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The Yankee Candle store at Yankee Candle Village.
The Yankee Candle store at Yankee Candle Village.

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Scents and Sensibility

How Yankee Candle took over the world, one wacky smell at a time

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Pineapple Cilantro. Wedding Day. Lucky Shamrock. Bright Copper Kettles. Christmas Wreath. Under the Palms. Orange Dreamsicle. Safe & Citrus. Pink Sands. Bahama Breeze. Peach Cobbler. Picnic in the Park. Napa Valley Sun. Luscious Plum. Mango Peach Salsa.

Yankee Candle sells every scent you can imagine, and many more you can't. It's also a company that seems to be everywhere, from big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Bed Bath & Beyond, to small homegoods boutiques, to the 585 Yankee Candle retail locations across the country.

It's true that the candle industry, in general, is having a moment, thanks in part to the rise of luxury candle brands. Yet even with the likes of Diptyque and Nest enjoying recent unprecedented success, nobody can come close to competing with Yankee Candle, a company responsible for nearly half of all candle sales in the country. It's ubiquitous, and its fans are obsessive.

The Yankee Candle magic begins in Deerfield, Massachusetts, home to Yankee Candle Village, a campus practically swaddled in tulips, the colorful flowers planted in neat lines in the ground and in novelty wheelbarrows. There's a gazebo and a quaint restaurant and a candle-making museum on the grounds.

There is, of course, also a Yankee Candle store there. You might even call it the Yankee Candle store. Housed inside a giant, repurposed barn that has vintage toy trains running on elevated tracks, it holds, among other things, rooms upon rooms upon rooms of candles — 200 different varieties in all.

The candles come in various forms (pillar, votive, jar, tumbler, tealight) and start at just $1. Some are displayed by category: "fresh scents" like Wild Sea Grass or Meadow Showers, or "food scents" like Peach Cobbler or Pumpkin Ginger Bark. Others are organized by collections that are a bit more high-concept: The "Catching Rays" section has candles like Morning Mist, Moonlit Garden, and Turquoise Sky, all of which are varying shades of blue and are accompanied by a sign proclaiming they'll make shoppers "feel warmed all throughout the day." In an area in the far corner of the store, there's a section with discontinued candles the company has brought back for a limited time.

In addition to an array of candle accessories and fragrance accoutrements like diffusers and room sprays, the store also has a make-your-own-candle area, a section devoted to kitchenware and fashion accessories, a Ben & Jerry's counter, and a room filled with jams, jellies, and syrups. There's a year-round Bavarian Christmas village (a village within the Village) that's showered with fake snow every four minutes and has a toy shop with a resident Santa who refuses to break character. Yankee Candle Village is the epitome of sensory overload.

"This is my happy place."

"I think the biggest thing for people here is the breadth of the selection," CEO Hope Margala says, sitting at a wooden picnic table outside Yankee Candle Village. "People come here and they make a day out of it. They'll spend four, five hours in this store because it's fun!"

Yankee Candle Village gets around 2 million visitors a year and is considered one of Massachusetts's top tourist destinations, though locals frequent it too.

"This is my happy place," says Lisa McCannon, a 53-year-old Worcester, Massachusetts resident shopping with her daughter and granddaughter. "There are so many unique things here. I discovered Yankee a long, long time ago, when I became a homeowner and was looking for candles, and now I look for their old-time scents."

"Everyone at school has these candles," adds Maddy Sung, a 21-year-old college student at nearby Amherst College. She's shopping with friends between finals. "It's really popular around here."

Here, sure, but everywhere else too.

Today, Yankee Candle is a corporate giant, with 30,000 wholesale locations that sell its products in the United States, in addition to those hundreds of retail stores. It has a global reach too, with several Yankee Candle outposts in Europe and Canada, and over 10,000 stores that carry the brand outside of the US. Its beginnings, however, were as humble as they come.

In December of 1969, a 17-year-old high school senior named Michael Kittredge didn't have enough money for Christmas gifts and decided instead to make his own candles for his mother. He melted wax and crayons over a stovetop, and used a milk carton as a mold. After a family friend saw them and offered to buy the batch, Kittredge decided "that was all the applause I needed," as he told the New York Times. "I went right out, bought more wax and sure enough, sold some more candles."

Inside the Yankee Candle factory.

By 1970, Kittredge's operation had completely taken over his parent's house, and so he temporarily moved to an old mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts after securing a $2,000 loan from Hampshire National Bank using a guitar, banjo, and an old stereo-system as collateral. He called his company Yankee Candle, even though friends warned him the project wouldn't succeed with such a "corny" name. They were wrong.

His venture took off, New England Business wrote, because it was "the last major candle company that still dips by hand." Kittredge officially incorporated the company in 1976 and sold $21,000 worth of candles that year; he opened his first store in November of 1983, and a bigger factory in January of 1984, both in South Deerfield. Three years later, Yankee Candle had developed 50 different scents and was producing 30 million candles a year, resulting in an annual revenue of $6.5 million.

