Tourists visit London for its world-class museums, restaurants and shopping – and American sweets, judging by the rapid growth of US candy stores in the capital.
Oxford Street is home to more than 30 of these American sweet shops, opening in stores abandoned by more traditional retailers. In one notable example, HMV’s former flagship store has been replaced by a candy shop, with many of the US sweet stores popping up during lockdown as high street stalwarts closed down.
The popularity can partially be explained by UK consumers’ affection for US products, as many American brands are already established in the country’s snacking habits. Ben & Jerry’s is the second most popular ice-cream brand and 21% of Britons say Oreos are a favourite biscuit, according to the market research firm GWI.
The explosion in popularity of US candy stores, which offer the sweet treats UK consumers grew up watching on American television programmes, could be an extension of this trend. The bright, cartoonish style of American confectionary is also popular on social media, with some TikTok accounts collecting hundreds of thousands of followers for their clips showing off new products.
“Nostalgia and frivolity are dominating the food sector right now; consumers are looking for multisensory experience that are playful and allow them to get lost in their favourite childhood treats or flavours,” says Savannah Scott, a creative foresight analyst at the Future Laboratory.
However, the prime locations of the stores and the rapid growth of the sector has prompted questions about the business model. Concerns have been raised about the health impact of the sugary products and about the legality of some of the operators.
Katharine Jenner, campaign director at Action on Sugar, said it was “appalling” that the candy shops had been “taking advantage of empty retail units for years”.
While some of the stores are legitimate, others are under investigation by Westminster city council for tax evasion and selling counterfeit goods.
The council leader, Adam Hug, said: “They are not only an eye sore, they are a threat to the status and value of what is supposed to be the nation’s premier shopping street.”
The local authority raided three sweet shops on Monday, seizing more than £100,000 of counterfeit and unsafe items. It is investigating 30 premises in Oxford Street for alleged business rates evasion totalling £7.9m, saying the shops are not “legitimate businesses” and do not have enough customers to be commercially viable.
Instead the council believes some of the properties are “used to avoid business rate bills and possibly commit other offences”, but did not name any of the suspected businesses.
Business rates evasion is where the owner of a property lets it to an intermediary, who rents to the souvenir and candy stores usually on licences. That means the landlord can avoid paying business rates on an empty shop, and instead the occupier – paying minimum rent and low staff salaries – becomes liable to pay the tax.
However, they provide false details or shell company names that quickly dissolve to avoid paying business rates, making it hard for the council to recover the debt.
Products found in this week’s raid included 2,246 counterfeit Wonka bars, 2,838 unsafe disposable vapes, 223 toys without safety labels and 1,393 counterfeit mobile phones. Council officers also confiscated fake iPods and Rolex watches, and have so far seized about £574,000 worth of counterfeit and illegal goods in its crackdown.
Complaints from the public about the stores include high prices, the sale of out-of-date food, sex novelty sweets and fake Wonka bars, possible breaches of Covid rules, and advertising indicating cannabis sweets are being sold.
The council has written to 28 property owners to urge them to consider the impact of the stores on the area.
Hug said: “The problem is that owners of buildings are turning a blind eye to those who sublet them as it means they are not liable for business rates. That’s why we have a rash of US candy stores in prestige locations. This needs to stop and we will be stepping up pressure on landlords to make it clear they are responsible for Oxford Street being overrun with these kinds of stores.
“The people selling overpriced and often out-of-date sweets are cheating the UK taxpayer and very often swindling their customers into the bargain.”