Robin Helfland amid a storewide renovation of Robin's Candy to address anticipated new shopping habits in the age of coronavirus. Photo: Andrew Blechman

Sugar highs and lows: Local businesswoman pivots to prosper

Inside, Helfand was faced with a shuttered store that she knew deep down would need a massive renovation. Outside, along Main Street, all was crickets.

Great Barrington — Candy purveyor Robin Helfand knows a thing or two about surviving an economic downturn. As she tells it, it’s in her blood.

Both of her grandfathers owned businesses during the Great Depression. Her paternal grandfather built beauty parlors because he knew women wouldn’t give up on their hair if they could help it. And as her maternal grandfather, who owned a corner candy store explained, people still want to feel good; affordable luxuries like a big lollipop make that possible.

Those lessons came in handy when Helfand opened up Robin’s Candy on Main Street in Great Barrington in 2008, just as the bottom fell out of the economy. She took her grandfathers’ observations to heart and marketed her sweets as such. “People weren’t purchasing large-ticket items anymore, but they were still interested in small indulgences,” Robin explained. “Maybe visitors weren’t taking major vacations, but they were still coming to the Berkshires and could buy treats for their kids. A spouse might not be able to splurge on jewelry, but they could still buy chocolate truffles for their loved one.”

As inspiring as her grandfathers’ stories were, as well as her own ultimately positive experiences during the Great Recession, Helfand found herself as overwhelmed as the rest of us, particularly her fellow retailers on Main Street. The five stages of grief are unavoidable, but Helfand said she knew she didn’t have much time to make it from Denial to Acceptance if she wanted to save her life’s enterprise.

“Losing my business is not an option,” she said, while surveying an empty store a month ago. “I will not let that happen. I am not going to lose my business.” It sounded more like personal mantra than provable reality. Inside, Helfand was faced with a shuttered store that she knew deep down would need a massive renovation. Outside, along Main Street, all was crickets.

But when she called a major candy producer to cancel orders, he steered her toward a webinar that recommended a different five stages of introspection.

  1. Assess.
  2. Take care of your people (employees).
  3. Evaluate then preserve your cash flow. In addition to creditors, reach out to any service providers such as your utilities company. Pay only that which is absolutely necessary.
  4. Preserve and protect your inventory.
  5. Pivot: How can you accept reality in a time of uncertainty and still be a business when none of the rules you went into business with still apply?

For Helfand, the assessment led to an immediate need to pivot. Due to health orders, she had to remove one of the most popular features in her store: the self-serve bulk candy bins. It’s impossible to know if a ban on self-serve will be temporary or lead to a whole new way of doing things. But it’s entirely likely that that way of life is gone, and so Helfand went to work. All those handsome glass jars primed for happy hands? Gone. They’ll be replaced with sample-sized packets that many manufacturers are rapidly pivoting toward (and aspiring to do so with plant-based cellulose packaging). She’ll likely also provide curated assortments of grab-and-go favorites, and recently purchased a “tamper proof” heat-sealing machine for small batches.

Self-serve candy will be replaced by sample-sized packets at Robin’s Candy in Great Barrington. Photo: Andrew Blechman

All those tightly spaced areas of candy wonderment? Also gone. Helfand is replacing static shelving and wooden bins with tables that move on casters. That way, she can space them farther apart to meet 6 feet of social distancing and adjust them on the run as she learns from new customer habits. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to shopping habits,” Helfand said. “I decided I needed to be as flexible as possible. Furniture that could be wheeled around and easily rearranged seemed like the smart way to go.”

Although her business is deemed essential because she carries food, albeit of the uniquely yummy but not especially nutritious variety, Helfand could keep her store open. But she’s waiting until a time that feels more appropriate and in line with the rest of the mood of Main Street.