Although Yankee Candle had come a long way from Kittredge's kitchen, the founder wanted the company to retain a sense of homey authenticity. This meant having handwritten labels and making sure there were whimsical storylines attached to each scent. Kittredge was also obsessed with how his stores looked and felt. A diehard fan of the Walt Disney Company, he would often travel to Orlando to get display ideas from Disney theme parks. He wanted Yankee Candle locations to have the same emotional resonance as Disney World.

As the Massachusetts business journal BusinessWest put it in 1993, "How can a company succeed so well selling a product that's been around for thousands of years — and that has been functionally obsolete for almost a century, thanks to Thomas Edison? Kittredge does not sell pieces of wax and string. He sells entertainment, fantasy, nostalgia, romance."

He called his company Yankee Candle, even though friends warned him the project wouldn't succeed with such a "corny" name. They were wrong.

Beyond Yankee Candle's handmade claims (the company did eventually switch over to mechanical processes once the volume necessitated them), its most notable distinction has always been its scents. Yankee Candle became "an industry leader because Kittredge is willing to spend a lot of time getting just the right mix of oils to make a candle smell right," according to New England Business. "It takes years to create a good cinnamon," Kittredge told the magazine.

In order to get the scents just right, he used an abundance of fragrance oil, so much oil, in fact, that his candles' wax never fully absorbed it, thus creating a crackled appearance. In the beginning, Kittredge had to convince customers that there wasn't anything wrong with the mottled-looking candles; now that's a Yankee Candle brand signature.

Yankee Candle was considered upscale in its early days. The Boston Globe notes it was "wholesaling to the higher end gift market" in places like Macy's. Kittredge told the Christian Science Monitor that he wanted to stay small and specialized, adding that "if you find our line in K-Mart, then you know that we're losing our edge. It's the beginning of the end if you take large orders, because once the large buyers become a major force in your business, they're in the driver's seat and can start dictating terms."

During the time Yankee Candle sales more than doubled from $69.8 million in 1994 to $184.5 million just four years later, Kittredge stepped down as president. (He's started another candle company, Kringle, with his son in 2009. Yes, it looks remarkably familiar). In 1998, 90 percent of Yankee Candle's stake was sold to New York investment firm Forstmann, Little & Company for a reported $400 million. Yankee Candle's new president, Michael Parry, took the company into full expansion mode, with plans to open as many as 40 new stores every year and to grow its presence internationally.

The next year, Yankee Candle went public. Stock market analysts were puzzled a company selling inexpensive candles was doing so well. "Can any company sustain itself on candles?" Randall Roth, an analyst with Renaissance Capital asked the Hartford Courant, before conceding that "their retail business is strong. Candles do not cost much, and they have an extremely strong brand and market position."

Once Yankee Candle hired Campbell's Soup executive Craig Rydin as its CEO in 2001 and landed accounts with Bed Bath & Beyond and the now-defunct Linens-N-Things, the company became "completely unstoppable," says Pam Danziger, a retail analyst and researcher with Unity Marketing. By 2005, the company was seeing $554 million in sales.

"Yankee Candle reached enormous success going along the mom-and-pop route," says Danziger. "Once they were bought out, they hit mass appeal. In some ways, they lost the special qualities that made the brand so great, but then again, they succeeded by evolving into a giant candle line."

The company has gone through several acquisitions in the past decade. In 2006, it was sold to Chicago investment firm Madison Dearborn Partners, and then again, in 2013, to Jarden, which merged late last year with Newell Brands. Yankee Candle now lives under the same umbrella as Calphalon, Graco, and Rubbermaid. Still, its revenue has consistently climbed over the years, from $642 million in 2012, to $792 million in 2014, to $832 million in 2015.

Yankee Candle knows exactly who it's selling to. Eighty percent of customers are women, and those women tend to be "between 30 and 50, mostly suburban, who have families and are homeowners," according to Margala. And the brand works hard to give them exactly what they want: holiday candles like Christmas Cookie and Sparkling Cinnamon which make up the brand's highest performing category, and best-selling classic scents like Clean Cotton and Pink Sands.

Eighty percent of customers are women, and those women tend to be "between 30 and 50, mostly suburban, who have families and are homeowners."

The company also relies on a steady stream of new scents — some abstract, some straight-up bizarre — to keep customers coming back, which is why you'll see labels that read Schnitzel with Noodles, Movie Night, and A Child's Wish.

"We roll out new scents four times a year; it's the bloodline of our business," says Margala. "Whether it's seasonal scents or limited editions that are in and out quickly, we have such a wide breadth of fragrances that there's something that appeals to everyone."

