How a former Wall Street executive created a second career as a candy store entrepreneur sounds like the makings of a Ryan Reynolds’ comedy, but Lolli & Pops chief executive officer Sid Gupta is in on the laugh, having built a $50 million business in four years.
In 2012, Gupta left a career in banking and private equity looking for an investment. He decided on a distressed chain of 11 candy stores in Oklahoma City, despite having zero retail experience and no marketing budget whatsoever. Gupta relocated, cleaned the floor, worked the cash register, bought the candy, trained the staff and learned the business from the ground up.
He recovered his investment in the first few months. A year later he couldn’t understand why sweets, a $35 billion business, was “extremely fragmented with very little innovation.” Gupta reminded summit attendees that most candy is sold in convenience stores, drugstores and grocery stores. “The core organizing idea behind our business is happiness. Our mission is driven by the simple idea of, well, if I can make people happy over and over again…it sounds really corny, but this year we will touch almost 10 million people. Maybe one day I can reach a billion people and maybe I can move the needle of happiness just a little bit.”
Lolli & Pops will open its 37th store this year and is approaching $50 million in revenue, Gupta said. “Starting with great design” of the stores, he said he pays attention to detail in the stains and the colors of the woods, the tins used for ceilings, the marble that is used, the fixtures — everything is there to tell a story. He researched old-time candy stores in Europe. Sourcing delicious product was the second factor, finding licorice from Australia with real licorice root, sour balls from Spain, candies from Japan and nostalgic sweets from Missouri. The company also used its design knowledge to package private-label goods.
The third factor was to invest in the stores’ “magic makers,” the staff, who are dressed in bow ties, crisp Oxford white shirts, aprons and hats “so they play a part and are there to put on a show.” Well-informed and well-trained staffers offer shoppers a tour of the store and samples, Gupta said.
The company on Wednesday launched its first e-commerce site, which is focused on gifting its products rather than straight commerce.
The company’s slowness in leaping into e-commerce indicates its emphasis on bricks-and-mortar. Joined onstage by RetailNext chief executive officer and cofounder Alexei Agratchev, Gupta said the company’s technology has been integral to Lolli & Pops’ success showing that, in the end, the best marketing and customer acquisition tool a brand can have is its own stores.