A huge tax scam investigation has been launched into a string of American candy stores swamping Oxford Street and the West End of London including the major Kingdom of Sweets chain, MailOnline can exclusively reveal.
There has long been concern about the deluge of tacky, overpriced US-themed sweet and souvenir shops that have been taking over traditional high street retailers on one of the world’s most famous shopping streets, including HMV’s old flagship site. There are now at least ten candy stores between Marble Arch and Tottenham Court Road stations alone – equating to roughly one every 200 yards – with some offering other services like foreign currency exchange.
The council is now probing more than 30 shops across the West End for allegedly avoiding business rates amounting to at least £5.4million. These are owned by a variety of companies and – in addition to candy stores selling packets of Jolly Ranchers sweets for as much as £45 – include shops offering other items like souvenirs and vaping equipment.
Kingdom of Sweets, which has more than 15 branches, is among the shops being investigated by Westminster City Council for allegedly avoiding business rates, MailOnline understands.
We can also reveal the brand and some of its rivals are using TikTok, Instagram and YouTube to lure children into their store. There has been a boom in videos where youngsters try super-sour or sweet American treats and drinks for the first time. Others filmed staff giving visitors, including some apparently still in primary school, free sweets just for popping in and giving a fist bump.
Campaign group Action On Sugar said the stores are exploiting a loophole that means imported US chocolates and candy do not face the same restrictions on sugar content as UK-made products. It means the American-themed superstores sell products containing almost treble the amount of sugar a British child should consume daily, even in a small single serving. Action On Sugar called the targeting of children ‘appalling’.
Officials probing retailers’ tax affairs are understood to be concerned about a purported tactic whereby bosses using a single store name set up numerous limited companies to serve as its legal owner, before closing the companies prior to them being liable for business rates. Two companies which share directors with Kingdom of Sweets – Croftray Limited and Old Green Limited – have already been wound up owing £2million in rates.
The council is also understood to be concerned about another alleged tactic used by rivals of Kingdom of Sweets which sees shops set up in empty buildings to avoid the landlord having to pay business rates on an empty premises, before closing and leaving before the shopkeepers become liable for the tax themselves. There is no suggestion Kingdom of Sweets has been doing this.
Kingdom of Sweets has been approached for comment. There is no suggestion any of the shops pictured in this article are under investigation.
CANDY STORE TAKEOVER OVER THE WEST END – BEFORE and AFTER: HMV’s flagship store has been unceremoniously turned into a ‘Candy World’
CANDY STORE TAKEOVER OVER THE WEST END – BEFORE and AFTER: The ‘American Sweets and Souvenirs’ shop on Oxford Street (right) was once a Ryman stationery shop (left). There is no suggestion any of the shops featured in MailOnline’s article are being investigated by the council
BEFORE and AFTER: The ‘Candylicious London’ store on Oxford Street (right) was once a Schuh shop (left)
BEFORE and AFTER: A Coast clothes store on Oxford Street (left) was once in the place of what is now Kingdom of Sweets (right)
Children are being targeted with TikTok videos such as this one, which shows a child trying super sour sweets outside an American Candy Store in central London
In another social media film, this child was shown winning a competition to get ‘free candy’
Two children dancing with excitement outside a Kingdom of Sweets store, which has been compared to a theme park for candy
Westminster’s Trading Standards team are also looking at inflated prices at a range of chains including up to £20 for a single bag of sweets and £10 for a cereal box of Lucky Charms. This is in addition to claims some stores have no prices on their goods at all.
Some of the stores are also accused of selling out-of-date food and counterfeit products, with the planning department also looking into whether these premises are advertising illegally.
Councillor Adam Hug, leader of Westminster City Council, said: ‘Anyone walking down Oxford Street is struck by the ever expanding number of US style sweet shops and poor quality souvenir outlets. They are not only an eye sore; they are a threat to the status and value of what is supposed to be the nation’s premier shopping street.
‘The problem is that owners of buildings are turning a blind eye to those who sublet them as it means they are not liable for business rates. That’s why we have a rash of US candy stores in prestige locations.