In 2012, it rolled a men's collection with scents like 2x4, Riding Mower, and Man Town. The line was supposed to attract male shoppers, but instead became a full-on sensation thanks to rabid female fans, many of whom took to social media — Tumblr specifically — to express their love for the man-scents. The response inspired a sketch from Jimmy Fallon and internet memes claiming that the Mountain Lodge scent was better than a boyfriend. (The men's collection has since been discontinued, but Yankee Candle reissued Mountain Lodge recently, promoting it in stores as a candle "that smells like the perfect lumberjack boyfriend.")

This wasn't just a one-off viral hit: online fervor for the brand is omnipresent. Yankee Candle is beloved by YouTube vloggers and discussed ad nauseum on Reddit. BuzzFeed has dedicated plenty of listicles to the brand.

"The technology for candle-making hasn't really changed in many years, so the challenge for candle companies is to take its basic formula and find news ways to make it fresh, and Yankee Candle is really good at doing that," says Carol Freysinger, the executive vice president of the National Candle Association. "They are always pushing out new fragrances and new lines, and somehow keep coming up with new ideas and images. It's a marketing secret."

A secret that can be explained, at least a little bit, back at Yankee Candle HQ. It may be the middle of May, but the Yankee Candle factory is already gearing up to produce its Halloween scents.

A few minutes down the road from Yankee Candle Village is the company's production facility. It's nearly as big as a football stadium and features 18 production lines, most of which are active around the clock — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — to produce millions of candles a week. The facility employs 510 hourly employees and 90 salaried staff members, according to Jim Scott, the 62-year-old vice president of manufacturing.

The factory mixes 100 different fragrances a day, and smells sickeningly sweet, the result of countless distinct scents blended into one. It's horrible. Scott says employees get used to it, for the most part — that is, unless bacon candles are in production. Mmm, Bacon! is a scent pretty much everyone at the plant finds particularly unsettling.

The factory is loud, with machines pouring, wicking, wrapping, boxing, and labeling; employees on the floor move product through the process, inspecting it along the way. Last year, the facility made 77 million jar candles, 60 million votives, and 50 million tealights the brand calls "tarts."

Near the factory's far wall, thousand-gallon steel tanks premix Yankee Candle wax, which is a blend of petroleum-based paraffin and soy. On a raised platform, an employee in a white lab coat follows a sheet instructing her on how much scented oil and color dye to put into the tanks containing what will become the Banana Walnut Bread and Apple Cinnamon Cider candles.

Back down on the floor, streams of red wax — Caramel Apple Cake — pour straight into glass jars at 155 degrees. After the batch is finished, the same machine begins to pour another scent, Autumn Leaves, but the first few batches will be separated out. Since they aren't 100 percent "pure" scents (a result of what Scott calls cross-contamination), they'll go to a Yankee Candle outlet.

"You see all those candles in the store and you think, ‘Oh, these must have been made by elves!'" jokes Scott as he walks through the facility. "But really, it's this whole process."

"Scent is the quickest way to change someone's mood, quicker than any other sense or modality."

"Scent is the quickest way to change someone's mood, quicker than any other sense or modality. It affects the emotional part of your brain."

This is how Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago explains the draw of scented candles.

"When you collect candles," he says, "you aren't just collecting the smell of the candle, you are also collecting the emotion of the experience when you first created the memory associated with the candle's scent."

Yankee Candle's Macintosh scent (as in Macintosh apple) is what got 37-year-old Kevin Russo hooked on the brand nearly 20 years ago. The candle was a constant at his grandmother's house, and it continues to remind him of his happy childhood memories. It's a similar story for Zac Szoke. Yankee Candle scents help the freelance pharmaceutical marketer with his anxiety. When he moved from New Jersey to Maine for a job opportunity a few months ago, he lit Lilac Blossom candles because they make him think of home — specifically, of his grandmother who passed away 11 years ago.

Russo, who reviews his weekly Yankee candle hauls on his YouTube channel, has experimented with other candle companies like Jo Malone ("overrated") and Diptyque ("it's really out of my price range") and indie brands sold at Anthropologie ("the fragrances weren't true to life"). Still, he declares that Yankee Candle is the best.

"Their scents are the most true to life, and I give them a lot of credit for that," says Russo. "Their Chocolate Layer Cake candle literally smells like cake batter coming straight out of your oven! No other company can do that."

While some higher-end candles are made with all-natural products like vegetable wax, Szoke says it doesn't faze Yankee Candle fans that its wax is petroleum-based.

"There are much less healthy habits I can think of than burning a candle, so I don't think about it too much," Szoke laughs. "Plus there's the concern that vegetable waxes won't hold the fragrance as well."

