Digital platforms and new products can help manufacturers keep seasonal candy exciting for consumers despite pandemic-related restrictions.
Candy is still a sweet category for supermarket retailers. Consumers turned to indulgent treats to take the edge off their pandemic panic — a trend that’s not likely to change any time soon — and seasonal candy remains a key segment of the category.
“Our data shows that chocolate is among the top categories that consumers are eating, in part because consumers turn to chocolate for comfort and because people are looking for ways to have more fun while they’re at home,” says Lynn Hemans, VP of consumer intelligence and strategy at The Hershey Company, in Hershey, Pa.
Mike Gilroy, VP of trade development and sponsorship at Hackettstown, N.J.-based Mars Wrigley USA, notes that nearly half of all treat and snack consumption occurs during screen time, like movie nights and streaming binges. “Mars Wrigley is finding new ways to connect with consumers in this moment,” Gilroy asserts. “We’re helping retailers prompt consumers to think of our category when shopping with in-store promotions, offering a variety of share-size packaging, and engaging people with relevant brand communications.”
While the pandemic might have shifted shopping habits, it hasn’t dampened consumers’ desire to make candy part of their seasonal celebrations. Food retailers won big in 2020 when it came to seasonal candy sales — the channel was the most commonly shopped channel for seasonal confectionery, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Confectioners Association (NCA). This past year, NCA data shows that online ordering through the local grocery store for delivery or pickup overtook online retailers as the biggest online channel for confectionery.
During a trying year, manufacturers and retailers found new ways to maximize in-store seasonal candy sales. According to Hemans, “The way we’ve all celebrated seasons this year has been different, but we’re all finding new ways to make special times of the year continue to feel special.”
This past Halloween, for instance, Mars Wrigley launched Treat Town, a digital platform that allowed customers to engage in fun activities and virtually trick-or-treat for credits, which could be redeemed at select retailers, including Walmart, Target and CVS. In addition to fan favorites, treats included seasonal items such as M&M’s Creepy Cocoa Crisp, M&Ms and Snickers in Glow in the Dark packaging, and Zombie Skittles
New flavors continue to keep consumers coming back to the candy aisle, with sweet-and-spicy combos particularly popular.
The program effectively extended the holiday to a month-long promotion, and Mars Wrigley execs expect digital components to become an integral part of every seasonal confectionery program going forward. Similarly, Parsippany, N.J.-based Ferrero USA is currently working with retailers on an upcoming digital initiative of its own this year for key seasonal selling seasons.
Candy manufacturers also rolled out new products designed to address the often discussed “new normal.” As a result of research indicating that parents are no longer comfortable with the door-to-door trick-or-treating aspect of Halloween, Louisville, Ky.-based CandyRific designed a new Halloween Surprise Hunts concept, based on an Easter egg hunt. “These 20 glow-in-the-dark plastic skulls filled with pressed dextrose bone candy can be hidden either outside or inside to create a fun Halloween activity for kids,” suggests Clark Taylor, CandyRific’s SVP of sales and marketing.
CandyRific has fine-tuned other seasonal programs based on its consumer research as well. The company’s research found that for Valentine's Day, consumers wanted more gifting options and fewer flower bouquets and dinners out. In response, CandyRific “created two different mug-and-hot-cocoa giftable sets,” says Taylor. For Easter, the company worked with Seoul-based Pinkfong, owner of the Baby Shark license, and Fairfield, Calif.-based Jelly Belly Brands for a fun new “talking” product filled with organic jelly beans.
Limited-edition launches play an essential part in holiday promotion programs. “Seasonal periods like Halloween and holiday are always a priority, now more than ever before,” notes Jeff Schoenfield, director of marketing, base and innovation at Haribo, a Bonn, Germany-based company with its U.S. headquarters in Rosemont, Ill. “Whether it’s the Sour Vampire Bats for Halloween or festive Candy Cane Gummies for the winter season, seasonal products offer consumers new and festive varieties, shapes and flavors. For Valentine’s Day, Haribo offers Goldbears in standard 4-ounce packs and treat-size packs, and Goldbear heart-shaped boxes. For Easter, the company is focusing on [a] Happy Hoppers Goldbears mix.”
Hershey takes a two-pronged approach to seasonal products, with some products brought back annually — such as Reese’s seasonal shapes and Cadbury Crème Eggs — and new seasonal offerings. “We continue to introduce new products we hope help add a little more happiness to consumers,” says Hemans. “Last year, Reese’s Frankencup was a fun seasonal spin on our classic Peanut Butter Cup.
Manufacturers keep brands fresh with new spins on old favorites, such as this slimmed down Kit Kat introduction.
While Just Born’s Peeps Marshmallow Chicks and Bunnies have been Easter staples for decades, in the past decade, the Bethlehem, Pa.-based company has focused more on growing its portfolio and sales with an assortment of flavored marshmallow candies. “Consumers love to experiment and try new flavors, and they tend to purchase and consume them earlier in the season, when they first hit shelves,” says Caitlin Servian, brand manager for Just Born’s Peeps brand. “Flavors helped us generate excitement among fans.” This year, the brand is introducing Hot Tamales Fierce Cinnamon Flavored Chicks and a Froot Loops Flavored Pop.
New Products Spur Sales
While the pandemic slowed new product introductions in 2020, experts believe that 2021 is poised for increased confection launches.
Products like the Frankford Hot Chocolate Bomb, which launched in the 2019 holiday season and sold out at nearly all locations, offer something totally new to consumers and create plenty of buzz in the category. “The product has taken off as a viral sensation, and we’re seeing overwhelming demand from consumers,” notes Molly Jacobson, director of marketing at Philadelphia-based Frankford Candy. “In a year like this, consumers are seeking out small, permissible indulgences that bring them comfort and happiness, and we think the Frankford Hot Chocolate Bomb helps meet this need.” The company is exploring product extensions that will take the Frankford Hot Chocolate Bomb to the next level in 2021.
Innovative products depend on off-shelf promotion.
Mega-brands are continuing to launch brand extensions. Hershey recently added Kit Kat Thins, a new version of an old favorite that has one fewer layer of crispy wafers, while Reese’s Stuffed with Pretzels and a Reese’s Snack Cake are hitting shelves now.
Birthday cake flavors, as well as individual fruit flavors and fruity combinations, should continue to be popular. Unique hot and spicy products have also been gaining traction with consumers. Last year, Jelly Belly launched BeanBoozled Fiery Five, a series of increasingly spicy jelly beans. The company also introduced Gourmet Milk Chocolate Truffles and Bars, the first time it brought Jelly Belly flavors to its chocolate products.
For her part, Sally Lyons Wyatt, EVP and practice leader at Chicago-based market research company Information Resources Inc. (IRI), is seeing new forms entering the market, including bites, twists and crawlers.
“Consumers are open to exploring new twists from their favorite brands and are looking for more options when it comes to flavors, textures, pack types and price points,” affirms Gilroy.
Leveraging this growing trend, Mars Wrigley is launching products like Skittles Gummies, a pop-able gummy candy, offering the same fruit flavor that consumers already know and love in an innovative gummy form. This spring, meanwhile, Jelly Belly will roll out a new line of gummies featuring Jelly Belly flavors