With fewer people wearing masks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, convenience stores are experiencing an uptick in candy, gum and mint sales and are strategizing to maximize sales in the back half of 2022.
But c-store retailers expressed cautious optimism given ongoing market trends.
“Everybody’s experiencing the same thing: supply chain issues, labor issues — people spending less money,” said Eric Patterson, merchandising manager for Beacon & Bridge Market, who, after speaking with colleagues throughout the U.S., found others’ experiences are mirroring his own.
At the 25-store Michigan-based chain, numbers in the candy, gum and mint category have been skewed over the past couple of years due to shifting trends since the pandemic began. “When we still had the mask mandates in effect, gum and mint (sales) were way down,” Patterson said. “I think that was largely (because) people didn’t like to chew gum or smell that minty breath behind the mask.”
Remote work has also had an impact on candy sales at the c-stores.
“A good chunk of the gum and mint business comes with our morning traffic — people looking to cover up the morning breath, the coffee breath,” said Patterson. “Because they’re working remotely, then naturally that business goes down.”
Now that more customers are returning to pre-pandemic norms, Beacon & Bridge is starting to see healthy numbers coming out of the gum and mint segments again.
“We were actually up for the first time in two years in gum and mints, according to a couple of the suppliers,” he said.
NielsenIQ confirmed the trend across the c-store industry. Candy, gum and mint dollar sales at convenience stores hit $6.71 billion for the 52 weeks ending July 30, 2022, up 11.4%. While all segments were up, gum saw the largest growth in dollar sales, up 16.1% for the period.
At Rutter’s, candy across all subcategory groups has been thriving in 2022 with a most notable resurgence in gum and mints, noted Joseph Bortner, center store category manager, Rutter’s Cos., which operates 82 locations in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia.
“Through the first half of 2022, (gum and mints) have nearly doubled,” said Bortner. “I’d attribute a portion of that to consumers fully returning to pre-Covid norms in our trading area, such as return to office work, little to zero mask wearing and movement to and from activities.”
Candy on its own is struggling a little bit, mainly due to ongoing supply chain issues, Patterson explained.
“We’re having some big-time issues with some take-home candy,” Patterson said. “A lot of the major manufacturers with king-sized and standard bars have taken an approach where they’re cutting their assortment a little bit to focus more of their manufacturing power on some of the better sellers.”
Those cuts have included a few SKUs of popular candy brands.
“They’re focusing a lot of their energy on the top 10 in their brand portfolio,” he explained. “That causes some situations at store level when you’re talking about out-of-stocks and having to pivot a little bit with merchandising standards. We’ve gone to a lot of double facing for that candy size (i.e. king-sized and standard bars) because we just can’t get the product.”
Beacon & Bridge also is relying heavily on multiple promotions and new items.
“The one thing the supply chain issue has done for us is it frees up space in our in-line candy section when those new innovations come out, so that we can roll it right into our in-line, and I can carry them as everyday items,” said Patterson.
He added that doing that had been challenging in the past because that space was already allocated.
“Our strategy continues to be just to focus our energy on what the customer wants,” he added. “The customer wants value out of the candy segment, and then for us to bring in new innovation when we see it.”
At the end of the day, the heart of candy sales remains impulse buys, noted Bortner.
“Through great innovation from our suppliers and disruptive merchandising through queues, endcaps and displays, we’re able to maximize that impulse throughout the store,” he said. “We’ve had success introducing new points of disruption in 2022 that only help drive units and dollars through the store.”
With the holiday season approaching, a secondary supplier is providing a lot of specialty candy for Beacon & Bridge.
“There’s more premium candy as opposed to traditional candy bars, such as bags of premium salted caramels,” said Patterson. “It’s something the customer really likes to see during the holidays. They use them as gift-giving options.”
In the past, “candy has always been one of those areas where we generally set it and forget it,” he noted. “You can’t do that anymore. The customer expects more out of convenience stores.”