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As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Faced with declining sales and the looming COVID-19 pandemic, one small candy retailer combined lessons gathered from expert advice, insights obtained through experience and research, and government assistance to pursue and adopt a completely different approach. And thus far, the results have been pretty sweet.

Previously, Candy Me Up focused primarily on wholesale operations, selling bulk candy supplies to other retailers and special event organizers. It maintained one retail store in San Diego, and it hosted a popular booth at the annual San Diego County Fair, where it often earned the majority of its annual revenues within a few weeks. Although it had an Instagram page, its digital operations were a relatively minor factor within its overall strategy.

Yet sales had started to decline, and the impacts of the pandemic were swift and dramatic. Worried that they would be forced to close down, the owners of the family-run store sought a $10,000 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which the U.S. Treasury established with the goal of helping small companies survive the pandemic. They also subscribed to an Instagram Live program that features a retail expert offering advice. He suggested finding a way to pivot and taking a new view on the market.

So rather than continuing down the same path, the family members used the money to stay afloat. Then, noting the growing popularity of TikTok, they decided to develop new digital content that would be appropriate for the app. Their physical store provided a cheerful, appealing backdrop, filled with piñatas, brightly colored candy displays, and wide aisles of sugar-infused treats. Two siblings decided to film themselves, allowing their naturally silly personalities to drive the tone of the videos.

In a remarkably popular version, they posed a Jelly Fruit challenge, in which they bit into edible wrappers around the candy. They also created new versions of popular treats, such as by pouring liquid sour candy on an existing lollipop and showing users how to do it themselves. Attracting millions of views and follows, the TikTok videos also converted into massive increases in online orders, such that Candy Me Up sold out of its pallet of 1,200 Jelly Fruits within days.

The company is actively working to build its digital presence on other platforms too, though its existing Instagram page has a more business-to-business focus, showing retailers how it can support them with wholesale provisions of bulk candy. It is mainly through TikTok that the quirky, silly, sweet presentation of the offerings appeals to individual consumers—enough so that Candy Me Up already has been able to cover its PPP loan and return to earning profits.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why has a TikTok-oriented strategy been so successful for Candy Me Up?
  2. Could other retailers use a similar strategy successfully? What criteria might determine whether they can or not?

Source: Emily Bary, “TikTok Saved My Business: Candy Retailer Finds Internet Fame as COVID-19 Forces a Pivot,” Market Watch, September 11, 2020; Matthew Stern, “Retailer Saves Itself at the Buzzer with TikTok,” Retail Wire, September 15, 2020