Tracy Gunn is no stranger to difficulties in business. She started her candy store — Life Is Sweet — in downtown Keene 14 years ago. But for the past four years business has steadily declined, about 10% per year, something Gunn attributes to the Keene riots. (A 2014 incident that led to more than 100 arrests, siginifcant property damage and the cancellation of an annual pumpkin festival.)
“Our tourism kind of has dried up,” Gunn said.
The pandemic was another blow. The main draw at Life Is Sweet is the old fashioned candy counter. People come in, don a glove, and put their hands into jars of candy, selecting the exact type and amount to satisfy their sweet tooth. Gunn estimates that under normal circumstances, 90% of customers who visit Life Is Sweet make an individualized bag of candy.
Of course, coronavirus put a stop to that, just as Gunn and her managing partner, Shannon Hundley, had stocked up on candy for the busy Easter season. Gunn and Hundley knew they needed to move their stock, so they turned to online sales, which had previously made up less than 1% of their revenue.
They aimed to reproduce the experience of the candy counter online. Gunn had previously done market research that showed there were few options for customizable candy packages online. Life Is Sweet aimed to fill that space, allowing customers to custom-order packages with all their favorite candies.
The idea took off, which brought its own challenges. During the Easter season most business came from people sending gifts. If a particular candy was out of stock, the staff at Life Is Sweet would make a substitution. However, people from around the country then started ordering candy for themselves online, and they were not as understanding of alternatives to their favorite sweets.
“If they order themselves and something they’re looking forward to isn’t there, it’s a problem,” Gunn said.
There were also other learning curves. Driven by Facebook advertising, Life Is Sweet was reaching customers around the country — Gunn said they’ve now shipped to all 50 states. They had to learn how to ship candy without it melting or attracting ants, and how to process orders effectively.
Today, online orders make up 50% of business at Life Is Sweet. Gunn has been able to fill the niche that she saw, for customizable candy orders. The business still relies heavily on Facebook ads, but also has a high rate of return customers, she said.
Remote sales have, in a way, made Life Is Sweet pandemic proof. Gunn has seen first-hand how the pandemic has devastated businesses in New Hampshire. At the start of the pandemic, she owned multiple businesses: two locations of Life Is Sweet, in Keene and in Brattleboro, Vermont; Willie Mac’s, a pub in Keene; and The Flight Deck, a restaurant at Dillant Hopkins Airport in Keene.
Willie Mac’s and the Brattleboro location of Life Is Sweet have both permanently closed. Gunn said she simply couldn’t see a way that Willie Mac’s — which relied on the bar, events and catering — could endure the pandemic. The Brattleboro location of Life Is Sweet had only been open about a year, and the numbers just didn’t make sense, she said. The Flight Deck is still in business, trying to weather the challenges of the pandemic’s second wave.
But when it comes to Life Is Sweet, Gunn sees a clear path forward. She and Hundley recently streamlined the website to make it easier for people to order their customized candy bags, and ship them to multiple addresses. She expects that online sales will continue to grow. That will allow her to keep the store in Keene, as a way for connecting with loyal local customers and as a base for the digital business.
“I woke up on March 17 and all of my businesses were essentially worth nothing,” Gunn said. “That’s devastating. But coming out of that is very exciting. We’re able to give a little bit of light in a difficult, stressful time and maintain some normalcy. We felt that was important.”
This story is part of the 50 Businesses; 50 Solutions series shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. It has now grown beyond 50, as NH businesses continue step up to face the challenges posed by the pandemic and the Collaborative continues to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted in the hope others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. Tell us your story here. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.