After a year of pandemic caution, customers are looking toward summer and taking steps to resume normal life as more shoppers receive the COVID-19 vaccine and venture out, offering new opportunities for the candy category to help sweeten post-pandemic life.
The candy category’s gum and mint segment faced a challenging 2020 as customers wore masks and socially distanced and, as a result, worried less about purchasing products to assist with fresh breath. But in spring 2021, the segment is already seeing a comeback at convenience stores now that customers are returning to shop in person, according to Heather Key, consumables buyer for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES).
“Bottle packs and larger packs continue to sell well, and fruity gum flavors are winning, too,” Key noted. “Trident Vibes gum bottle packs are hot sellers.”
Still, customers are making fewer trips, which means they’re opting to purchase larger packs of gum and mints. Meanwhile, in the chocolate category, iconic brands such as Reese’s and Snickers remain top-sellers at AAFES locations.
AAFES’ 122 main stores and 589 Express convenience stores will soon introduce Rev Gum, a caffeinated gum that freshens breath without the bitter taste of caffeine. The chain is also set to relaunch Simply Gum and Simply Mints; the all-natural products feature “fun” flavors and no synthetics or artificial sweeteners.
Key noted that gums marketed as being all-natural, low-sugar, non-GMO and/or as having no artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners are resonating with customers and driving sales in the gum segment.
“These features are attracting shoppers more than ever before,” she said.
While product knowledge is essential, so is keeping close tabs on shifting consumer trends. “Right now, we are seeing our non-chocolate and take-home candy packaging trending,”said Nik DiMambro, category manager for Worcester, Mass.-based Nouria Energy Corp., which has 163 total locations (146 are company operated) in five New England states. “As our guests’ shopping habits changed, we changed our product availability with them.”
Nouria recently launched a line of private-label chocolate bars, partnering with Herbert Candies to develop a premium chocolate that offers value to guests. The chain also introduced a line of private-label penny candy.
“The penny candy pulls at our guests’ feeling of nostalgia. When a guest sees candies that they have not seen since they were a kid, like strawberry laces, sour belts and Runts, it brings them to another place,” said DiMambro.
The key to boosting sales for the chain has been a commitment to stocking the latest innovations in the category.
“Our guests love the feeling of finding treasure,” said DiMambro. “With new products coming in all the time, there is always that excitement of what they will find next.”
Peter Kempton Jr., category manager for Westlake, Ohio-based TravelCenters of America, has his eye on the “yet untapped” emerging trend of premium candy preferences.
“You have a mix of people treating themselves throughout the pandemic and a large younger generation with disposable income who will spend money. If they want good chocolate, they will pay for it,” Kempton said, adding there’s room to grow this segment in the c-store channel.
As for mints and gum, Kempton and his colleagues have also noted the trend toward larger pack types.
“Through the pandemic, people were making fewer visits to the store and stocking up their pantries more,” he said. “As a result, we saw good movement on larger pack types. They were buying more items in larger sizes.”
Indeed, Kempton has seen a lot of the companies moving toward larger pack sizes.
“You are seeing the mega-plastic packs with 35 sticks of gum; they hold up better,” he said. “(So do) the bottle packs that can fit in car cups.”
As a result, Kempton’s seen the number of units sold dropping, but sales remain steady.