Exterior of the Economy Candy store in NYC.
Creative digital marketing and social media strategies helped save sales for New York City-based Economy Candy during the pandemic, and have added to its success moving forward. — Economy Candy

How social media fueled newfound business for New York City institution Economy Candy:

  • Via social media, Economy Candy touted its legacy as an 85-year-old family business stocked with 2,000-plus candy brands: It now has 25,000 followers on Instagram and 20,000 on Facebook.
  • It tapped product tagging on Facebook and Instagram to drives sales: The feature, which lets businesses tag product photos and link them to their e-commerce site, was ‘a total game changer’ for the store, said Co-owner Skye Cohen.
  • Economy Candy also leveraged creative digital marketing strategies, like ‘candy care packages,’ to draw online shoppers. All told, the moves doubled its online sales, boosted total sales by an estimated 20%, and turned the local shop into a national brand.

Economy Candy became a beloved institution on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by being a local store that knew and served its neighborhood.

Now, it is serving a much larger neighborhood, thanks to the smart use of social media.

Third-generation owners Mitchell and Skye Cohen like to say they gain new customers by word of mouth. But now, unlike when Mitchell’s grandfather started the family business, word of mouth happens on social media, not on the street corner.

Over the past five years, the store has built an online social neighborhood that has grown to close to 26,000 followers on Instagram, and 20,000 on Facebook.

Social media, particularly Instagram and Facebook, the Cohens told CO—, has helped them tell the story of their unusual business and reach thousands of new customers.

The store is stocked with over 2,000 brands of candy ranging from vintage, hard-to-find brands like Turkish Taffy and nostalgic favorites like candy cigarettes, to modern, exotic imports like Green Tea Kit Kats from Japan.

Depression-era boost: Tough times puts Economy Candy on the map

Economy Candy was born during the Depression, when the Lower East Side block where it was located had seven candy stores nearby, all selling penny candies and assorted treats.

At first, the candy was sold from a pushcart outside of a hat and shoe repair shop, but as the depression worsened, and candy sales outpaced shoe repairs, the shop was converted into a candy store.

Mitchell Cohen’s grandfather, Morris (Moishe) Cohen, took over the store after returning from duty in World War II, and his son Jerry, and Jerry’s wife, Ilene, began running the business in the 1980s.

Jerry’s son, Mitchell, 37, joined the store full time in 2013, after working in investment banking at Morgan Stanley for six years. His wife, Skye, 33, joined the business in 2017.

“My parents never pressured me, but the store is my family’s legacy,” Mitchell Cohen told CO—.

“My parents were ready to retire, I was ready to make a change, and Skye was ready for me to be able to go on vacation and not stare at my Blackberry the whole time,” he said.

[Read: 3 Simple (Yet Effective) Facebook and Instagram Tools That Enhance Customer Relationships]

Third-generation owners Mitchell and Skye Cohen like to say they gain new customers by word of mouth. But now, unlike when Mitchell’s grandfather started the family business, word of mouth happens on social media, not on the street corner.

Pandemic silver linings: National exposure and online sales surge

When they started working together, Mitchell focused on store operations, and Skye improved the company’s online presence, both on its website and on social media.

They had just completed a major upgrade of the website at the beginning of March 2020, two weeks before the pandemic shut down both New York City and their store.

That upgrade allowed Economy Candy to quickly shift its sales online while the store was closed.

“We were able to sustain so much more web traffic than our old site could have, and it really helped save us,” Skye said.

They also got creative with their marketing to draw online customers.

When the pandemic hit, Economy Candy was overflowing with inventory for Easter and Passover, including 1,000 chocolate Easter bunnies and 1,000 pounds of chocolate macaroons. It began promoting “candy care packages” as a way to send happiness while New York was locked down.

The idea first caught the attention of New York media outlets, then national platforms like the Kelly Clarkson TV show and CBS Sunday Morning, which featured Economy Candy as an example of a local business that had adapted to survive the pandemic.

That exposure let to a surge in online orders from around the country. The store’s online sales, which had been about 10% to 15% of the business pre-pandemic, doubled to 30% and remain strong post-pandemic.

 Display of candies sold by Economy Candy on a tabletop.
Economy Candy's holiday package showcases a variety of brands that the story carries, from older, more vintage-type mainstays to buzzy, newer offerings. — Economy Candy

During the pandemic lockdown period, the store continued to serve local customers with curbside pickup for orders, and went back to its roots with a pushcart in front of the store.

“We wanted to do curbside so the neighborhood would know that we were still there and still operating,” Mitchell said.

Before the pandemic hit, innovations by Mitchell and Skye, including expanded social media marketing and implementing better inventory and profit margin control practices, had boosted revenues by about 20%.

During the worst of the pandemic, sales were down by at least half, but have now returned to close to pre-pandemic levels, Mitchell said.

“We’re slowly getting back into what feels more normal,” Mitchell said.

Key lessons learned in driving business online and via social media

The Cohens shared the key lessons they learned while growing their online sales and expanding their social media presence.

Product-tagging drives sales

When Facebook and Instagram introduced the product-tagging feature that lets businesses tag products in pictures and link them to their e-commerce site, it was “a total game changer,” Skye said.

“It is such a direct way to say, ‘Look at this cool thing in my store. If you want it, click here.’ It definitely is a great driver of traffic to our website and to our physical store,” she said.

The two-question rule: ‘If two people are asking about something, you know that it’s the next big thing’

The Cohens said they have learned that if two customers ask for the same new candy on the same day, they better get a lot of it in stock.

“Our customers are the greatest source of what’s cool out in the world,” Skye said. “If two people are asking about something, you know that it’s the next big thing,” she said.

[Read: 6 Winning (and Adaptable) Customer Acquisition Strategies From Growing Brands]

 Interior of the Economy Candy store in NYC.
Dubbed the "two-question rule," the Cohens said they have learned that if two customers ask for the same new candy on the same day, they better get a lot of it in stock. — Economy Candy

Experimental posts reveal what connects with customers on social media

Economy Candy advises small businesses to experiment with different kinds of social media posts to see which draw the most engagement. “Know your customers and know what it is they are interested in, and try different things,” Skye said.

Saying ‘yes’

Making connections as a small business means saying yes, Mitchell said. “Say yes to that interview, say yes to that student that wants to come in and talk to you. You never know, that student [could become] the director of a movie and want to film in your store,” he said. Interviews and connections that Economy Candy made before the pandemic helped the shop get its story out when it most needed to.

Telling your authentic story — ‘people feel a connection to that’

The Cohens have seen that the story of an 85-year-old store that has been family owned for three generations resonates with today’s customers. “Old neighborhood stores like ours, people feel a connection to that,” Skye said.

If someone walks into Economy Candy – either in the physical store or online in its social media posts – “you’re walking into our family,” she said. “You’re a part of our family.”

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Published January 10, 2023