The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has proved a double-edged sword for the candy, gum and mints category at convenience stores.
On the one hand, as the pandemic added often-stressful changes to lifestyles and routines, many Americans turned to candy for an emotional pick-me-up.
The National Confectioners Association’s (NCA) “2021 State of Treating Report” revealed that 77% of consumers feel that good emotional well-being leads to better physical health and makes it possible to enjoy life and be happier.
On the other hand, candy sales have fluctuated throughout the past 18 months amid shifting lockdown orders and social distancing concerns.
The convenience channel had a challenging 2020 overall, according to Carly Schildhaus, NCA’s public affairs manager, as many consumers shopped less frequently.
As for 2021, market research firm IRI found convenience store dollar sales of chocolate candy rose by 5.8% to just over $3 billion, and non-chocolate candy sales jumped 15.1% to nearly $2.5 billion for the 52 weeks ending Aug. 8, 2021.
But with many people wearing masks and social distancing, fresh breath wasn’t top of mind for consumers. As a result, sales of gum dropped 13.8% to nearly $783 million during the same period. Breath fresheners also saw a downturn of 15%, to almost $166 million, while sales of plain mints dipped by 1.1%, to just over $72.5 million.
But when comparing candy sales from summer 2020 to summer 2021, National Retail Solutions (NRS) found candy sales were up significantly across segments (see below). Total sales for the category were up 23.4%, with each segment showing gains of at least 18% from June 1, 2021, and Aug. 31, 2021, compared to the same period in 2020.
It’s possible candy sales have turned the corner and are set to rebound in 2022.
But as shopper behavior evolves, c-stores may need to evaluate their sales strategies. A decrease in impulse purchases has been noteworthy in candy, suggested Ramsey Baghdadi, consumer analyst at data and analytics company GlobalData.
“Convenience stores may need to undergo significant changes to prevent being outplayed by online platforms. Since the start of the pandemic, consumer behavior has dramatically changed, as fewer people gravitate toward impulse buying,” Baghdadi said.
In fact, according to GlobalData’s 2021 Q2 survey, 58% of American consumers claim to typically shop for chocolate, confectionery and dessert products online, compared to 12% at convenience stores.
In the wake of COVID-19, packaging that enables more hygienic sharing — like individually wrapped pieces in a multi-serving package — is a key trend in candy and mints, said Jennifer Christ, food market team leader for The Freedonia Group, a division of MarketResearch.com.
Sweet Sales Gains
Candy sales have been strong this year across the Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) retail system, which includes 589 Express convenience stores and 122 main stores, according to Heather Key, a buyer for AAFES. The everyday candy category is up 8% over last year for the chain.
The non-chocolate category continues to grow in size and as a percentage of the total candy business, Key noted. “Sales in this category have increased 5% over last year; however, chocolate sales are down slightly.”
The gum and mint business has also bounced back, she added.
“For chocolate, iconic brands such as Reese’s, M&M’s, Lindt, Ritter Sport and Kinder are leading,” Key said.
Brands that advertise low-sugar, low-carbohydrate or all-natural ingredients, such as Unreal, Trü Frü, Lily’s, and Tony’s Chocolonely, are taking off, she added. For non-chocolate, Trolli, Nerds, Sour Punch, Skittles, Fruit-tella, Albanese and Hi-Chew are driving sales for AAFES.
“Hi-Chew and Trolli are on fire,” Key explained. Meanwhile, in gum and mints, mega packs, bottle packs and fruity flavors are the most popular with customers.
Impulse purchases aren’t seeing a slowdown at AAFES locations. Express stores regularly feature an impulse item of the month at a large discount, which typically results in about a 300% lift for the item. The Exchange hosts internal contests to encourage stores to promote the item, as well.
“Our military brokers assist with engaging customers in the stores,” Key explained, “through, among other things, interactive displays that encourage shoppers to take photos with a cardboard M&M’s character cutout. Another is a contest to guess how many Skittles are inside a jar.”
Exchanges typically see a lift in premium chocolate, fun-size items and larger-pack sizes in the third and fourth quarters during Halloween and gifting season. Stores often promote several premium brands as “buy one, get one free” or “buy one, get one 50% off.”
For 2022, the Exchange expects the upward sales trends in the non-chocolate category to continue, as well as ongoing growth for the brands that advertise better-for-you products that are low-sugar, low-carbohydrate or all-natural.