Eastertide and hard times stir up delectable sales for candymakers

April may be the cruelest month for poets and taxpayers, but for America's candymakers its the best month of the year.

That's because Easter generally falls during April, and Easter is the No. 1 candy-selling season - accounting for nearly 25 percent of the annual volume.

Despite these tough economic times (or, quite possibly, because of them), Easter season 1982 is expected to be sweet indeed for the candy industry - especially the small manufacturer-retailers.

One such candy man is Francis Cox, owner of Cox's Candies in Fairhaven, Mass. , a local landmark founded in 1927. ''Hard times seem to make folks want candy, '' Mr. Cox says. While his marketing area in southeastern New England has been a chronically depressed region and now has high unemployment because of factory layoffs, there has nonetheless been a steady sales increase each year.

''Maybe it's because folks want to get back to simple things,'' Cox theorizes. ''Maybe they associate candy with being young and feeling secure.''

Out in Cleveland, it's the same story. ''Super'' is how William Malley, owner of Malley's Candies, founded by his father in 1935, describes business in his nine-store chain, headquartered in Cleveland and its suburbs.

Mr. Malley's selling area has been badly hurt by auto layoffs. Yet his Valentine's Day business was up 8 to 9 percent, and Easter business is excellent , he reports.

Malley theorizes that folks might not be able to afford a new car or appliance, but they can, at least, afford a box of candy or a chocolate bunny. ''What's Easter without candy?'' he asks.

Sweets help assuage bitter times - an industry fact known nationally and internationally, according to Al Heilman, secretary-treasurer of Retail Confectioners International, headquartered in Glenview, Ill., which has 450 active manufacturing members plus 150 associate suppliers throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, etc.

Mr. Heilman points out that even in the Detroit area, one of the member confectioners, a long-established candymaker, reports excellent Easter sales.

But the sweetest part of the small candy manufacturing business, Heilman claims, is the business itself. ''There's no industry like it. People in this business are helpful, not competitive.'' A former confectioner himself, Heilman remembers being laid up after an auto accident years back and having scores of candymakers all over the country - some he never even knew - offer every kind of assistance to enable him to make his Christmas season.

It's a close-knit business, and members often share techniques, ideas, and recipes at various trade shows, conventions, and candy clinics.

About 90 percent of today's candy manufacturers are the small family-owned businesses. Francis Cox believes small is better today, since the small retailer has better control of labor costs and production. ''My wife and kids won't demand a cost-of-living raise and they don't ask for time and a half overtime,'' he says.

Like many candy families, Cox, his wife, Gerry, and their three children work , at peak periods, as many as 15 hours a day, seven days a week. And they take off only two holidays a year - Christmas and New Year's.

Moreover, the small retailer can plan better for volume needs and does not need to use preservatives. The large manufacturers, however, must begin production as early as July to have the product packaged, shipped, and ready on store shelves for the Easter selling season.

The other major candy times are Christmas, Valentine's Day, and Mother's Day. While things such as weather and competition for the consumers' dollars affect sales at those times, Easter is strictly a candy season. Surprisingly, summer can be an excellent retailing time, especially for confectioners in vacation areas or selling products at roadside stands.

Despite the problems of the past decade, with skyrocketing prices of chocolate, nuts, and sugar, spiraling packaging costs, and the current American fetish for dieting, candy is still dandy and the industry's future looks sweet. All three of the Cox children are planning to stay in some facet of the candy business.

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