Lynda Searby goes back to the future to explore the retro confectionery revival
The retro resurgence that has brought lava lamps, horn-rimmed glasses and space hoppers back in fashion has also swept the world of confectionery. Traditional sweet shops are bucking the high street demise and cult classics such as gobstoppers, pear drops and cola cubes are enjoying a renaissance.
"During 2011, companies specialising in the sale of confectionery products marketed on a retro/nostalgia platform reported an increase in demand of up to 20%, far outstripping growth for the global sugar confectionery market," wrote Leatherhead Food Research (LFR) in its February 2012 report 'Innovations in the global confectionery market'.
Corporate finance activity provides another indication that retro confectionery is a sweet spot. Investors are always quick to smell an opportunity and are now paying greater attention to this sector of the market, according to LFR. As an example, private equity firm Blackstone acquired a majority stake in Tangerine Confectionery, one of the UK's leading manufacturers of traditional sweets, in the summer of 2011.
It is also significant that when Millar McGowan went into administration last year, Tangerine Confectionery was quick to snap up its Wham bar and Highland Toffee businesses. Wham is a cult 80s brand that sits comfortably within Tangerine's chew bar portfolio, which includes Barratt Refreshers, Sherbet Dip Dabs, Sherbet Fountains, Black Jacks and Fruit Salads. Highland Toffee, meanwhile, is a traditional brand that Tangerine hopes to 'restore to its former glory'.
Resurgence of old favourites
LFR attributes much of this revival to the recession and its adverse effect on consumer confidence about the future. And others agree.
"People want a trip down memory lane and a taste experience," affirms Kathlyn Lawson, sales director of Stockley's Sweets, a Lancashire-based traditional sweet manufacturer.
Graham Richardson, md of pick'n'mix supplier Candyking UK and Ireland, adds that "because times are tough, there is a tendency to look backwards with rose-tinted glasses, to when you could go to the sweet shop with 10p. This plays into the hands of retro confectionery."
However, Richardson is sceptical about the extent to which this nostalgia can drive sales.
"I do think there is a bit of a trend towards retro confectionery but I also think the hype is bigger than the reality," he says. "It's not the game-changer people tell you it is. People talk enthusiastically about a throwback to the past, but when presented with the opportunity to buy old-fashioned sweets, they are not as enthusiastic as they would lead you to believe."
In support of this point, he says that in a pick'n'mix fixture with between 50 and 60 different lines, sweets like cola cubes and sherbet lemons that nostalgic consumers profess to want usually sit within the bottom 25% in terms of actual sales.
This, he says, is the reason Candyking doesn't offer chocolate limes and mint imperials. "We've been there and they haven't performed," he says.
But those who are making a profitable business from supplying traditional confectionery strongly refute Richardson's claims that the reality doesn't live up to the hype.
"The whole premise of our company is working with old UK brands, from golf balls to jawbreakers, toffees and humbugs," says Donal Kavanagh, group director of Zed Candy, which also owns Tilley's Sweets and Oatfield Sweets. "We have just this year started supplying mint imperials and aniseed balls to the trade. These have already been a huge success."
The group has also invested in a new 15t toffee manufacturing line at its Kettering site to keep pace with the return to traditional sweets, and is now supplying éclairs, butter toffees and chocolate-coated caramels under the Tilley's brand, which is best known for its boiled sweets.
The litmus test as to whether retro confectionery has legs, says Kavanagh, is in the volumes being produced.
"When we took over Tilley's in 2001, we were making 38t of sweets a week. Now, we're making 100t per week, and sales are up 27% on last year."
Traditional sweet shops
As further proof of demand for retro confectionery, he reports that the company's Zed Candy business, which specialises in kids' lines such as like Jawbreakers, Fizz Bombs and Bubble King, is having its 'best ever year'.
While acknowledging that the retro revival has played its part in this performance, Kavanagh cites other contributing factors, among them a decline in the standard of own-label offerings.
"In trying to be price competitive, the quality of many own-label confectionery products has suffered. We have stuck with traditional recipes and people respect the product because it is as it used to be all those years ago," says Kavanagh.
The rise of traditional sweet shops, spearheaded by Hope and Greenwood and Mr Simms, has also given the retro confectionery industry a boost.
By providing manufacturers such as Zed Candy with alternative outlets to the major multiples, this new wave of specialist retailers is restoring variety to a sector otherwise dominated by multinational manufacturers.
"For years, the likes of Mars and Cadbury have used their marketing might to put their products in front of consumers. I decided it was time to bring back choice to the people by giving them access to other products," explains Martin Peet, founder and director of Mr Simms. "You won't see all of the products sold in our shops on TV because many of them are loose sweets and the companies behind them are small manufacturers."
Whether it's down to the retro revival, sharp business acumen or consumer readiness for change, the Mr Simms recipe is working. There are now 97 shops in the UK and Ireland, of which 22 opened this year, and Peet says "we could easily do 1,000 units in the UK".
Interestingly, Kavanagh has observed that the popularity of these sweet shops is pushing the multiples to extend their hanging bag ranges to include more old-fashioned sweets. Indeed Zed Candy has started manufacturing on behalf of one of the major discounters.
However, to imply the retro revival is purely the preserve of independent manufacturers would be to mislead.
Big confectionery brands are also dipping into their archives and dusting off forgotten favourites. 2007 saw the return of Cadbury's Wispa after a four-year absence from shop shelves. The chocolate bar was reinstated following a social media campaign and, according to Cadbury, an average of six Wispa bars are sold every second.
It's not surprising that reviving old brands is a popular form of new product development, given that they require less time and money.
"Brands from yesteryear frequently command a loyal consumer base and development costs can be low compared with bringing out a wholly new confectionery product," says Jonathan Thomas, principal market analyst with LFR.
However, these reintroductions are often for a very short time only, he points out.
For example, in 2008, Opal Fruits were brought back for a 12-week period to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their absence from UK shelves. The following year, Mars also brought back its Treets brand for a month, following an absence of more than 20 years.
Given that the whole retro movement is centred on restoring something that is trusted, treasured and traditional, the question of reformulation is an interesting one in relation to retro confectionery. Are these products immune from the health and clean-label pressures felt by the rest of the food industry, or have they too, been forced to conform to modern demands?
Stockley's Sweets has a factory in Yorkshire that concentrates on sugar-free confectionery. It reports that demand is increasing year on year, which suggests that traditional sweets are not unaffected by health concerns.
"The same lines chocolate limes, mint humbugs etc are as popular in sugar-free as they are in full-sugar flavours," says Lawson.
She adds that the majority of own-label orders are for sweets with natural colours and flavours.
"However," she says, "some customers still prefer the recipes of old, as natural colours can look quite dull and drab. The whole attraction of visiting a sweet shop is the array of colourful jars."
This sentiment is echoed by Kavanagh, who says Zed Candy offers products with no artificial colours and flavours, but the original formulations remain the best sellers.
"The trade has pushed for natural but the problem is that some of the colours are insipid. Consumers are looking for sherbet lemons that are bright yellow."
Candyking has also answered calls for more natural confectionery by removing all artificial colours and flavours from its sweets, and claims to be the only manufacturer that can make this declaration across its entire range.
These reformulation efforts, together with innovation such as Wham Rocket from Tangerine, will surely go some way to ensuring that traditional confectionery won't get relegated to the history books once the economy has picked up. The biggest challenge, after all, is ensuring that these products are relevant to a younger audience.