stylists do costume-themed hair, too – special colors and hairstyles – and sell a lot of hair products to keep hair frozen in place, Diaz said.

Commercial pet costumes – which barely existed a few years ago – have become a huge money maker for retailers. Shoppers are expected to spend $330 million costuming their pets for Halloween this year.

“We had a photo contest, and we had everything from lizards to turtles and ferrets – not just dogs and cats, but the whole animal kingdom,” said Brian Wittcop, assistant manager at Steve’s Wonderful World of Pets in Amherst. “We had a tortoise dressed like a little ballerina.”

The pet industry as a whole has exploded in recent years, as couples put off having children and make their pets the focal point of their families, according to the American Pet Products Association. It was a $53 billion industry last year, compared with $17 billion in 1994.

The most popular pet costumes this year are pumpkins, hot dogs and devils, according to the national Retail Federation. But retailers offer hundreds of options. There’s the canine Lady Gaga, complete with a metallic, conical bra, blonde wig and tiny, headset microphone; Star Wars’ Princess Leia (in both traditional white and Jabba slave versions); and every superhero, athlete and Wizard of Oz character you can think of.

So how has Halloween, which was once a night of simple fun geared toward small children, become a multibillion-dollar bonanza?

“It’s a statement of our times,” said Arun Jain, a marketing research professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management. “Since 9/11, people don’t know what tomorrow holds, and this is one way to live a full life.”

The prevalence of social media also fuels the frenzy. With every Halloween party guest posting photos to Twitter and Facebook for the world to see, there is pressure to look good and to have the best decorations and most creative menu. Pinterest brings competitiveness to a new level, with people from around the world trying to outclever one another.

“There is some ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ ” Jain said. “People get ideas. They say, ‘I don’t have to be just a princess or a vampire, I can be Miley Cyrus.’ It gives them a license to act out.”