‘This needs to stop and we will be stepping up pressure on landlords to make it clear they are responsible for Oxford Street being overrun with these kinds of stores. The people selling overpriced sweets are cheating the UK taxpayer and very often swindling their customers into the bargain.’
BEFORE and AFTER: The ‘American Candy Store’ on Oxford Street (right) is in a shop that once housed a Footasylum (left)
BEFORE and AFTER: The ‘Americandy’ store with Wonka branding (right) is in a former Accessorize and Monsoon store (left)
BEFORE and AFTER: ‘American Sweet Dreams’ (right) is on the site of a smaller Holland and Barrett next to an Ann Summers (left)
BEFORE and AFTER: A Phones 4U store (left) used to be on the site of what is now a ‘Welcome London’ souvenir shop (right)
BEFORE and AFTER: A Boots store (left) used to occupy the space where the ‘American Candy Shop’ is now located (right)
BEFORE and AFTER: A JD Sports store (left) was once in the retail space now used by a store called ‘Candy Shop’ (right)
BEFORE and AFTER: ‘Vape shops’ are popping up, such as in the old St Anne’s Church entrance (left) on Shaftesbury Avenue
Councillor Adam Hug, leader of Westminster City Council, said: ‘Anyone walking down Oxford Street is struck by the ever-expanding number of US style sweet shops and poor quality souvenir outlets. They are not only an eye sore; they are a threat to the status and value of what is supposed to be the nation’s premier shopping street’
How American sweet shops took off in Britain thanks to Chase Manders’s pick ‘n’ mix stall in Barnsley
Chase Manders is behind Kingdom of Sweets
The American sweet shops found across Oxford Street are following in the footsteps of a pick ‘n’ mix stand located in a shopping centre in Barnsley.
Chase Manders started importing American sweets to Britain in 2004 and found they were a massive hit with locals in South Yorkshire.
Companies House now lists Mr Manders as the sole director of London-based Kingdom of Sweets Ltd which was incorporated in 2017.
The 40-year-old opened his first Kingdom of Sweets Oxford Street shop in 2012 and his stores were very much the main player in that market for the next few years with five other shops opening across the capital.
Around the same time the M&M’s World in Leicester Square – owned by the confectionary giant Mars – opened in 2011, which was 14 years after the company’s first outlet was launched in Las Vegas.
But by 2018, competitors such as ‘Candy Shop’, ‘American Candy’ and ‘American Candy World’ began to emerge – with Kingdom of Sweets claiming that rivals were visiting their stores and taking photographs.
There was then a surge of openings during the pandemic as people made the most of being able to avoid shutting during lockdowns because they were classed as ‘essential retailers’ for selling food.
Now, a range of the shops operate under different names but offering almost entirely the same products and very similar decoration – and perhaps the most controversial one is at the old HMV flagship store which unceremoniously turned into a sweet shop in February.
It comes amid concerns the rash of American candy stores is harming the West End’s status as an attractive shopping destination.
The boom in the colourful shops filled with loud music and bubblegum smells has swallowed other stores struggling to survive – with many famous retailers such as Topshop, House of Fraser and Debenhams closing their doors.
The New West End Company business group pointed out that the shops were not in keeping with the ‘evolving face of the high street, nor modern shopping habits’.
The present-day American sweet shops followed the lead of Chase Manders, now 40, who started importing US sweets to Britain 18 years ago and successfully sold them on a pick ‘n’ mix stand in a shopping centre in Barnsley.
His Kingdom of Sweets brand opened its first store in London by 2012 before a further five shops opened across the capital – but by 2018 his employees noticed that competitors were visiting the stores and taking photographs.
The sweets then started to pop up in normal London tourist shops as another offering – and now, a range of the shops operate under different names but with almost entirely the same products and very similar decoration.
Then, the development that really caused a stir on social media came earlier this year when the famous HMV store was unceremoniously turned into a sweet shop – with the original ‘His Master’s Voice’ sign and logo covered up.
