As you'll know if you've been to Oxford Street recently it has a heck of a lot of sweetshops these days, specifically selling imported American candy.
It had at least six before the pandemic and somehow they survived the lack of tourists and multiplied and now there are eleven. I thought I'd visit them all, starting at the Marble Arch end.
Candy Surprise: This is located slap bang on the corner facing Marble Arch and used to be a Crest of London souvenir shop. It also sells luggage, vapeware and tins of English Breakfast Tea, but mostly it's sweets.
If you've not been inside one of these candy stores they're essentially an Aladdin's cave of sugary treats, most (but not all) originating on the other side of the Atlantic. That means shelves of Oreos, Hersheys and funky flavoured Pop Tarts as well as racks of Cheetos, Milk Duds and assorted Nerds. There's often a entire wall of sugary cereals like Apple Jacks, Cocoa Pebbles and French Toast Crunch, plus all sorts of chewy options like Hubba Bubba, Millions and Dots. Expect to face flavours like blueberry, bubblegum and watermelon which are less familiar in the UK, and if there's a chiller unit the likes of Kool-Aid, Mountain Dew and Fanta Berry. You might even grab yourself a packet of Sour Jawbreakers, a bag of Chile Limón Lay's Potato Chips, a selection of Mike & Ikes or a box of Nabisco Grahams. But what you won't see anywhere is a price.
Tales are told of people who went in for a bar of chocolate, a bag of sweets and a packet of cereal, waved their contactless card and discovered later they'd been charged over £20. I can't confirm this because, as I said, all the goods are unpriced and I had no intention of buying any. What I did do in Candy Surprise is ask if they had any Cinnamon Tic Tacs because I know they've been discontinued, and all they did was direct me to some Lime and Orange by the till which I could have bought in my local corner shop. Tremendously polite, but no thanks.
American Sweet Dreams: This one used to be Holland and Barrett. It's quite lightly stocked, being mostly wallspace and a few free-standing units. American Lolli & Pops: This one seems to be a partner to the one a few doors up the road and if anything is emptier. One of the shopworkers was standing just outside the entrance, less to welcome visitors but more as if he was acting as a lookout. Candylicious: This one's bright and welcoming so long as you're not frightened off by M&M's characters in party hats. It used to be a shoe shop. Have you noticed how every one of these has either the word 'Candy' or the word 'American' in its title? American Candy Shop: This one has both. It used to be Boots the Chemist but during the pandemic there wasn't much call for that so now it sells sweets. In its defence this is the only shop that actually puts price labels on some of its stock, so well done to them, even if the inevitable effect is "£6.99 for a box of Pop Tarts! No thanks."
That's five of these shops in the short section between Marble Arch and Bond Street stations. There's no way Oxford Street needs this level of candy competition, you'd think, and yet all of these stores had customers so maybe it is what people want to browse. If you're up from the provinces with the family or on a trip abroad with your mates, a quirky sweet shop might be a lot more fun to dip into than the surrounding alternatives. Half the department stores have gone and most of the clothes shops too, so checking out Jolly Ranger candies and Jelly Belly beans does at least pass the time.
Candy World: This is the big one, both in terms of floor space and in terms of who it replaced. That's because this is the former HMV flagship store at 363 Oxford Street, now emptied out and replaced with racks of empty calories. Head to the rear and you can see the mothballed escalators, the lowest access point now hemmed in behind a selection of generic suitcases and other luggage. If this is where you came to buy your classical LPs or new wave CDs, it's sad to see walls of Hostess Twinkies, Cookie Dough and Goldfish Crackers instead.
A shop where you could buy long-forgotten British sweets would be excellent, a nostalgic treasure trove of Spangles, Toffos, Pacers, Pyramints, Fuse bars and the like. But you'd never interest the young consumer, which is where Oxford Street's audience is, plus some company would actually have to manufacture them again, whereas these American treats can simply be imported and everyone goes ooh how exotic, I'll buy two bags.
Americandy: This wins the prize for the best name, but is also one of the smallest shops. It used to be an Accessorize but is now emblazoned with candy canes and Wonka bars. Kingdom Of Sweets: This is the odd one out, as the use of 'sweets' instead of 'candy' in the name suggests. It's been here 10 years now, the business having originally evolved from a pick ’n’ mix stand in a Barnsley shopping centre, and its selection isn't as American as elsewhere. It's also the only store where I saw a woman employed, the only store with a basement and the only store with a selfie screen for customers to use as an Insta background. Marshmallow fluff, Swedish Fish and six kinds of Snickers remain available, however. Candy Shop: Easily the dullest name of the bunch, inside a large unit where JD Sports used to be. I was part surprised and part impressed to see an employee dusting the rack of crisps just inside the entrance. (Candy Corner): ...but this one's closed. It had everything going for it - a location close to Oxford Circus, the usual stock of transatlantic goodies and the Stars and Stripes on full display - but instead a sign in the window says 'Everything Must Go' and the shutters are down.
There are those who say these shops are a front for dubious trading, maybe even money laundering, and that some overlord is repeatedly opening and closing a selection of outlets to keep on the right side of business legislation. It does seem unlikely that a dozen half-empty sweet shops could support the exorbitant rents that the heart of the West End demands, however overpriced the Twinkies, Twizzlers and Sour Patch Kids might be. All I'll say is that in certain stores the stooge by the door did seem more interested in watching the street than any potential shoplifting within, and I never quite felt comfortable enough inside to take photos of the colourful displays up close.
American Candy Shop: This is the first repeat, indeed a matching shop to the one near Bond Street station. There are considerably fewer candy outlets on the run-up to Tottenham Court Road, indeed just these two. American Sweets & Souvenirs: This final shop had a poor selection of candy, as you might expect when half the store is about flogging hoodies, key rings and plastic Big Bens. But a box of Pop Tarts was only £5.99 here, i.e. a full pound cheaper than at American Candy Shop, so it pays to shop around.
It's no good tutting, these candy stores aren't aimed at you, neither are they occupying units that'd be selling something you were interested in either. But you do have to wonder why what used to be the most prestigious shopping street in the country is now infested with tacky outlets fleecing visitors with unlabelled racks of foreign confectionery. Priceless? Sadly yes.