Walking into the American Candy Shop at 389 Oxford Street as Kesha's "Die Young" blasts on the store's speakers is a pretty surreal experience, being a native New Yorker.
As the daughter of a dentist, it's remarkable to see nearly every snack my mother wouldn't let me touch with a ten-foot-pole as a child, stocked-wall-to-wall. From Twinkies — which my parents once convinced me caused cancer — to every flavour of Goldfish, from "Colors" to "Baby," (yes, those are the names of actual flavours).
Loud music and bright colours are key motifs in these stores, which are springing up along Oxford Street. Recently, one even commandeered the former HMV store. You get a feeling of sensory overload. So much so that I accidentally knock over a shelf of Laffy Taffys while trying to figure out where to look.
I decide to start over at a new store, and lucky for me, they are everywhere; I only need to walk five minutes down the street until I hit another one. How do these nearly identical shops stay afloat with this much competition?
Along with everything else assaulting the senses, sweet smells perfume the store. Are artificial fragrances being released? Time Out reckons the aromas of bubblegum et al. are pumped into these stores via a tiny tube. Certainly, from what I remember growing up, these treats didn't smell too much like anything — unless you really stuck your nose in the bag.
Then there's the cost. Interestingly, one website has a testimonial section that posts reviews praising them for "reasonable" prices and products which are "great value for money." Yet the American Candy Stores website sells a box of Fruity Pebbles cereal for £7.99 (sold for around £2.92 in the US).
Customers are few and far between when I visit (although it is on a Monday), but someone tells us: "We love it, but it's over-priced."
Not everyone feels that way; someone else we speak to says the price is justifiable because the goodies are "very hard to come by" and have become more and more desirable for visitors in the West End.
Another shopper tells me these candies are rare and "taste better" than European snacks.
The funny thing is that, outside of major tourist traps like NYC's Times Square, America doesn't really have many candy emporiums like this. What it does have is similar stores selling European snacks and candies from other countries.
My personal favourite is Fuzzwig's Candy Factory in Steamboat Springs, CO. I remember going crazy for their store-made fudge and Cadbury chocolate products as a kid — which I very thankfully can buy in bulk at the nearest convenience store in London, now that I am here. I also can say with almost 100% certainty that nothing found at an American Candy Store in the West End will be store-made.
And, in my experience, places like Fuzzwig's are smaller shops rather than large chains. Plus, their entire branding isn't reliant on foreign sweets; they sell American candy too. Brits, on the other hand, seem all-too-keen to do away with their sugary heritage by way of these exorbitant, multi-sensory explosions along Oxford Street.
To a New Yorker like me, these stores feel more like a museum than an actual candy shop — all of the favourite/forbidden candies from my past arranged in such a picturesque way. Everything from the breakfast cereal I used to eat in the mornings to the midnight snacks I would sneak from the pantry is on display at these candy "kingdoms." I'm walking right into my younger self's dream exhibition.
But strangely, I seem to be the only American here.