GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Inside the Sweet Shoppe in Smithville, located across from the Smithville Inn, there is little ambiguity as to what chocolate-infused holiday is approaching.
The long-running candy store is filled with chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs, artfully displayed alongside bunny lollipops, tin-wrapped rabbit-ears and other candies shaped in the images of spring.
Holidays from Valentine's Day to Christmas traditionally play big roles for candy sellers.
At the Sweet Shop, Easter is second only to Christmas as big-spending holidays go. Retail, in-store sales are bolstered by corporate orders such as gift baskets and trays, said Fran Coppola, who owns the shop in the Historic Towne of Smithville with her husband, Tony Coppola.
The Coppolas own part of the Historic Towne of Smithville, plus several specialty shops there, including the Candle Shoppe and the Christmas Shoppe.
For Fran Coppola, 72, of Smithville, the candy business is part of the family pedigree. Her mom, the late Mary Falcone, was a candy entrepreneur who started the Falcon Nut & Candy Co. in the late 1940s, then eventually sold it.
"My mother was the largest distributor of Easter Eggs in the United States," she said. "I've always had candy kind of in my blood."
Revenue from the chocolate business in the U.S. has grown in the past five years, even as consumers cut back discretionary spending elsewhere, according to market research firm IBISWorld.
Nearly 62 percent of Americans say celebrating holidays such as Easter brings happiness in tough economic times, the National Confectioners Association found in its 2013/2014 consumer survey of 1,335 American adults.
About 87 percent of parents say Easter baskets are a household tradition, and 80 percent of all people share Easter candy with friends, family or colleagues in some or most years. A note on sharing: 66 percent of Americans prefer solid chocolate Easter bunnies to hollow.
Coppola said her candy shop has fared well in the recession and its aftermath.
"If you don't have a lot of money, maybe you're not going to buy a $35 sweater, but you'll come and buy a piece of candy, or chocolate-dipped strawberry," she said.
The Coppolas opened the Sweet Shoppe in 1990, although the building had been run as a candy store since the 1950s, she said. The shop is an eclectic mix of sweets, with a children's section, a jellybean and licorice section, and more than 30 types of chocolate-covered pretzels.
The business recently dedicated a section of the store to nut-free candy for those with allergies. Liz Rocco, the store manager and a resident of Galloway Township, said more customers had been asking about nut-free products in recent years, worried about cross-contamination with chocolate machines.
Coppola said the business also makes baskets and trays; personalized candies such as engraved chocolate Easter eggs; and a variety of candy bars for weddings - a growing segment of the business.
"We just had two brides this morning, one was doing a Willy Wonka-themed candy bar," Rocco said.
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