It was initially partially covered in February to read ‘His Master’s American Candy’ – then last month the whole of the sign was covered up with black cladding before being decorated with US flags and the words ‘Candy World’.
Among the names of the other sweet shops on Oxford Street are ‘American Candy Land’, ‘Worldwide Candy: The House of American Candy’, ‘American Candy’, ‘Candy Surprise’, ‘Candy Shop’ and ‘American Candy World’.
However, Kingdom of Sweets is still the best known brand, and describes itself on its website as offering a ‘never-ending variety of memory lane pleasers, children’s favourites and inspirational gift ideas’, adding: ‘We stock products loved by all generations, and our shops are open till late every day. We are the masters of repeat business, and other shops love to be nearby.’
The company adds that its ‘desire to create a dazzling one-stop confectionery experience for all the family encouraged expansion into larger stores, culminating in the flagship store on London’s Leicester Square, the biggest collection of sweets in the country’.
Some of the American sweet shops located on Oxford Street in London have floor-to-ceiling displays of the likes of Pop Tarts
A woman browses the products at an American sweet store on Oxford Street – one of many that has opened in recent years
Expert reveals ‘appetite for all things nostalgic’ has boosted popularity of US sweets in Britain
Shokofeh Hejazi, head of insight at food trends agency The Food People, told MailOnline: ‘Consumers have a huge appetite for all things nostalgic right now, which has boosted the popularity of American candy and confectionary.
‘It may seem counter-intuitive, but actually UK consumers have a strong sense of borrowed nostalgia from the USA. Essentially, even though they may not have grown up eating American favourites like Hershey’s chocolate, Pop Tarts or s’mores themselves – for some, those treats feel as familiar and comforting as British classics like custard, trifle or crumble.’
Asked if the pandemic had accelerated the trend, she added: ‘Definitely. When faced with stress and uncertainty, people often turn to food for distraction and escapism.
‘During the pandemic, lots of people turned to sweets and confectionary in particular, as they looked for ways to indulge their inner child and be reminded of simpler, happier times – even if only for a moment. Indeed, the appetite for nostalgic and childhood treats didn’t stop at American candy – we’ve also seen dishes like tater tots, sprinkle cake, jelly and custard trending.’
And on whether the trend will continue, she said: ‘Consumers can’t seem to get enough of American food culture, so there’s certainly still space for the trend to grow. And it’s not just American sweets that are making an impact, but also other Stateside favourites like deep pan pizza, slushees, corn dogs and ice cream floats.
‘In fact, several well-known American restaurant chains have recently been expanding in the UK. So the American influence on high streets and in shopping centres, looks set to stay and grow.’
Some of the shops on Oxford Streets are designed to be like mini theme parks, with the Kingdom of Sweets offering aroma-diffusing technology to persuade customers to buy Twinkies, Oreos, and Cheetos.
But many of the shops were empty when MailOnline visited them, with some workers fearing the boom in American sweets may come crashing down.
One employee admitted the store was once filled with American sweets and has returned to selling London souvenirs in half the space to meet customer demand.
Others are also specialising in other tourist products along with vaping products and phone cases – but the shops do still sell candy for very high prices.
One employee said: ‘The entire shop used to sell just sweets. We brought back souvenirs because that’s what the customers wanted. There are just too many sweet shops in Oxford Street to make it worthwhile.’
Bosses at American Candy World have claimed that the average customer spends between £25 and £30 on six to seven items, and that the much criticised expensive prices of stock are due to high import fees.
Workers have put the popularity of American sweet shops down to the boom of YouTube and TikTok videos where people try American snack foods for the first time.
However, shoppers spoken to MailOnline were split on the rise of American sweet shops on Oxford Street. Joanna Ionnesca, 37, an accountant from East London, brought her daughters Isobel, nine, and Caitlin, seven, to buy Wonka chocolate bars.
She said: ‘I love them. I think it’s a really nice treat for the kids to go and try something a little bit different. I suppose American sweets are the most popular because there’s a big selection.
