How to Sweeten Up Chocolate Sales

chocolate assorted2016 chocolate trends include portability, portion-control, resealable packaging and shareability.

By Brad Perkins, Contributing Editor

As consumer tastes for snacks continue to evolve, one item remains supremely popular: Chocolate. It comes in many forms, styles and flavors, and it’s vitally important to convenience stores.

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Puro Research Group, publisher of the Packaged Facts report “Chocolate Candy in the U.S.,” recently estimated that chocolate is a $22 billion business, of which convenience stores are among the fastest growing channels. Convenience stores in 2014 accounted for approximately 12% of sales, a number that will only go up, according to analysts.

“Chocolate sales dollars continue to grow at about a 5% pace in convenience, faster than among other channels—in part fueled by more convenience trips and spending more in the store resulting from lower gas prices,” said Jenn Ellek, senior director of trade marketing and communications for the National Confectioners Association. “Sales are also impacted by cost inflation and premiumization (higher dollar item assortments).”

Increased sales yield an increased assortment, as chocolate companies cater to consumers’ desires for a variety of products, tastes, portion sizes and price points. In recent years, chocolate companies have introduced different flavors and textures, portion and portability options and premium-level pricing.

But while variety in the chocolate aisle continues to grow, traditional variations remain popular as well.

“Traditional-sized chocolate (single bars) will continue to be by far the best sellers in the category, particularly at convenience stores,” said George Puro, president of the Puro Research Group, a market intelligence firm in White Plains, N.Y.

But retailers also see additional options as well. Jared Scheeler, managing director of The Hub Convenience Stores said that while healthier options are popular across many food segments, size of candy still matters.

“I envision most candy planograms to be even more weighted toward king size or sharing-size pack sizes,” Scheeler said. “We’ve already heard the introduction of king-size packaging for at least three products this year. Even though our society is gravitating toward more healthy options, a standard-size candy bar doesn’t seem to carry the value that it once did. Perhaps this is because of reduced-portion sizes, increased pricing or both. But king size is undoubtedly the sales driver in the category.”

Another big consumer demand is portability. The desire for chocolate is a craving and one that is easily satisfied. And unlike some foods and beverages, it is one that is increasingly available without a long stop or with the ability to save it for later. To that end, the main reason for stopping to buy chocolate is simple craving.

“It’s about wanting something chocolate,” Ellek said.

But even when customers stop simply because they want chocolate, they still want choice. And the chocolate industry is delivering in 2016. Portability and portion-size are major trends for the year, as many companies have rolled out new versions that can be eaten on the go, resealed or easily shared.

“This year is about ‘instant consumables’—items that can be enjoyed as a treat easily and conveniently on the run, usually in the car or back at the workplace,” Ellek said.

The 2014 Packaged Facts survey states that 44% of customers purchase chocolate in a stand-up pouch. Growth in portable pouches and packages is expected to continue as well as “some stand-up pouches can also be displayed as peg bags, a popular and profitable segment particularly in convenience stores.”

Puro’s additional research supports this, as a number of companies continue to introduce convenience into established items or create new, bite-sized options.

“Ongoing trends include bite-sized snacks in resealable packaging, designed for portion control, portability, sharing and saving for later,” Puro said. “A new product promoted in convenience stores is M&M’S Brand To-Go Bottles, which are re-closable and reusable bottles containing M&M’s. Also, The Hershey Co. recently introduced Hershey’s, Payday and Mr. Goodbar Snack Bites. Hershey has also been touting take-home package types for convenience stores, citing data that they’ve grown at twice the rate of the chocolate category.”

Another key trend is increased choices in flavor and texture. Packaged Facts reported that consumers want creative updates of popular brands and cited flavor updates including dark chocolate, gourmet salt, comfort food, coconut, almonds and super seeds.

Experts say that promoting a particular chocolate’s origin and whether it’s free-trade or organic and even unique textures tend to yield greater choice among existing products and brands.

“Mars is pushing a new Snickers variation, Snickers Crisper, which features multiple textures—crisped rice, peanuts and caramel,” Puro said. “The product also is the first Snickers bar with less than 200 calories per serving; the single packs come with two pieces, each containing 100 calories. Snickers Crisper comes on the heels of another new product with crispy and crunchy textures—M&M’s Crispy Candies.”

Well-known brands remain popular because those brands are working hard to attract new—and younger—customers through innovative flavors. Scheeler noted the popularity of the multiple texture chocolates last year. In addition to Crisper, Snickers Mixed Nuts was a popular option for those seeking something familiar, yet different.

“I anticipate 2016 will see continued evolution of the core chocolate brands rather than an introduction of new brands,” Scheeler said. “Over the past decade, the most successful new products in chocolate are the “little brothers” to the flagship products (Snickers, M&M’s, Reese’s, etc.).”

The combination of changing tastes and the desire for on-the-go snacking, portability and resealable packaging have prompted companies to further target younger demographics.

“Young consumers are known to be obsessed with trying a diverse range of foods, and M&M’s is giving them the opportunity to try Coffee Nut, Honey Nut and Chili Nut flavors and vote for their favorite,” Puro said.

Ellek agreed, saying that changing demographics bring the desire for new flavors, prompting chocolate companies to experiment.

“They are bringing more flavor experience and profiles that mean more experimentation and diversification in shopper’s choices, including spices, sours, darker and more full body flavor chocolates,” Puro said.

Having what consumers want, whether it’s a regional favorite, a national brand, a portable pouch or a creative new flavor or texture is the key to meeting the ever-growing desire for chocolate.

“It’s still about having the right core items (most often the national brands) while adjusting to include and feature regional favorites,” Ellek said. “C-stores are often the first to pick up the newest, coolest items in hopes of attracting the eye of new and long-time customers. And emerging trends— portion control for example—allows ‘treating’ and sharing without overindulging. They support consumers’ desire for moderation” while also supporting their continued desire for chocolate.