Both Russo and Szoke are part of a large network of Yankee Candle superfans that have mobilized thanks to social media. They're both members of Team Yankee, a Yankee Candle Facebook group started by Andy Fairclough, a business manager who lives just outside of London. The group has over 4,000 members and a long wait list. It should be noted that many of these members are male — although 80 percent of Yankee Candle customers are women, the male 20 percent are exceptionally devoted.

Fairclough owns about 350 large Yankee Candle jars, and like many fans, he chases after discontinued scents like Pink Lady Slipper, Silver White Winters, and Rainbow's End. Some of these scents are considered "the holy grail of Yankee Candle," Fairclough says, and people will spend hundreds of dollars to buy them off eBay. Fans will also shell out money for old Yankee Candles — some candles are listed for a smuch as $1,300 — because they claim the quality of the candles has gone down in recent years.

Some candles are "definitely keepers, and not burners," Fairclough says, meaning they remain untouched, never to be lit.

"I got a candle yesterday called Sunflower. I can't explain it, and I know it sounds crazy, but it truly did smell like a ray of sunshine!" he laughs. "We sort of joke that these candles must have a hidden drug in them because they are so authentic to the scents. If a Yankee candle has a label with a red rose on it, you know it's going to smell exactly like a red rose. It's remarkable."

Ian Gambles, a 58-year-old high school administrator, owns 710 large candles, 115 medium ones, 122 small ones, and 70 of the brand's swirl jars. He keeps them on display in a special room in his home.

"My partner thinks I'm a bit mad because I've spent a stupid amount of money on the collection."

"My partner thinks I'm a bit mad because I've spent a stupid amount of money on the collection," chuckles Gambles. "But there are some that I burn! My friends always joke, rather cruelly, that if our house ever burnt down, what a lovely smell the fire would have."

Like Fairclough, Gambles lives in England, where Yankee Candle is huge. In the UK, there are nine brand stores, and the candles are also sold on QVC. UK QVC homestyle buyer Mary Bunting says the channel started selling Yankee Candle on-air in 2004. She believes customers enjoy shopping via QVC because it can "cherry-pick the best of the bunch from the Yankee fragrance library, often bringing many scents to the market that are not widely available in the UK."

Fairclough believes Yankee Candle's American roots are what attract European fans. By purchasing Yankee Candles, "you can buy into American fun and live out the fantasy image of the US." For example, Fairclough says, the company capitalizes on fall themes that have become associated with American traditions: "Halloween here is a day for us, but in America, it's a whole season. The same goes for autumn in general. America enjoys autumn fun like colorful leaves and pumpkin, so we have a part of that through the candles."

That American cache may soon fade, though. Yankee Candle is currently building a new factory in Czech Republic, and once the facility opens in 2017, it will handle all European distribution. Margala explains that Yankee Candle's "international business is growing so rapidly that it made sense to establish a production facility in close proximity to support it." But fans like Russo believe this could be detrimental to the company's reputation abroad.

"People associate the brand with US and New England. There's a real American pride that comes with the product, so the fact that they are deciding to produce it overseas is really unsettling," he says. "It's definitely going to hurt their image, especially if the quality drops."

Other big changes are about to hit Yankee Candle fans, and not just those in Europe. The company is rebranding, with a new logo and new labels hitting products this month. The logo now features a rounder, more playful font, and the labels are a third of the size they used to be and also easily removable. Margala calls the look "a little softer, a little fresher, even a little friendlier" and says the changes will "make the overall Yankee Candle look a little more up-to-date." She adds that Yankee Candle did plenty of market research on the company's new branding, but many of the brand's most ardent fans aren't too pleased.

"You might think, ‘Oh, it's just the label of a candle, it's not a big deal,' but this is obviously important to us, and people are passionate about the company, so it's difficult when there's a lot of change," says Szoke. "There's concern that your favorite candles soon won't be recognizable. I also think the rebrand looks cheap. It doesn't speak to me. The label is a small part of why I buy the candle, because it completes the package — it's a $30 candle so every inch of it matters to me."

"We're all really taken aback," adds Joe Schenk, another Yankee Candle collector. The 47-year-old Pennsylvania resident admits the changes were inevitable, but the label change, he feels, is "way too drastic."

On the Team Yankee Facebook page, fans are discussing plans to hoard candles with the old look. Fairclough has already pledged to not buy any candles with the new logo.

"It's just clear that they don't listen to their customers," says Russo. "There's going to be such an uproar, I wouldn't be surprised if they have to adjust their price point or switch the label."

But others, like Gambles, are forcing themselves to come around. "As a collector, of course, I'm not happy about the changes because I have a room filled with the old labels and those were quite attractive," he says, "but if I have to be perfectly honest, the new logo is growing on me!"

No matter how furious fans are about the Yankee Candle rebrand, most can't help but admit they'll probably keep coming back. Where else are they going to get their fix of Chocolate Layer Cake, Lilac Blossoms, and Clean Cotton?

Chavie Lieber is a senior reporter at Racked.

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