While the pandemic has wrought widespread disruption and uncertainty to U.S. consumers for nearly a year, candy lovers are finding refuge in sweet treats, manufacturers are working to find new ways to satisfy them, and retailers are seeing sales like never before.
Chocolate sales in the convenience channel saw a healthy 5.6% increase for the final quarter of 2020, with a 5.1% increase for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 26, 2020, according to data from Nielsen. Numbers for non-chocolate confections were even sweeter, rising 10.6% for the year and 14.2% for the fourth quarter.
Despite — or because of — COVID-19 effects, the candy consumer hasn’t been shy about indulging their sweet tooth.
Even taking into account an early pandemic-driven dip, candy sales at RaceTrac convenience stores increased in 2020, noted Nikki Loveless, category manager for the chain, which is headquartered in Atlanta and operates 560 convenience stores in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee.
“So while we did see a hit — grand scheme, it was not that bad,” Loveless explained. “We saw a pretty sharp decline in March and early April. But after that, as things started to open back up, we’ve recovered very quickly in candy.”
Celebrating With Candy
That jibes with the National Confectioners Association’s (NCA) “Seasonal Confectionery Purchase Decisions,” the last of a three-part series on pandemic candy consumption.
The report revealed that 91% of Americans planned to celebrate the winter holidays with chocolate and candy, and 80% of Americans intended to purchase as much or more chocolate and candy than normal during the 2020 winter holiday season.
For Newcomb Oil’s Bardstown, Ky.-based Five Star Food Mart stores, candy sales have never been better — literally. Category Manager Tim Young boasted candy sales at the chain’s 87 stores in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee turned in a record year in 2020.
“As it relates to total store, candy and snacks were both off the charts,” he said, pointing out an initial drop during Q1 of 2020. “And then as we started to pick back up in April, then we really got back firing on all cylinders in May and then just had a great, great year.”
Loveless observed that sales in her aisles went hand-in-hand with store traffic.
“That tells us that our guest is still purchasing confections, and that, as traffic continues to pick back up, so will candy sales,” Loveless said.
Consumers are turning to sweet treats to find comfort amid the pandemic.
“The confectionery category has been resilient in the COVID-19 environment as consumers turn to chocolate and candy to bring a little normalcy to a very unusual and uncertain time,” said Carly Shildhaus, manager of public affairs for the NCA. “Looking ahead, candy’s unique role in emotional well-being will continue to be important for consumers seeking to celebrate the seasons, family traditions and other moments.”
Young broke it down even further, observing that customers want to grab a candy bar and “just take your mind off the madness.”
Innovation, and Lots of It
One thing seems certain: There’s no shortage of confection innovation, especially from the major candy makers.
“(Mars Wrigley’s) Skittles Gummies is definitely something I’m very excited about,” said Young. He also pointed to the Snicker’s Peanut Brownie Squares that launched in December.
“Hershey is also coming out with a lot of innovation as it relates to leading with the core brand of Reese’s Cup,” Young said. “They’ll have in early ‘21 a Reese’s Cup that’ll have potato chips inside.”
Indeed, The Hershey Co. reported that Reese’s Big Cups with Chips will be available for a limited time only, beginning in March of this year.
Loveless agreed that innovation is booming, adding she expects sales of the Reese’s line to do well this year given the recent and pending additions to the product set. Hershey introduced Reese’s Big Cups with Pretzels, which features peanut butter cups stuffed with pretzels, in November, and it hit store shelves at RaceTrac in December.
“That’s already performing extremely well for us,” Loveless said.
Hershey, she said, is also doing a lot to bolster some of its legacy brands, putting advertising dollars behind its new products as well as refreshing longtime classics. In January, it launched its Whozeewhatzit bar — the Whatchamacallit brand’s first new bar in a decade. It features a peanut butter crème layer and rice crisps, covered in chocolate.
Loveless is also optimistic about the new Kit-Kat Duos Mocha that’s a follow-up to last year’s Kit-Kat Duos Mint. “And I think they did very, very well with that item,” said Loveless. “So I hope to see the Mocha extension do just as well.”
Even with new products for consumers to get excited about, it’s still essential that retailers stay on top of in-store merchandising.
“We’ve got our first four-foot section when you walk into the candy aisle. It’s really like the CandyRific higher-priced novelty surprise-and-delight-type items, and some of our premium chocolate items,” said Young. That means there’s something to draw the entire family into the candy aisle.
“The more you can put that high-impulse item in front of the guest’s eye, the more you’re going to sell,” advised Race Trac’s Loveless. “Very few people stop at a convenience store to purchase a candy bar. It’s how you entice that guest once they’re on the lot to convert them into a confection user.”