How Britain fell out of love with the sweet shop: ‘Lollipops have become a health and safety thing’

Glummie bears: Sales of confectionary have almost halved in recent years (iStock)
Glummie bears: Sales of confectionary have almost halved in recent years (iStock)

There once was no shortage of sweet shops in Britain. Pick ‘n’ mix stands would carve out corners of your local supermarket, too, their plastic compartments rendered kaleidoscopic with sweets of every hue. And sweets were basically the sole reason every child wanted to go to Woolworths. But over the past few decades, vast swathes of shops devoted to sweets – as well as sweet real estate in your local Sainsbury’s or Tesco – have been eliminated.

Closures have occurred far and wide, inspiring mourning at both local and national levels. Just last week, the Telegraph reported on the fate of Kev’s Pick ‘n’ Mix, a market stall from which Kevin Hilliard has sold sweets to punters in Saxmundham, Suffolk, for 24 years. To the ire of local residents, the council informed Hilliard that he must relinquish his spot by the end of March, as the Wednesday market he’s long called home is being overhauled. Hilliard had planned to pass the stall onto his youngest daughter.

But Hilliard’s eviction is more than a personal, or even town-wide, injustice; it’s symptomatic of a wider cultural shift when it comes to our relationship with sweets. If you google British sweet shops now, for instance, many are marked with an ominous “closed permanently” notice where their opening hours should be. What’s happened?

One theory is that our proclivity for sweets has been curtailed by heightened health consciousness, aided by a media climate that has exhaustively documented the discovery of preservatives and other additives often found in sweets. We’ve also witnessed a cultural shift towards more diet-conscious parenting: according to a survey by Netmums and Sugarwise, 80 per cent of parents regularly search for low or no-sugar products for their families, while research by NRC Health revealed that 52 per cent of millennial parents monitor what their children are eating. This is reflected in UK revenue numbers, too: sales of sugary confectionery have almost halved since 2010.

With his wife Julie, Philip Allsop has run Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe in Hornchurch (part of the wider Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe franchise) for the past decade. Over the years, the couple have witnessed the growing restrictions parents have placed on their children’s eating habits. “It’s been creeping in, gradually more and more, [the] limits on how much they have and how much they’re allowed to buy of each thing,” he tells me. “They’re not all swarming in as they used to.” Then there have been other, stranger shifts, he adds. “Lollipops seem to have gone – they’ve become a health and safety thing.”

We have our sweets under a counter, so we serve customers rather than the customers helping themselves and kids putting their dirty hands in there

Philip Allsop, Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe

Sweet shop owner Nick Biddle believes that the closing of so many stores of his ilk has as much to do with the law as it does parental preferences. Biddle and his partner Jason Cheung founded The Sweetie Shoppie Ltd – which operates as a delivery service and retail space – in Tilbury, Essex, in 2021. Biddle thinks that heightened restrictions surrounding ingredients and allergies may have deterred many sweet shop owners, who are legally required to inform customers of any allergens in their goods. Biddle has an allergy and intolerance policy in place, and caters to vegan, dairy-free, and halal dietary requirements, and he thinks it’s been a measure that’s actually been a “major selling point” for his customers.

A heightened emphasis on hygiene during the pandemic also sounded the death knell for many a pick ‘n’ mix. When Covid hit, Morrisons began selling its pick ‘n’ mix offerings in pre-packed bags, Tesco swapped unwrapped sweets for wrapped, and Wilkos axed its pick ‘n’ mix counter altogether.

Allsop thinks that his shop’s resilience is partially down to the hygiene measures they’ve put in place: the sweets are kept fresh due to the shop’s high turnover rate, while supermarket pick ‘n’ mix selections are often left on display regardless of their age. He also makes sure not to let customers handle the sweets. “We have it all under a counter, so we serve customers rather than the customers helping themselves and kids putting their dirty hands in there,” he says. Dishing out the sweets themselves also prevents members of the public from pinching them, something Allsop suspects was behind the closing of the pick ‘n’ mix stand in his local Sainsbury’s.

But the shuttering of so many sweet shops also might have something to do with ever-multiplying consumer options: where children once relied on the local shop or a visit from the ice cream van, there are now spots for bubble tea, for juice, for frozen yoghurt. A Starbucks is on every corner, promoting its wares to increasingly young customers via ostentatious colours and flavours. And teenagers today largely communicate online rather than meet each other in public, which translates to far less opportunity to stumble upon a brick-and-mortar sweet shop.

Sweet nothings: One of the many controversial American candy shops currently sitting mostly empty in central London (Getty)
Sweet nothings: One of the many controversial American candy shops currently sitting mostly empty in central London (Getty)

Then there’s the slight suspicion that’s been cast upon purveyors of candy lately. Who hasn’t glanced at one of the eerily empty American candy shops currently dominating central London – and that have sparked a number of political interventions of late amid claims that some are fronts for money laundering – and raised an eyebrow? These expensive albatrosses have given traditional sweet shops a bad name.

It’s no surprise, then, that many have had to diversify, often turning to online platforms to survive. Both The Sweetie Shoppie and Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe Hornchurch take digital orders. According to Biddle, bulk deliveries make up the majority of The Sweetie Shoppie’s business. Allsop reckons that his location gives him an edge over his online-only competitors. “From what we’ve seen, we’re closer than a lot of the competitors and we actually deliver [goods] that afternoon,” he says. “We’re a lot quicker than post.”

But what old-school confectionery has lost in commercial resilience, it’s gained in novelty and nostalgia. It’s not uncommon to find vintage-style candy carts at marriage ceremonies and events. Indeed, the Sweetie Shoppie regularly supplies sweets for weddings.

Meanwhile, on social media, it’s pick ‘n’ mix’s turn at the centre of the trend cycle. TikTok Shop, the video app’s e-commerce wing, is currently awash with live videos of sellers curating and drop-shipping customers’ pick ‘n’ mix orders, with some of the more popular accounts having garnered hundreds of thousands of followers. It’s a trend that has yielded real-life sales for candy shops that don’t even advertise on the app; Biddle says that TikTok trends are often the impetus behind his customers’ orders.

Given the expansive snack economy and our mushrooming preoccupation with our health, it’s not surprising that so many British sweet shops have shuttered. But, as TikTok’s trend du jour demonstrates, the market for candy remains. “There is still a huge amount of people that are wanting sweets,” Biddle says. “You’ve just got to tap into the right niche, the right market, and target it in the right place.”