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Toy Inventors Find Work With Novelty Candy

While many 70-year-olds busy themselves with golf and travel, Larry Jones spends his days creating gummi worms that glow, constructing containers for candy gel and building mouth-shaped machines that spew out gum balls.

Jones, who toiled for four decades at toy companies including Hasbro Inc., Mattel Inc. and Playmates Toys Inc., now finds his tinkering talents are of little use in that industry. Instead, he has discovered a sweet tooth for the world of novelty candy, reported the Wall Street Journal.

Like Willy Wonka, the eccentric confectioner depicted in the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Jones is an inventor at heart. Yet he doesn't make candy.

"What I'm after is to have the kid have a little bit of magic or a little giggle while eating his candy," Jones told the newspaper.

He is part of a new breed of inventors who have bridged the worlds of candy and toys to feed a new market hungry for both. Candy executive Deirdre Gonzalez calls it "a hybrid business between the two industries." She has worked for several toy companies, now as vice president of marketing for Cap Candy, a novelty candy company that is a unit of Hasbro.

The business has been fueled, in part, by the popularity of movie tie-ins, with big sellers like Nestle SA's Wonka Nerds and Jelly Belly Candy Co.'s Harry Potter Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans. Novelty candy racked up more than $251 million in U.S. sales last year, which placed the segment behind only chocolate bars and chewy candy like Gummi Bears but ahead of mints, according to Information Resources Inc., a market research firm.

At first, candy producers weren't receptive to taking ideas from toy inventors. "They wouldn't talk directly to inventors because they thought we were crazy," said Adam Straus, a toy-turned-novelty-candy inventor. Then came the Spin Pop, and candymakers began looking for freelancers who could come up with variations on the old Pez dispenser -- that is, new-fangled candy-delivery systems.

Jones created Candy Ear Wax and Lightning Bugs, the gummi worms that glow when handled with electronic tongs, while last year he produced the mouth-shaped Big Barf and Big Burp candy dispensers. He now has a contract with Kandy Kastle Inc., a San Diego subsidiary of Multizen Asia Ltd., Hong Kong's largest novelty-candy company by market share, according to the company. One of his projects: thinking up new products that could be tied to Sanrio Co.'s Hello Kitty brand, which Kandy Kastle recently licensed.

But candy products can fizzle just as quickly as they catch fire. "We've probably pushed, on average, two or three new novelty items in our stores every week," said Kevin Elliott, vice president of merchandising for 7-Eleven Inc. In March, for instance, sales climbed 2.7 percent for novelty nonchocolate candy from the previous year, according to IRI data. But sales in June fell 3.7 percent in comparison to last year, in part, inventors say, because licensed products tied to last month's release of the movie Batman Begins weren't as popular as those spun off from the June 2004 release of Spider-Man 2.

"We're reinventing the wheel every six months because [novelty] candy is constantly proving itself and reproving itself as a valid niche category in the candy department," Gonzalez said.

Indeed, Cap Candy will release a new line of BAAT's Spin Pops, which will be molded into characters featured in the coming Walt Disney Co. film Chicken Little. Harry Potter Cockroach Clusters, a new product consisting of gummi roaches with crunchy wings, will ship to stores in August to tie into the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Although neither film is slated to open until November, Cap Candy inventors -- half of whom are freelancers and half of whom work in-house -- already are trying to design prototypes that will tie into a 2006 live-action film based on the 1980s TV show "Transformers."

The cycle moves so quickly that Jules Shecter, an inventor at LN International Inc.'s Kool Interactive Candy, already developed a variation on his plastic Bling Bling Pops --lollipops that come with flashing lights -- which hit the market in March. The variation, with a chrome casing, will come out this fall. He has created the coming Rap Pop, a lollipop covered by a microphone that lets children record and remix their voices with music. "Reinventing candy is easy," Shecter says. "I just think I'm Willy Wonka."
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