Regardless, even when she does, she has no idea what walk-in business will look like. For now, she assumes she’ll have to regulate how many can enter her store and how they handle merchandise. It’s possible that only one family member enters the store, and that there could even be a limit on children for health reasons. Curbside delivery could be here to stay. And, thankfully, she can continue offering something that’s already a favorite with larger groups such as camp counselors: renting out the store for a private shopping experience or celebration. “What could be better than having a candy store all to yourself?” Helfand asked.

Inevitably, more of her business will move online, which means polishing, refining and expanding her online offerings. That also means devoting more of her store to boxing and shipping orders. And online comes with its own challenges: “After all these years, I could predict to within 5 percent of what my weekly sales would be for any week of the year. But that had to do with understanding the ebbs and flows of holidays and local tourism, even weather.”

Online is a different ballgame. Orders can come from anywhere in the world. A snowstorm in town would reduce sales for a few days. But a local snowstorm means nothing when customers could just as easily be in California or the UK. And increasing an online presence also means more dollars put toward search engine optimization and other marketing efforts, particularly social media.

Good challenges to have, but challenges nonetheless, particularly in regard to inventory. Pre-coronavirus, just-in-time inventory was how business got done. Now that’s a distant memory. How does one anticipate inventory when need is no longer calculated on well-understood walk-in sales, but rather internet sales from anywhere in the world? There is no answer to that — just trial and error and fingers crossed with the understanding that mistakes are unavoidable for now.

“It used to be that I could forecast exactly how many Swedish Fish I’d need,” Helfand said. “Let’s say I ordered a case and just as I needed it. My storeroom was configured to handle that case, and my cash flow and credit lines were set up for that. This will take a total rethinking of purchasing, inventory, storage and fulfillment. Some of my products are very specialized, like licorice from Finland. I’m not sure how I will estimate orders of that. And storage is a huge problem. I’m already stuffed to the gills. When it comes to inventory, perishability is a factor, as is cash flow. Inventory is a challenge to sit on.”

One way to estimate her inventory needs online was with her monthly subscriptions for yummies like licorice, which accounts for a third of her sales. With increased (hopefully!) online ordering, all that will change. How many boxes will she need? How much specialty candy? “I’m pivoting my business into the unknown,” she said. For now, she’ll funnel customers to her existing specialty subscription boxes: Licorice Lovers; International Explorers; and Childhood Favorites. And add some more: fudge box of the month, a gummy club, and more. Given the times, care packages are increasing in popularity as well: an affordable luxury. (And with every care package purchased, an equal number of treats are being donated to Fairview Hospital.)

Another result of pivoting to new realities is likely to be fewer offerings, with a culling of less popular items. Specialty items like these will likely turn into specialty orders. Customers will simply have to adjust to waiting for an item to arrive. And she’ll move into items that aren’t perishable — giftwares, locally produced crafts, novelties — in case there’s a resurgence of coronavirus and we all go back into lockdown.

Meanwhile, along with a total reassessment and pivoting of her business for this new era, it’s time for a spring sprucing up of the store. “At least I don’t have to worry about losing revenue,” she said, “because there is no revenue.”

But now that she’s finished with being anxious and overwhelmed, Helfand’s on to the excitement phase. “It’s a crisis-management model,” she explained. “Once you accept what’s happening, it’s all about how you pivot so that you can come out of it stronger than before. The premise is that customers will buy but maybe in a different fashion.”

Until there is a vaccine, Helfand expects this is the way it’s going to be. “It’s very important to stay optimistic,” she cautioned. “But behaviors are going to be redefined. The world is going to be a different place from how it was.”

Among other assumptions she’s building into her pivot: Every store will use enhanced sanitary protocols with gloves, masks and sanitizing stations being business as usual; point-of-payment will be shielded, payment will be contactless; and cash will eventually disappear.

It could be two years like this. And by that time, customers’ shopping habits could be altered in a lasting way. But Helfand is counting on people still being tempted to come into her store, browse and enjoy the experience of being there, surrounded by colorful sugary treats.

After all, candy is about memories — fond ones.