With the varying tastes of American consumers, convenience store retailers discuss what they’re seeing in the non-chocolate candy, gum and mint category, including demand for low-calorie, low-sugar products.
By Michele Wojciechowski, Contributing Editor
Candy, gum and mints are veritable staples in the convenience store, but as Bob Dylan once sang “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Driven by consumer demand for more natural ingredients, manufacturers are providing consumers more category choices.
According to a recent study published by research provider Persistence Market Research (PMR), low-sugar and low-calorie gum and mint options are gaining popularity among baby boomers as well as other health-conscious consumers.
“We have seen this too, but more with mints than with gum,” said Tim Cote, vice president of marketing for Plaid Pantry convenience stores. “We just place these items into our base set with no special callouts.”
Headquartered in Beaverton, Ore., Plaid Pantry operates a chain of 110 c-stores located in Oregon and Washington.
SWEET VERSUS HEALTHY
Most consumers will tell you that the issue with gum isn’t how sweet it is, but what goes into making it sweet. Gum sold today is often made with artificial sweeteners as opposed to sugar. Even gums made with sugar sometimes have artificial sweeteners, so that the amount of sugar used is often less.
“Sugar gum in having a tough time,” said Cote. “Some of this is ingredient based, but a significant amount of the decrease is a decline in the focus from our manufacturer partners, as they focus more on sugar-free products.”
Rick Scriber, vice president of Hit N Run Food Stores, said the Alton, Ill.-based c-store chain with six locations has experienced an increase in the purchase of low-calorie and low-sugar products this year, partly because customers are searching out more healthy alternatives, but it might be there aren’t as many products with sugar as there used to be.
“It is difficult to ascertain why [there’s an increase],” said Scriber. “It could be the increase in SKU’s in sugarless products. We are displaying the products through the recommended store sets indicated by gum manufacturers, depending on space availability.”
The c-store vice president attributes a portion of increased gum sales on monthly promotions and more shippers coming in.
Michael FitzPatrick, director of marketing for EZ GO convenience stores agreed that most of the new items coming into this category are sugar-free products. EZ GO now has 24 c-stores located in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
“Nine of my top 10 dollar producers in the gum and mint category are sugar-free items, and at least half of those are items that came out in the last few years. The only sugared gum in my top 10 is Doublemint,” said FitzPatrick. “My same-store candy sales are up over 9% year to date. Gum and mints are up over 6%. I believe the manufacturers have developed products that taste good without sugar.”
“I think the artificial sweetener trend started several years ago when healthier options started to flood the market. Consumers were driven to products that they assumed were better for them,” said Mark Redding, general manager Quik Mart Stores. Celebrating its 50th anniversary year, the family-owned Quik Mart Stores, based in Tucson, Ariz., currently operates 27 locations.
According to Redding, gum and mint sales have remained stagnant in the Quik Mart Stores for the last couple of years. He has noticed an increase in non-chocolate candy—mainly gummy-style products.
“I do think that there has been some new innovation within the gummy category that has helped drive sales and bring in new customers,” Redding said. “As far as gum and mints, I think there has been a little oversaturation with new flavors and pack sizes so that it has almost created some consumer confusion within that category.”
DOES PACKAGING MATTER?
According to the same study by PMR, advances in packaging materials and design, such as flip-top base packaging as well as sliding door type packaging, have helped the overall market.
Regarding this finding, our sources don’t agree with it. “Honestly, I am not sure the new packaging is leading to increased sales. The new packaging is nice and convenient, but pretty much everyone is changing over to it, so the playing field is fairly level,” said FitzPatrick.
Cote agreed. “I think some of the packaging innovation is pretty attractive; however, I am not sure that this type of innovation really leads to increased sales,” Cote said. “The consumer wants a reclosable package for gum and mints. The actual form that takes is not important as long as it’s simple to use.”
Redding agreed that these types of packaging don’t seem to have led to an increase in c-store sales. And sometimes, this packaging may not be the easiest to open.
If c-store retailers don’t find that new packaging helps sell candy, gum and mints, then what does?
Cote said c-stores tend to generally do better with items in all categories that price promote.
“We have found that—contrary to the belief of some—gum and mints are price sensitive and respond much like candy sales do when offered at a discount,” Cote said. “This is especially important to younger customers who are well-documented bargain hunter-style shoppers.”
Heritage products like Mentos, Swedish Fish and Air Heads also seem to do well for c-stores.
“You have to consider that the old-time candy survived due to it being a good product. It has stood the test of time, and people like it,” Scriber said.
That kind of customer loyalty also extends to gum and mints.
“I believe that in gum/mints, the trend is that the tried-and-true items are consistently the better-selling items. New items in this segment usually get some trial, but have a hard time making the grade long-term,” said Redding. “I do believe that the gum customer is loyal to his/her brand and has no interest in the newer items. The casual gum/mints customer seems a little more open to trying the newer items.”
While new products tend to spike in sales, at least initially, FitzPatrick said that most of his c-store sales relating to new brand extensions will eventually level off after the novelty subsides with customers.
“Heritage (candy) items are our bread and butter and will make us the most money every day,” FitzPatrick said. Whether it’s sugarless products or not, children do get excited about brand campaigns that are connected to popular movies, which open the door to impulse purchases at his c-stores, FitzPatrick said.
A very popular campaign this past summer caught FitzPatrick by surprise—as well as many c-stores. Mint maker Tic Tac generated strong register rings nationwide with its brand campaign tied to the blockbuster animated film Minions.
“The tie-in was amazing, and I had people purchasing the entire displays and posting on Facebook about them,” Fitzpatrick said. “Who would have thought that grown-ups would love banana Tic Tacs with Minion faces on them?”