IT’SUGAR is not your grandmother’s candy store. Here’s how the hip, hot retailer finds its sweet spot.
Interview by Katie Lee
Do not confuse IT’SUGAR with just another candy store. The Deerfield Beach, Florida-based retailer is selling fun, frivolity, celebration and escapism as much as it’s selling candy. Founded by candy veteran Jeff Rubin in 2006, IT’SUGAR has become one of the largest and fastest growing specialty candy and gift retailers in the world. A sweet, sensory indulgence for the young at heart, IT’SUGAR operates more than 50 retail locations in the U.S., including New York; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Miami; and Palm Beach, Florida, in addition to international locations in London, Dubai and Grand Cayman. In fall 2013, Retail Facility Business spoke with Deborah Brand Probst, IT’SUGAR’s vice president of store development, about the future of the young brand and its evolving processes for maintenance and operations.
RFB: How many stores does IT’SUGAR operate?
Probst: We will end the year  at over 50 company-operated domestic stores and a handful of partnerships in host environments. There is an IT’SUGAR in Radio City Music Hall [in New York City] with a new fabulous store in the Grand Lounge, which reopens on opening night with the Rockettes this year. Organizations like Radio City are such a perfect fit for us — it’s about fun and celebration, and we want to be right there with you when you visit.
RFB: Tell me about IT’SUGAR’s aggressive growth plans. How many new stores are planned in 2014?
Probst: We are still formalizing our plans for 2014, believe it or not. As a growing company, our big advantage is to adapt quickly. I can tell you it will probably land at least about the same number as what we did in 2013 (which was 25 new stores).
RFB: What types of markets are looking to enter?
Probst: We are very focused on entertainment environments, whether that is a lifestyle center with a fabulous mix of movies and restaurants or a tourist area where people are on vacation. We want to be where people go to have fun and celebrate. We were one of the first businesses brave enough to go into Coney Island after [Hurricane] Sandy. We are right across the street from Nathan’s. We hope to be that iconic someday. Likewise, we are now in South Street Seaport [in New York City] as well. We are in the Venetian in Las Vegas, on Main Street in Charleston, across from Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. We also love the neighborhood lifestyle centers where people go to hang out, catch a movie, have some dinner and hopefully come into our store and have a bit of a giggle as part of their entertainment experience. You might decide you really, really need a bag of sour gummy worms or a Duck Dynasty marshmallow shooter.
RFB: What is the typical square footage of an IT’SUGAR store?
Probst: It varies dramatically but our sweet spot is in that 2,000-square-foot range — but we have teeny spaces less than 500 square feet and spaces over 7,000 square feet.
RFB: IT’SUGAR is a pretty unique retail concept that’s part specialty candy store and part novelty gift shop — what makes it so appealing and so fast-growing in the current retail climate?
Probst: IT’SUGAR is about escape. I have heard so many full-grown serious adults tell me they feel like they are 6 again (or maybe 21). This is like a milder version of the movie Hangover. You walk into our store and it’s a party. I got my husband a bunch of things for his birthday (some pretty pricey electronics, etc., etc.) and at the last minute I threw in the Honey Badger stuffed animal from the store — yes, complete with quotes from the YouTube video. He kept carrying it around with him and pressing its paw so it would say rude things. He was threatening to bring it with him to sports bars. Mind you, he likes the candy too. But I think a TED doll is in his future for Christmas.
RFB: How did the idea come about to offer a candy store not geared toward children?
Probst: Our CEO, Jeff Rubin, started Dylan’s Candy Bar with Dylan Lauren. If you have ever been into a Dylan’s you will see it is very much a sensory experience geared toward kids. He realized one day shopping in a CVS with his own two young boys that they were just as excited about shopping in the candy aisle at CVS as at a specialty candy store. It is the adults that are looking for the “Environment” with a capital “E.”
RFB: How does IT’SUGAR handle repair and maintenance in its stores?
Probst: We have one dedicated facilities person. Everything else is outsourced.
RFB: How do you handle a typical maintenance call?
Probst: We are transitioning to all field-based ServiceChannel entry. Right now it’s a mix between field entering in ServiceChannel and our facilities coordinator entering it in from an email.
RFB: What types of maintenance or operational challenges are most common? (What gives you the biggest headaches?)
Probst: Everyone else’s same headache: HVAC. We have chocolate in our stores. It melts when it gets too hot.
RFB: Do you rely primarily on national vendors? Or a mixture of national and regional/local service providers?
Probst: Because we are such a small organization right now, we depend on national vendors who have greater infrastructure than we do. While I would love for it to be a mixture, there are certain conveniences that a national vendor brings (like familiarity with ServiceChannel or electronic billing). I think where we would like to land is a strong mix of regional players who are very strong in the markets where we are the heaviest so we are not going through too many layers to get to a service provider.
RFB: By what criteria do you choose your vendors?
Probst: Strong customer service, of course; creative, proactive solutions; innovation in their field; and of course cost effectiveness. You have to be able to move very, very fast.
RFB: Does your maintenance staff have any “green” initiatives in place or in the works?
Probst: We are doing a lighting evaluation to transition all legacy non-LED lamps to LED. Continuing to improve our environmental footprint is very important to me and it starts with the upfront work before it gets to maintenance. Since I have the privilege of also running the real estate, construction and store design, my initial focus has been being smarter about how things are built, designed, reused before we even get to the maintenance piece. Rest assured, we will get there.
RFB: What do you think is unique about how IT’SUGAR handles maintenance compared to more conventional retailers?
Probst: Our processes are not too much different, but our stores have some very challenging attributes that make our ability to react quickly that much more important. We have a mix of traditional retail challenges mixed in with restaurant challenges. Our sensitivity to temperature with unwrapped chocolate in containers makes our decision in an HVAC vendor very critical. We like to create an open, inviting environment with wide open doors. Our mannequins wear clothing made with candy (designed and created for us by Project Runway alumnus Kenley Collins). We have candy sculptures in our store. In our Noho store, the giant gummy boa constrictor sits in a snake tank (I assume we feed him little gummies throughout the day). All of this makes for an especially interesting maintenance environment. We are still tweaking processes to match.
RFB: What do you enjoy most about your job on a daily basis?
Probst: I love the startup atmosphere and the opportunity to build a brand from scratch. During my time at Old Navy we were so young as a brand that nothing was off the table that we wouldn’t consider. The same thing with my time at Starbucks — oddly, we were in such a turnaround that we were behaving internally like we were a startup, leaving no stone unturned. That ethos continues here and I thrive in that environment.
RFB: What are some of your future goals you’ve set for your team or your stores? Where do you see IT’SUGAR in 5 years? Ten?
Probst: We want to be synonymous with Candy. We want to IT’SUGARIZE the world. Bring a little silliness, a little “take yourself not so seriously”ness, a little “forever youngness” to your local neighborhood. Stay tuned.
— Katie Lee is the editor of Retail Facility Business magazine. Email her at [email protected].