There’s one guy out there who’s having a great 2020. Naturally, he is a giant skeleton. Home Depot’s 12-foot-tall giant skeleton, to be more specific, has become the most coveted Halloween decoration of the season as well as a metaphorically irresistible object of viral delight. To find out how a retailer best known for selling nails and lumber ended up hawking $300 sets of supersize bones, Slate spoke to Lance Allen, a merchant based at the company’s corporate headquarters in Atlanta. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Heather Schwedel: First of all, are there any giant skeletons left? Is there still time to get one?
Lance Allen: We are completely sold out for the year.
How many did you sell?
I can’t share that one with you, but I can tell you I wish I would have brought more in.
What has it been like watching the giant skeleton go viral?
We knew it was a great item. We just could’ve never imagined how it was going to take off. Every time we turn around our skeletons appear in another ad. One of the Kardashians put it up on an Instagram post. So it’s just fun seeing how happy it’s making everybody out there. I feel like it was a year everybody needed a really good smile, and we were able to be that.
What have been your favorite videos and social media posts about the skeleton?
The ones probably early on got us really excited, just when it wasn’t expected. The TikTok video with the Mini Cooper, that really had us laughing, just at the end when she was asking if he actually got the batteries when he picked it up.
It’s been unbelievable. I’ve seen him made into Day of the Dead characters. I’ve seen him made into a couple that’s dating. The Ghostbusters is a great example. I’ve seen some zombie versions made. Someone took one to the beach for a photo shoot. It’s laying there at the beach, getting a suntan. There’s somebody else who did a whole photo shoot in their yard where it seemed like it was buried, and then the other skeletons were helping to pull him out of the ground.
Backing up a little, could you tell me your title and what you do at Home Depot?
I’m the merchant for decorative holiday at Home Depot. So basically that means I pick the assortment, work on the designs of products, and then do the marketing behind them. I’ve been doing that for two years now. The role before this, I was in cleaning, and then the holiday came open and I was thrilled. It’s so much more fun to work on holiday items than just sit there and work on trash bags and brooms.
Can you take me back to the birth of the giant skeleton? Who invented it?
We probably came up with it July or August of last year. Normally it takes us about 12 months to get anything brought to the market. What we try to do is we go to different trade shows, visit haunted houses, and try to see stuff that really makes people excited, items that scare them. I noticed at one of the shows there was a large torso of a skeleton just kind of coming out of the ground. I thought, “Wow. Wouldn’t this be cooler if it actually had legs and arms and we could develop one that could be sold in a retail?” We sketched it up and came up with the idea.
How did you land on 12 feet as the height?
I want to say we started around 10 feet. Just the size of a basketball hoop sounds pretty intimidating. Then we wanted to push it even further. As we started to do the design, the thought was if we could make it look double the size of a 6-foot male, how cool would that item look? ‘Cause you know, their head would be at below the hip bones. That would really show how massive the size was.
Most of the time, when you’re making an item that big, it would just be fixed, but he actually has articulating shoulders. It’s truly a poseable skeleton. You can move the arms up and down, so it allows people to create their own poses.
And this skeleton looks at you, yes?
We thought, “Oh, wouldn’t this be cool if you actually had some type of eyes that we could add in?” That’s when we took some old technology that was on the market for a Halloween mask and we decided to upgrade it and incorporate it into the eyes, where we could actually get the “LifeEyes” that will move around and watch people. We’ve actually got small LCD screens in the eyes, so the eyes really show up well at night. When it’s dark, you’re looking at the yard and you just see him looking down on you. It’s a really cool effect. Between the articulating shoulders to make him posable and then the moving eyes, it really helped bring the item to life.
Were there any early indicators that it was going to be a big seller?
There are some very loyal Halloween customers out there that do decorating. You’ve got people that are just Halloween enthusiasts. A lot of of different people have different hobbies, and there are very loyal groups of people that plan their Halloween decorations year-round. Once we launched online, just reading people’s reactions on some of those forums, how excited they were for the item, how they wanted to see it arrive in stores—we knew we were onto something pretty big once you saw how excited everybody was getting.
That was before it went to the stores. What happens is we normally launch our product right around the first of August online. It immediately picked up traction really quick online.
Is that normal?
Typically for Halloween, you see it as it gets closer to actually the 31st, whereas we were seeing purchases a lot earlier with Halloween items this year.
Was it hard to make and distribute these things?
We don’t share a lot of factory information, but one of our biggest constraints was just the sheer size of this item. If you think of all these coming off the production lines, and assembling them to make sure everything assembles. Just imagine all these skeletons lined up in a production facility, how much space they’re going to take up. It was just literally like a whole army of skeletons lined up, ready to go.
Do you know what kinds of customers are buying the skeletons? It’s not really something I would associate with a Home Depot shopper.
We’ve got a lot of do-it-yourself customers. I know when you first think about Home Depot, the contractor comes to mind, but we have an amazing set of customers. It’s families; it’s couples that are wanting to save money and transform their homes. You’ll see them on the nights or you’ll see them on the weekends. So we really try to make sure we’re catering to that customer also. With this item, we’re seeing the contractors take them home in the back of the pickup truck, but we’re also seeing the families come in and have fun. One of my favorite things to do in season is just kind of sit back and watch all the kids and the families interact with the items on the weekends. It’s so neat to see them plan.
How did you decide these would be $299?
We wanted to make sure we could give it a nice retail price out there for everybody. We thought we had an incredible value. When we originally started making it, we thought we were going to have to charge more, so we were thrilled to get the price below $300. In the past we’ve done a pirate ship that was slightly more than that. We knew that was a good range for the enthusiast.
Do you think people are drawn to these because of the pandemic and the news?
A lot of people are telling us, “We don’t know if the kids are going to be able to trick or treat in the neighborhoods, but we can still decorate and people can drive around and see safely from their cars.”
Have there been any giant skeleton sightings that particularly surprised you?
I had one of our stores in New York call and say they just sold one. Normally we don’t stock the skeletons in our New York City stores, but somebody ordered one online to pick up in-store. Sure enough, probably about five days later, a photo was going around online that somebody in Chelsea had put one out on their fire escape.
Do you have one in your yard?
I do. I’ve got that in my yard. I also have the giant Oogie Boogie.
What is the Oogie Boogie?
He’s a giant inflatable we have, he’s from The Nightmare Before Christmas. So between those two items, they look like pretty impressive pieces sitting in the front yard looking at the cars go by. He’s 10 feet tall, bright green, lit up.
Are you worried about other companies trying to knock off the giant skeleton?
You always see it like the sincerest form of flattery. We put so much into the design and the development of this item. Even if somebody does, I think we’ll still see the customers want to come back to Home Depot to do it because our reviews are just amazing on it. Last I checked, it was still a four-and-a-half-star item, so for something to be that large, to have the assembly be that easy, and then the quality of that piece, I’m sure the customers will continue to come back to Home Depot for him.
Are you already thinking about topping this next year?
Absolutely. It’s making me work extra hard in the off season. We’re always trying to do something bigger and better every year, so it’s going to be a challenge to top this one next year.
Would you consider bringing out a giant skeleton that’s one foot taller? You know, 13 feet?
We’ve got a lot of concepts that we’re working on right now. Hopefully you and I are having the same conversation next year. That is my goal.