Retro Candy: A Trip Down Memory Lane


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Cleveland — Flared jeans, vinyl records and tie-dyed shirts: these are but a few of today’s most popular comeback retail goods. Of course, such a list isn’t complete without candy, and sources report retro is in. 

Just ask the owner of the nation’s largest candy store, Tom Scheiman, who says sales of retro candy are “through the roof” this year. Scheiman’s 40,000-square-foot b.a. Sweetie Candy Co. store in Cleveland carries about 100 retro confectionery brands launched as far back as the early 1900s with Necco Wafers (1901), Mary Janes (1914) and Charleston Chew (1925) to name just a few.

Meanwhile, Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice-president and practice leader at Information Resources, Inc. (IRI), notes the four-year compound annual growth rate through 2021 for select retro candy products was up 10 percent in dollar sales.

Retro’s In The Mind Of The Beholder

As for what defines retro candy, Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 210 Analytics, says it depends on the consumer’s age and childhood memories. “Everyone’s trip down memory lane is unique,” she tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “That said, old school candy sections typically include such items as candy sticks, caramels and taffy products.” Another commonality for some products to be viewed as retro is limited points of distribution, which helps make finding them more of a treasure hunt.

Scheiman concurs: “Retro brands can be difficult to find, with convenience and discount stores, specialty shops and some grocery store chains keeping a good variety of the older brands. They’re sought after because they evoke memories of less stressful times for the individual.”

COVID-19 has magnified our collective desire to seek relief from daily stress, says Lyons Wyatt. “The pandemic caused consumers to seek relief from concerns over life, health and finances,” she explains. “For many, this came in the form of familiar food, beverages and candy from their childhoods.”

An Innova Market Insights survey confirms that. Tom Vierhile, Innova’s vice-president of strategic insights, points out that 77.5 percent of consumer respondents said they prefer familiar foods and flavors. “Retro candy products certainly fit that description,” he adds. 

“Retro brands also serve as a bridge between the generations,” says Martin Deutschman, chairman of Stichler Products., Inc., owner of Mega Candy Co. “Parents and grandparents enjoy introducing the candy they grew up with to their children and grandchildren.”

And then there’s the “cool factor,” which applies across an array of consumer product goods, notes Lou Pagano II, founder of 1908 Candy Co., citing canvass slip-on sneakers and retro light beer can and bottle formats as examples. “This carries over into candy, where demand for reintroduced retro items remains strong,” he says. “For older consumers, it’s about nostalgia. For younger consumers, it’s about being trendsetters.”

A Range Of Sector Drivers

It’s also about creating experiences, says Roerink. “Candy plays an important role at ’70s and ’80s theme parties, class reunions and holiday celebrations rooted in family traditions,” she says. “It’s not only about reliving wonderful childhood memories, but also about creating new ones with kids and grandkids.”

Lyons Wyatt adds that consumers have found retro candy helps bring “something new to at-home occasions such as game and movie nights.” 

Other factors driving sales in the sector include displays, packaging and placement. “When it comes to unplanned purchases, effective retro displays instantly transport shoppers to standing in the checkout line as a child,” Roerink tells Candy & Snack TODAY.

As for what makes for an effective display, Scheiman says more wins the day. “The best sets include 40 or more nostalgic items; it’s all about variety,” he says.

Gerrit Verburg, president and CEO of Gerrit J. Verburg Co., agrees that retailers need to establish retro sets to achieve success with the brands, with counter displays serving as effective merchandising tools. Verburg adds that specialty retailers such as Jo-Ann Stores, Inc., Big Lots, Inc. and Dollar General Corp. have proven successful.

Echoing those sentiments is Brandon Gilson, business development manager at F.B. Washburn Corp. “When it comes to retro products, it’s important to create packaging and displays that provide a new look without losing the legacy feel of the product,” he says, citing as examples the company’s Dad’s Root Beer Barrels canisters and standup pouches. 

As for product placement, Gilson says the company is getting a lot of interest from liquor and wine stores, which use barrels to display bourbons and wines, making the pack graphics a perfect tie-in. 

Packaging can be a game-changer for retro candy makers, confirms Lyons Wyatt. “For select retro brands, we have seen dollar sales increases of 12 to 37 percent for individually wrapped items and standup and reclosable bags for the 52 weeks ending March 21, 2021,” she says. “Theater boxes also saw a 5 percent dollar sales increase for the same period. For many, these theater boxes might have been the chosen treat for the at-home movie watching occasion.” 

Retro Rolls On

As long as memories are being made, there will be a market for retro candy, sources report. The irony is that these products, many of which trace their origins to the turn of the 20th century, now rely on 21st century marketing innovations, specifically social media and ecommerce.

“We recently offered free packs of Black Jack, Clove and Beemans gums on our Vintage Gums Facebook page and website and within hours we had 4,000 Facebook likes and website responses,” points out Verburg. 

“Social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook and our redesigned website are important marketing tools for us,” confirms Gilson. “We have folks sampling our product and posting videos. We’re doing giveaways, and we’re posting behind-the-scenes content on how our candy is made.”

It’s critical to find ways to capitalize on social media, says Pagano. “We’re working with candy influencers while also developing organic influencers such as Dave Portnoy at Barstool Sports, who promoted our product after receiving unsolicited samples.” 

Then there are the ecommerce outlets that gained traction during the pandemic, says Roerink. With entire sections dedicated to old school candy for bulk and individual purchases, these sites augment in-store purchases, she says. 

That’s not to say brick-and-mortar doesn’t play an important role for retro candy sales, notes Roerink. “Whenever we ask what stores are doing to improve their candy aisles, old school candy is always on the list. Retro candy adds fun to secondary displays, endcaps and even sections that constantly rotate with limited time availability. People treasure having opportunities to taste their childhood favorites, and retailers appreciate the boost the brands bring to the basket ring.”

For retailers on the fence about committing to the sector, Deutschman offers this: “Just look to your competition to see why it makes sense to have a presence in this space.”