Why the Easter Bunny Is a Retail Beast

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- The Easter Bunny may look fluffy and cute, but retailers know there's a lot of consumer-toned muscle beneath that fuzzy exterior.

Easter may not have the profile of other more secularly oriented holidays, but the bunny is a retail beast. Easter brought in more than $14 billion last year, accounting for 6.1% of all holiday spending, according to IBISWorld. That's good for fifth among its holiday cohorts behind the winter holidays (59.2%), Thanksgiving (13.4%), Valentine's Day (7.5%) and Mother's Day (6.5%).

Easter brought in more than $14 billion last year, fifth among all holidays, and it's not all about chocolate bunnies.

Last year, the 79.6% of Americans who celebrated Easter spent an average of $118.60 on the holiday. The overwhelming majority of that spending went right into the Easter baskets as food ($37.45), gifts ($18.16) and candy ($17.29). For such companies as Tootsie Roll ( TR), Hershey's ( HSY) and Kraft ( KFT) -- which is on its second year of making Cadbury Creme Eggs -- Easter is a $1.9 billion basket of goodies with candy sales second only to Halloween's $2 billion, according to the National Confectioners Association.

"Easter is obviously a religious holiday, but many retailers have discovered that Americans consider Easter the official kickoff to spring," says Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "We've found that millions of Americans head out every spring to buy not only Easter-related products, but to buy new spring apparel."

While roughly 65% of Americans got their chocolate, jelly beans and decorations at discount stores such as Wal-Mart ( WMT), Target ( TGT), Kmart ( SHLD), Kohls ( KSS) and Fred Meyer ( KRO) last year, they were putting a lot more into the cart than just holiday treats. The NRF says that roughly 39.2% of Americans spent an average of $19 on Easter apparel last year -- fueling sales when there is seemingly little incentive to do so.

"It's more about promoting new lines through small discounts or events than big blowout sales like a post-holiday clearance," says IBISWorld analyst Nikoleta Panteva. "Because the prices are higher than during post-holiday sales, they kind of bring in revenue that way."

Stores such as The Gap ( GPS) and TJX ( TJX) may get nostalgic for winter around this time of year, as only 7% of NRF consumers shop at specialty clothing stores for the holiday, but other retail niches find the holiday as sweet as a truckload of marshmallow Peeps.

Since the basket is big enough to hold, say, a copy of Dragon Age 2, Easter's been a huge video game holiday. Last year alone, the NPD Group credited Easter sales with an $80 million spike in game sales that fueled big returns for Sony's ( SNE) God of War III and Electronic Arts' ( ERTS) Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Conversely, they also blamed the movable feast for a more than $100 million decline in April sales when the holiday fell on April 4 last year after falling on April 12 a year earlier.

Normally retailers will just compensate by combining their March and April sales as they would with November and December holiday sales numbers. That's not going to be so easy this year; Easter doesn't come until April 24, the latest it's been since landing on its latest possible date of April 25 in 1943.

Retailers who were spoiled in 2008 when Easter came March 23 -- one day off its earliest possible date of March 22, where it hasn't fallen since 1818 and won't again until 2285 -- will have to stretch to make up for a fairly moribund March, but have billions in added revenue waiting for them on Easter morning.

"The shift in the Easter holiday often results in the dislocation of sales, but Easter falls in line with Valentine's Day and Mother's Day as a gift-giving holiday," Grannis says. "You're looking at $440 billion that the winter holidays bring in versus the $16 million on average that Easter, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day bring in, but Easter's still always in the Top 4."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.