‘I’d personally like it if they could try and introduce Italian sweets – there are so many lovely things out there.’
Piano teacher Rea Qunta, 35, who was with her daughter Marina, nine, from Belsize Park, North London, bought Toxic Waste sour sweets. She said: ‘It’s very colourful and it’s very eye-catching.
‘We’re not big sweet eaters and I never let Marina have sweets as a little child. I’m not massively into sweets – they’re pretty bad for your teeth. I think the chocolate is better in Britain than in America, but there’s a bigger selection of sweets here than you’d get in British shops. It shows the popularity of American goods.
Emma Alexejewa, 30, who works in restaurants and lives in Willesden, said there are ‘too many’ of the shops on Oxford Street
Some of the sweets on display at an American candy store – with ten of the shops now located on Oxford Street in London
London’s Oxford Street now has ten shops selling American sweets – equating to roughly one every 200 yards (180m)
The boom in the colourful stores filled with loud music and bubblegum smells has swallowed shops struggling to survive
Jennifer McConnell, 34, who was with her son Jacob, five, said: ‘We live in Spain and there’s nothing like it there. I spent some time living in California so I suppose it’s a bit of nostalgia as well.
‘It sounds weird, but I think it’s actually great for kids to have a healthy attitude to sweets – something that can be enjoyed but to not overdo. I don’t have sweets in the house, typically.’
‘But more importantly, nobody wants to see the loss of jobs which would come with a long-term decline of an Oxford Street District filled with empty or derelict buildings.’
Katharine Jenner, nutritionist and director at Action On Sugar, told MailOnline: ‘It’s appalling that this new breed of American candy shops are taking advantage of the pandemic to sell their sweet treats – many of which lead to excessive calorie intake, as well as causing huge damage to teeth.
‘Supermarkets and manufacturers are supposed to be reducing sugar in sweet foods and are now subject to legal restrictions on how they can promote unhealthy foods. ‘Imported US products are not subject to the same restrictions which is outrageous. If anything, these empty stores should be offered to businesses that champion good health rather than adding to the problem and costing the NHS.’
The Action On Sugar campaign group said the trend of American sweet shops popping up in London was ‘appalling’
Many of the shops are tourist stores which have decided to flip to sweets in a hope of enticing British customers inside
The ‘American Candy Shop’ is one of the sweet stores that has popped up on London’s Oxford Street in recent years
Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of the New West End Company business group, told MailOnline that the sweet and souvenir shops are not in keeping with the ‘evolving face of the high street, nor modern shopping habits’.
He said: ‘The Covid pandemic has been incredibly challenging for high streets across the UK, and unfortunately Oxford Street is no different. Over the last two years some struggling retailers have had to make the difficult decision to close their doors for good, which has led to an increasing number of empty retail units being filled with sweet or souvenir shops, so that landlords can guarantee the payment of business rates.
‘We don’t believe that these stores are in keeping with the evolving face of the high street, nor modern shopping habits. We are therefore working with a number of local partners to revitalise Oxford Street and are already welcoming a number of new and exciting brands to the area.
‘The likes of Ikea, Gymshark and Swingers are enhancing the makeup of the district, while we are also utilising empty retail units to create pop-up stores that support local small businesses. However, to further improve the high street we need the support of the Government, starting with the long overdue reform of business rates.
‘High business rates are currently strangling a range of viable businesses that could otherwise be major contributors – not only on Oxford Street – but also across high streets up and down the country.’
Health campaigners at Action On Sugar have described the trend of American sweet shops in London as ‘shocking’
American sweets, crisps and cereals are among the products that can be bought at the shops located along Oxford Street
A woman looks at the bags of crisps and boxes of cereals on the shelves at one of the sweet shops on Oxford Street
Lots of the American sweet shops on Oxford Street have huge logos displaying the brands of the products they sell
The shops also stock a range of Hershey’s chocolate – with the same types of products found in most of the shops
A wide variety of Hersey’s chocolate is on sale at the shops which have multiplied in number in recent years