The Sweet Spot: Creating an Experiential Retail Environment with IT’SUGAR

IT’SUGAR is becoming a must-see retail store in major cities across the U.S. Its licensing program only strengthens the shoppers’ experience.

Patricia DeLuca, Senior Managing Editor

March 7, 2024

8 Min Read
Inside IT’SUGAR’s flagship in Times Square, New York, IT’SUGAR
Inside IT’SUGAR’s flagship in Times Square, New York.IT’SUGAR

At a Glance

  • A trip down the candy aisle
  • Tasty Treats All Around
  • National Recognition with Local Flavor

A trip down the candy aisle can elicit mouth-watering temptation, and it might also bring back distant memories of going to the local candy store with a pocketful of change to load up on a variety of favorites. One company has harnessed that special feeling into an experiential retail space, with customers reveling in an atmosphere of sweet indulgence.

IT’SUGAR celebrates our appetite for sugary treats by creating an experiential retail environment that aligns with the “eatertainment” trend that places like Hard Rock Café first introduced in the ’80s.

Around that time, Jeff Rubin, founder of IT’SUGAR, envisioned a candy experience for everyone. The first incarnation was an in-store candy pop-up at FAO Schwarz in New York City during the ’90s. In 2001, he partnered with entrepreneur, Dylan Lauren, to launch Dylan’s Candy Bar, a destination candy store hosting posh parties and events in New York City. Those early endeavors became IT’SUGAR, which launched in 2006 and has become a destination for families and friends to meet and indulge in sweet treats.

“One of the things that Jeff Rubin brought to IT’SUGAR years ago that is still with us today is the concept of the candy department store, whether it’s a 3,000-square-foot store or a 30,000-square-foot store,” says Jarett Levan, chief executive officer, IT’SUGAR. “It’s this notion that you can walk into one of our stores and visit different branded departments. This is similar to the concept of FAO Schwarz, where FAO Schweetz is a department within the toy store.”

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IT’SUGAR has become one of the largest specialty candy retailers in the world, with over 100 locations in the U.S. and Canada. Any candy treat a person can think of, IT’SUGAR has it in stock, from chocolate to gummies, gum, cotton candy and everything in between. IT’SUGAR continues transforming how the world experiences its favorite sugary treats by expanding its reach throughout most of North America.

Sour Patch Kids display.

The IT’SUGAR Times Square location opened in 2022 and joined the flagship M&M’s World, an expanded Hershey’s Chocolate World, Krispy Kreme and Junior’s Cheesecake as must-visit retailers in the heart of New York City. There are 12 IT’SUGAR locations in California, 10 in the New England area and 10 locations in Florida, including the newest, opening at Bayside Marketplace in Miami.

Part of IT’SUGAR’s brand recognition is licensing extensions. The company works with brands, including Pusheen, Sanrio, Funko and many others, to create branded merchandise extensions and collaborations such as T-shirts, pillows, candles, jewelry and drinkware with confectionery brands. For IT’SUGAR, the licensed extension should be organic for both parties.

“Everyone can go out and logo slap, but it’s how you create something more than that,” says Justin Clinger, assistant vice president, creative and marketing, IT’SUGAR. “We run everything we do through a candy-themed filter ... I ask myself: Does the IP make sense in a store, and is there an IT’SUGAR component to it? Do they already have presence in the confection space?”

IT’SUGAR continues to expand its candy department stores across the nation. In the last few years, IT’SUGAR opened an 18,000-square-foot location at Brookfield Properties’ famed Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, an 11,400-square-foot flagship store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and in San Francisco’s Union Square. For the IT’SUGAR team, criteria for a new store is the adage for every retailer: location, location, location.

“It sounds like retail real estate 101, but we want to be where the traffic is,” says Levan. “We want to be in tourism traffic or restaurant bar traffic, where people are out for an evening – where they’re eating, they pass our location and they look in the window. We’ve got curated music – the doors are open and the entire experience draws them in.”

OREO Café at American Dream, New Jersey.

Tasty Treats All Around

In December 2019, IT’SUGAR opened a one-of-a-kind store at American Dream in New Jersey. Visitors are greeted by a three-story-tall Statue of Liberty replica covered in over 1.5 million Jelly Belly beans, an immersive lollipop garden filled with thousands of lollipops and over 5,000-square-feet of candy bins housing an endless variety of their favorite sweets. The second floor is home to dozens of branded shops, like Sour Patch Kids, Swedish Fish, Nerds, Starburst, Reese’s, Kellogg’s and more. The third floor houses the premier OREO shop and café (the second branded cafe opened in Hawaii in 2022). In January, IT’SUGAR debuted a Funko Pop featuring OREO packaging, exclusive to the retailer.

