NEW YORK — Inside a Ricky's NYC store, Lucie Sudmeier selects a Hogwarts uniform from racks filled with sexy pirates, blue Avatar makeup and vampire fangs.
"I was going to be a runaway bride, but when I saw this costume, I had to grab it, said the 19-year-old. "My friends know me as the Harry Potter nerd. I have a Harry Potter tattoo!"
Potter's hot for Halloween this year, including prominent billing on kid costume lists for the first time ever, according to a survey conducted by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation. But he's going to have some pop culture competition as retailers stock a wider variety.
Think Snooki versus Gaga, Buzz Lightyear versus Spiderman.
The NRF said more people plan to dress up for the holiday than ever before — 40.1 percent compared with 33.4 percent last year and the highest percentage since the group started tracking Halloween trends in 2003.
"We expect 2010 to be the year of the costume," said NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis, who cites the poor economy as a possible reason people are investing in some fun.
"It's relatively affordable, purely discretionary spending and a great way to kick back and forget about what lies around the corner," she said. "We saw a rise like this in 2008 as well as in 2002 after 9-11."
This season's Halloween costume trends also include rises in classics, humor and lighthearted gear:
TOP ADULT COSTUMES
According to the NRF survey, "witches" are still the No. 1 costume for adults, followed by vampires, pirates and nurses.
"Nurses and political costumes completely fell off the list last year," Grannis said. "It was right when health care was in the news every day and we had already been through an election year. Both categories are back on this year."
While classic costumes still top the list, Grannis cited a rising influence of pop culture. Leading the pack is a certain blonde chameleon who's tailor-made for the holiday.
"In our online business it's Lady Gaga hands down," said Todd Kenig, chairman of Ricky's NYC. "The wigs, her outfits, the accessories, it's all Gaga."
Ricky's NYC sells no less than seven different full Lady Gaga costumes and dozens of her accessories, including a hair-shaped bow and soda-can wig.
Expect MTV's Jersey Shore characters — Snookie, Pauly D and The Situation — to be a hot ticket for men and women. Snooki wannabes will sport orange "tan" makeup, a skintight leopard dress and the quintessential "pouf" wig, while men can become DJ Pauly D with a spiky wig, or "The Situation" with a muscle tank and fake set of ripped abs underneath.
"The 'Jersey Shore' has been hot, even since the beginning of the year when people started throwing Jersey Shore parties," said Dorice Dionne, senior vice president of merchandising for iParty. "I can't tell you how many fake tattoos we've already sold."
The characters in "Alice in Wonderland" are another big trend, according to the NRF survey, and several retailers specifically cite the Mad Hatter as one of the top costumes for adults.
Retailers report big sales in scaly blue Avatar costumes and Mario Brothers, along with "classic" and more Twilight-modern vampires.
"Clearly pop culture is driving what we're seeing," said Dan Haight, chief operating officer of BuySeasons Inc., which owns one of the biggest online costume sites, BuyCostumes.com. "Vampires had a resurgence this year and 'Alice in Wonderland,' in particular Tim Burton's Mad Hatter, is huge."
Humor and lighthearted looks are back in a big way as well, led by giant yellow bananas and wooly sock monkeys.
"Right now humor is almost half of our total sales," said Mary Ginnaty of Savers, a secondhand chain of stores across the United States. "The campier the better. ... The mullet is still our best-selling wig."
TOP COSTUMES FOR CHILDREN
The princess has held her reign over popular girls costumes for the last six years, and she's not budging.
In fact, while princess is No. 1, "Disney princess" is No. 5 with its variety of tiara-sporting royalty: Tinkerbell, Snow White, Belle, Tiana and, Disney predicts, Rapunzel from Disney's forthcoming animated feature, "Tangled."
Other popular options for girls include Jessie from Toy Story, witches, gypsies and mermaids.
Superheros are still a strong choice for boys, including Spiderman, but so are pirates, the Mario Brothers and Toy Story, specifically Buzz Lightyear. He made his way into the top picks for the first time this year.
"Buzz, Woody and Jessie are big for us this year, and even the toddler costume of Rex," said Molly Adams, vice president and general manager of Disney Store North America.
Ladybugs and bumblebees are other tops for toddlers.
Retailers said not much has changed in the kids category, although some are seeing a rise in retro, '80s costumes.
"One difference for boys," said Ginnaty of Savers, "is that while heroes like Wolverine and Spiderman are still strong for boys, we're also selling the personal heroes: the combat soldier, the firefighter and the policeman."
For the family that Halloweens together: A ghostly group. A voodoo trio. A pirate brigade. This year, many families are dressing together as a unit.
Chasing Fireflies, a Seattle-based company, has been selling more options for families, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and mothers and daughters.
"We have vampires as a brother and sister duo, a Greek goddess and gladiator, looks that are expanded to add in Mom and Dad," said Lori Liddle, co-founder of the company.
Chasing Fireflies has also added plus-size costumes and expanded their sizes for growing kids.
"We've sold out of every (children's size) 14 in the house," Liddle said. "I think the market has been pushing kids to be way too old too quickly and parents are pushing them to retain their childhood. It's nice to let them be young and celebrate the childhood part of their life."
Newsmakers: Angry stewards & oil spillers. In an homage to Steven Slater, the I'm-Not-Gonna-Take-This-Anymore Jet Blue flight attendant, several retailers are selling their own versions of the disgruntled airline employee or the angry steward.
"It's a blue steward shirt with a light blue tie and it comes with a Band-Aid for your forehead," said Kenig of Ricky's NYC.
The BuyCostumes.com version includes a plastic beer stein.
Iparty has a series of celebrities-gone-bad looks that include a Tiger Woods visor with a golf club stuck through it. BuyCostumes.com features imitations of Betty White, Flo the insurance lady from Progressive.com and a "Bad Planning BP Jumpsuit," a green costume that looks like it's stained with black oil.
"That will be the controversial costume of the year," predicts Haight.
ANYTHING CAN BE SEXY
According to the NRF, the "sexy adult costumes" are doing better than ever and boast a wider variety. There are sexy referees, sexy mischievous Mad Hatters, sexy pirates and a "Miss Krueger," which is a sexy version of the Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddie Krueger.
BuyCostumes.com has the unquestionably most bizarre look in their Sexy Cookie Monster and Sexy Big Bird costumes for women.
"It's a different cookie monster: it's flirty and sassy and a lot more fun," Haight said.
Dog as Pumpkin: Fluffy and Fido can get into the Halloween spirit. Just about any costume you could dream up for a human is available for your pet.
The NRF tracked the top pet costumes. They include pumpkin, devil and witch. Even costumes for pets are getting racier, with retailers offering "sexy schoolgirl," "playboy bunny" and "Darth Vader" for dogs.
In a downturn economy, many consumers would rather get creative and piece together their own costumes. That's also a way of making your costume more unique.
All of the retailers we spoke to said their accessories business is hotter than ever, with wigs, wands and Michael Jackson gloves flying off the shelves.
"The consumer is embellishing last year's costumes or they're finding something in their closet and making that work," said Ginnaty of Savers. "They might buy a Snookie wig, but wear an animal print dress they already have in their closet."
And since Halloween is on a Sunday this year, many will be going to multiple parties over the weekend, so they'll need more than one look.
"Friday they might be Iron Man," Ginnaty said, "and Saturday they might put a chef hat on top of a regular outfit to mix it up."