Rick Barber knows a thing or two about children’s retail: before founding Ricky’s Candy, Cones, and Chaos ice cream, candy, and toy store chain, he worked for the biggest children’s retailer of all, FAO Schwarz. After its bankruptcy, Barber was part of a team developing a new platform for it to grow from: ice cream, the hottest growth sector of the fast food industry. But FAO Schwarz passed on the idea, so Barber took it with him and struck out on his own.
Ricky’s Candy, Cones, and Chaos stores sell everything from Necco wafers to the latest exploding sour candy treat, as well as homemade ice cream. Each location features a room for birthday parties, a substantial part of the company’s business.
The idea is catching on. In five years, the chain has grown to 12 locations with at least 30 more dedicated to eager franchisees. “We’ve grown far beyond the expectations we set at the beginning,” Barber, president and CEO, said. “I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had great support from our vendors and our franchisees.”
He said that friends he’d made over the course of his career heard about his plan and wanted in. Most, he explained, had contracts with much larger retail companies and usually would never have touched such a small operation, but stagnation in the industry encouraged them to consider trying something new.
“The retail industry overall is consolidating, so there are fewer contracts available. Ricky’s was an opportunity for them to expand into the submarket of smaller, specialty store chains and grow their business in a new direction,” said Barber.
Barber applied the lessons learned in two decades in retail to craft the Ricky’s shopping experience. Bright colors, custom fixtures, and lots to look at create the chaos the chain is known for, but there is a method to the madness.
“We make a statement with our merchandising,” Barber explained. “Someone a long time ago taught me to think like a customer, so we designed the store with our shoppers, kids and their parents, in mind.”
So although a Ricky’s might look like a mad house of candy and ice cream, it’s carefully organized: brands and types like gummy, nostalgic, or sour are housed together. The look is over the top, but the multi-sensory experience is harmonized. Free-standing shelving units as well as wall units create flow, wall-mounted flat screen televisions play old candy commercials, and Barber’s own “candy soundtrack” plays in the background.
In the next few years, Ricky’s is going to push its central character, Ricky the dragon, and a line of accompanying merchandise. Barber said toys are not going to become a central part of the company’s concept by any means but are a way to grow the brand. He said the company hired a children’s author to write a series of books featuring Ricky and two new characters, all of which will have plush versions available in the stores and adorn a small selection of hats, t-shirts, and other merchandise.
“That’s our major growth initiative for next year: getting Ricky the dragon out there and telling his story, making him the next Ronald McDonald,” said Barber. “That’s what really sets us apart from other specialty or mom-and-pop stores and one of the reasons we’ve been so successful: we’re pushing the brand and setting up crafted, highly merchandised stores.”
Every new location is welcomed into the community, and Barber is proud to report the stores, scattered through the Mid-Atlantic states, are already successful enough to warrant taking the company public. Self-underwriting an IPO has been a challenge financially, but the company’s profits have so far been able to cover it.
“We invest nearly everything we make back in the company. Last year it was staffing, this year it’s this underwrite. It has been challenging, but going public will provide us with more opportunities to fund our stores and our continued growth,” Barber said.
There are 13 new locations opening soon, several in California and a few more on the East Coast, and Ricky’s has franchisees lined up for another 15 across the country. Since the beginning, Barber has avoided shopping malls, which he sees filling up with redundant bargain stores or contracting high-end luxury stores, saying Ricky’s doesn’t belong in either atmosphere.
Instead, all of the current locations are situated in the downtown shopping areas families spend afternoons in, a fixture of East Coast cities and towns. As the chain moves west, it has found what Barber calls artificial downtown areas or lifestyle centers (shopping centers with a few restaurants and a movie theater, for example) to work just as well.
One of the lessons Barber and his team learned as Ricky’s grew is the importance of choosing the right franchise owners for each location. Having never been in the franchise business, Barber said he made some mistakes at first in not screening applicants carefully enough.
“Some people look at a store like ours as an ATM and think they don’t have to be in the store or do any real work, which is not true. Retail is not for the faint of heart; you never know who is going to walk through your door each day, but you have to give every single person a positive experience,” Barber explained, adding that direction comes from the top, and if the owner of a location is absent, there is always a problem.
With a growth plan to add 100 new locations a year for the next five years, it’s fortunate that Barber has found a system to screen potential franchise owners that works. You could very soon see a bright green dragon named Ricky in your neighborhood.