For IT’SUGAR, it is vital that the brands they marry together are seamlessly integrated to create an authentic customer experience.

“The consumer knows and loves the brand for core reasons, so it would be off-putting to them to come in to engage with an OREO space that is so off-brand to a customer that they wouldn’t recognize it as OREO,” says Clinger.

There are more licensed products that are exclusive to IT’SUGAR, including Barbie chocolate bars, Trolli plush, Starburst apparel, Reese’s and Hershey Build-A-Bears, Sour Patch Kids candles and much more. It’s essential to the IT’SUGAR team to have licensed products that best align with the brand. With so many brands under one roof, IT’SUGAR says the togetherness helps elevate each brand.

“When we look at any of our flagship formats, it’s really about giving each brand their moment and making sure we activate into the brand DNA,” says Clinger. “It fits within the four walls of IT’SUGAR, but how we engage with pink Starburst customers differs from how we would engage with M&M customers. Those brands require different activations, and the partnerships formed between IT’SUGAR and the IPs are integral to how the brands look and how we get into the brand DNA... we’re an extension of those brands and able to bring them to life.”

With this mindset, a collaboration with IT’SUGAR can become so successful that the brands become an extension of the retailer.

“We’ve now become known as the destination for Pusheen,” says Clinger. “It’s almost synonymous. You talk about IT’SUGAR or Pusheen, and the customer knows that they can get one at the other. We built confections around Pusheen that we’ve developed. We’ve done that for Tokidoki and Sanrio, too – we play in the trendy entertainment IPs and make them make sense within IT’SUGAR. We’ve also worked closely with Netflix for a ‘Stranger Things’ confection line last season.”

More recent collaborations were with Funko and Warner Bros. for an exclusive line of vinyl figures inspired by the recent “Wonka” film – a partnership that feels right for IT’SUGAR.

IT’SUGAR also has branded candy, cereal and merchandise, along with gift packs surrounding holidays like Valentine’s Day and Christmas. IT’SUGAR also carries Sour Patch Kids flavors exclusive to its store, extending the number of flavors from five to eight.

IT’SUGAR at Ala Moana Center, Honolulu.

National Recognition with Local Flavor

IT’SUGAR continues opening stores across the U.S. – at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Faneuil Hall in Boston, Nashville’s Opry Mills and Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Like all its stores, the Lincoln Road location has merchandise exclusive to its region. The store features candy from Sour Patch Kids, OREO, Nerds, Skittles, Reese’s and Starburst, plus international and trending treats. IT’SUGAR takes great strides to ensure that each store has something specific to the town, no matter what city you’re in.

“We work closely with local teams from marketing – I always say we run a very grassroots marketing department,” says Clinger.

“When you walk into the San Francisco store, you’ll see the Alcatraz T-shirt with the Sour Patch Kids,” says Levan. “And then in Hawaii, you’ve got the Aloha OREO T-shirt with the “o” of Aloha styled as an OREO. These are some of the surprise partnerships that we offer to our customers that are geographic-specific but also based on our branded relationships.”

IT’SUGAR also gives back to the community. A partner with Make-A-Wish since 2019, the retailer has granted several wishes to those who want a candy-filled experience.

“We just recently gave them a check for more than $1.12 million,” says Clinger. “We’ve given a lot back to Make-A-Wish, and all the stores are involved. We also have a program where kids go to Universal Studios as one of their wishes and visit the IT’SUGAR store on-site and redeem a voucher. We hosted over 100 kids last year through the program with Universal. We also have a child who wishes to work in a candy store, and she’s going to Hawaii to work in the Ala Moana store next.”

As IT’SUGAR keeps opening stores, it is also keeping up with trends in candy and licensing. One of the latest food and beverage trends quickly on the rise is freeze-dried candy. Visitors will find a wall filled with such treats at IT’SUGAR. According to IT’SUGAR, plush sells very well, so expect to find an array of licensed plush at stores. The goal is to make each store experience better than the last one.

“We are always asking ourselves: How do you get the customer even more engaged in the brand? How do we make them a repeat customer that knows IT’SUGAR, loves it and makes sure it’s on their bucket list of things to do in that city,” says Clinger. “We want them to say: ‘I went to the IT’SUGAR store in San Francisco; I have to go visit it when I’m in New York or Miami.”

As IT’SUGAR expands, both Levan and Clinger will continue to look into its licensing program to keep the brand fresh. 

“We’re never satisfied with the status quo,” says Clinger.

The article was taken from March's issue of License Global. Read the issue in full here.

About the Author(s)

Patricia DeLuca

Senior Managing Editor, License Global

Patricia DeLuca currently serves as License Global's Senior Managing Editor.

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