Top Trends at the 2023 Sweets & Snacks Expo

Solutions for front end merchandising and advertising showcased, as brands roll out a slew of product innovations
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Apple Cinnamon Chunk Nibbles won the Best of Show Award at the 2023 Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago.

The annual Sweets & Snacks Expo, bringing together more than 16,000 visitors and 800 exhibitors in Chicago, can be considered a microcosm of sorts when it comes to the state of those categories.

For one thing, there’s generally an upbeat vibe at the show, as attendees enthusiastically pluck and munch on samples from hundreds of vendors. Enthusiasm for new products – plus the often-overheard expressions like “Mmm!’” – highlight the perennial appeal of confections and snacks.

[Read more: "All-Day Snacking Trend Not Slowing Down"]

This year’s event, held May 22-25 at McCormick Place, reflected other industry and category happenings, as booth discussions touched on timely topics like the effects of high prices on consumers, questions and assurances about supply chain matters and sustainability and ESG issues driving goals and strategies. Given traffic at booths that featured technology, like the Mars Wrigley exhibit where visitors could pick their own flavors at a freestanding Skittles Remix kiosk, the scaling of tech and data were also hot topics.

In a nutshell (pun intended), the show floor was a platform for trends affecting the way these products are made, packaged, merchandised and consumed. Below are some snack-sized takeaways from this year’s show — the last one in the Windy City after 25 years. Starting next year, the Sweets & Snacks Expo will be held in the rotating locales of Indianapolis and Las Vegas.

Cravings Continue

The state of sweets and snacks is strong, even amid market headwinds. According to 84.51°, the Cincinnati-based data arm of Kroger and its partners, 74% of consumers under age 35 snack at least a few times a day. Two-thirds (67%) of consumers purchase snacks in bulk, and a majority – including 60% of those between 18 and 34 – are willing to try new snacks. Inflation, while not an overriding driver, is causing some changes in habits: In a presentation at the show, Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 210 Analytics, reported that 62% of consumers are buying candy in a different way now, such as purchasing it less often, choosing smaller pack sizes and looking for deals like BOGO offers and price cuts.

Non-Chocolates Are Gaining

In her session at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, Roerink also shared that non-chocolate candy is outperforming most categories at retail. Here, too, younger consumers are driving trends, with Gen Z shoppers and Millennials propelling non-chocolate sales that are expected to hit $20 billion by 2027. It’s a point shared by Mike Gilroy, VP of trade development at Mars Wrigley Confectionery. In an interview with Progressive Grocer, he underscored the growing influence and unique habits of mindful Gen Z consumers and also noted that gummy candies are faring well right now.

“Gummies as a subcategory are doing incredibly well, increasing year over year. We’ve been in the gummy game for decades, starting with our Life Saver gummies, but more recently it’s really caught fire in terms of form, texture, color and flavor,” Gilroy said, pointing to the newer lines of Skittles gummies and Starburst Airs.

Taking a Tech-Enabled Tack

As consumers adjust their buying behaviors across the omnichannel, so are CPGs and grocers as they strive to maintain or build baskets for snacks and sweets. Technologies that allow for more personalization and an improved shopping experience both in-store and online are helping CPGs and grocers engage shoppers and keep these products top of mind. For example, consumers can use an app to get free samples in a contactless way from a free-standing Freeosk unit, which takes up a small footprint but has become a destination at stores like Sam’s Club, Albertsons and ShopRite.

As digital banners and retail media networks take off and as grocers look for more stitched-together solutions across categories, Citrus Ad empowers retailers to grow digital sales, a pivotal capability since many snacks and sweets sold in physical stores are unplanned purchases often made at the front end. Citrus Ad continues to enhance its capabilities, according to COO Adam Skinner. “We’ve launched the ability now to create one single campaign and then target competitive search terms inside that campaign, which allows retailers to lift their floor bid price,” he said, calling out other features that help drive demand and sales at grocery, such as suggested search terms.

Front End Solutions for Impulse Purchases

On that topic of front end, CPGs and solution providers are also teaming up with retailers to successfully merchandise sweets and snacks in self-checkout areas. “We brought on an industrial designer to help us help stores with optimal planograms, taking a look at each store's individual blueprint and needs and making recommendations for them,” said Allison Mason, associate manager, corporate communications at The Hershey Co., during a talk with Progressive Grocer. “We have queue line suggestions and ways to get people to pause so they have time to make that decision if they want a treat for themselves at the end of their purchase.” Hershey is also using its insights to spur “second basket” purchases, like when shoppers come to pick up curbside orders and can be enticed into buying snacks and confections while they are on the premises.

Doubling Down on Brands and Formats

Building on trends from last year’s show, products that marry brands and formats got buzz and more exhibit booth space at this year’s Expo. Examples include Guinness chocolate bars, Tony’s Chocolonely bars with Ben & Jerry’s flavor pairings and, on the salty side, Lay’s Wavy Funyons Onion Flavored Potato Chips. Hershey’s is fusing sweet and savory with its mashup, Reese’s Popcorn, while Mars Wrigley is bringing in new pairings like a Twix Cookie Dough bar. 

New and Nosh-Worthy

A stroll around the show floor revealed trending products in confectionery and snack categories. Waffle cone bits are a thing, with snacks from Just the Fun Part, A’ccapella Truffle Cones, and Hammond’s Mini Waffle Cones. Marshmallows are having a moment too, evident in offerings like Stuffed Puffs, Campfire S’more Poppers, and Hammond’s Candies’ Cinnamon Churro Marshmallows. In snacks, puffs were prevalent, including plant-based and protein puffs from brands like Shrewd Food and new twists on favorites, like Pirate’s Booty Crunch Attack! rice and corn puffs.

The BFY Boon

Better-for-you sweets and snacks are still trending, as shoppers seek to balance their sense of indulgence with permissible indulgence. Several products had an amped up health or wellness profile, like Mentos with Vitamins, Suckerpunch Hydration Pickle Juice with added electrolytes and Nature’s Garden Omega-3 Deluxe Mix, to name a few. While vegetables are bases for snacks like crisps, puffs and chips, they can shine on their own, too, with examples like ready-to-eat steamed, marinated and seasoned artichokes and asparagus from the Poshi brand. Meanwhile, Hershey’s plant-based candies drew many samplers at the show, as that legacy CPG emphasized the importance of having products that appeal to all lifestyles, including those seeking better-for you-options.  

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