In late 2001, McKeesport Candy Co. closed its last retail candy shop, Trifles in Station Square, but unlike many local candy wholesalers, it did not plan to close its doors for good.
“I came into work one day and said, ‘The numbers don’t work,’” said owner Jon Prince, whose grandfather founded the business at its now-closed Fifth Avenue location Downtown in 1927. “When you lose something, you have to replace it.”
At one time, McKeesport Candy had several additional retail locations, including a shop in the Monroeville Mall and one on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill.
The company launched a Web site in the late 1990s, mckandy.com, which was originally established for advertising purposes. In 1998, it became an e-commerce site.
But Prince, facing increasing rent and a desire to run the company differently, envisioned creating a new site that would act as a one-stop shop for customers.
Candyfavorites.com was launched in 2000 and, soon after, became the company’s sole Web site.
While the company’s wholesale division remained “the lion’s share” of its business, the Web site — started as a hobby of Prince’s — served as a catalogue of its products.
Still, with costs mounting from designing and configuring the Web site, the first few years were tough, Prince said.
The company’s wholesale business, selling candy to retail shops, remained steady, but the Web site struggled.
“Everyone else said, ‘You are taking great risks,’” Prince said. “There was a solid year or two years … characterized by grotesque budget overruns.”
To make matters more difficult, the company’s one-time dominance of selling candy to schools and organizations for fundraising drives started to erode.
Instead of focusing exclusively on selling product on the Web site, Prince worked to make it a destination, with educational information about candy and a large section focused on the company’s history.
“When it came to my vision for the site, and my vision for quality, I was unrelenting,” Prince said. “It was hideously expensive to build. Never once did we hit our budget.”
Prince said consultants to the company even criticized the site for not focusing enough on the bottom line.
They told him, “You could make more money, if you are more aggressive,” Prince said.
The site now sells more than 2,900 items and averages 8,000 to 10,000 visits each day. It has been featured on NBC’s “Today” show, WQED and The Food Network.
Joe Hermanowski, the third generation owner of Hermanowski Wholesale Candy Co., a competing wholesaler based in the Strip District, said McKeesport Candy’s strategy was a good one, and necessary in the face of rapid changes in the candy industry.
At one time, Hermanowski’s company provided candy for the mom-and-pop shops that used to dot the main streets of towns across the country. But with the likes of Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and other mega-retailers pushing out the smaller stores, nearly all of this business evaporated.
But Hermanowski, who now runs a sole retail location in the Strip District and sells products on eBay, said the challenges of moving online include the cost and the risk that the Web site will not be successful.
“I’m not used to doing business that way,” he said. “I, generally, like to know my customers. I like to know where my money is.”
McKeesport Candy Co.