The event, which also featured education sessions and networking opportunities for manufacturers, brokers and suppliers, was simultaneously a symbol of America’s much-anticipated reopening after 15 months of lockdown and a capstone to National Candy Month, which helps bridge the sales gap between major holidays in the spring and fall by reminding consumers of the emotional connections sweet treats can help forge.
The show also revealed how industry players are navigating a quickly evolving landscape altered by the pandemic, economic slowdown and now the reopening – including new trends around channel distribution, pack size and product configuration and flavor trends.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast, National Confectioners Association senior vice president of public affairs and communications Christopher Gindlesperger shares details about these emerging trends, what is driving the sweets and snacks markets and where the segments are heading.
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The State of Sweets & Snacks is industry is strong
While the pandemic changed the way many Americans approached food and beverage, including what they bought, how much they purchased and where they shopped – NCA’s 2021 State of Treating report released in March showed that for many people treats offer an emotional connection and way to engage with friends and family safely while still at a distance.
According to the report, US confectionery sales fell slightly by 0.2% to $36.7bn in 2020 compared to 2019, but most of this drop appears to be from lower sales of gum and mints, which fell 22.7% to $3.9bn and represents 12% of the category’s performance.
As Gindlesperger explains, this was offset by strong sales in chocolate and non-chocolate.
“Speaking to the confectionery category, the category has been very resilient during the pandemic. … In 2020, chocolate sales were up more than 4% and non-chocolate sales were up 3%. So, it’s really strong growth and, I think, it speaks to that magic” people feel when they reach for their favorite chocolate, candy or treat, he said.
According to NCA’s State of Treating report, this uptick helped chocolate sales reach $21.9bn in 2020 and non-chocolate sales reach $11.5bn last year.
Snacks sales in 2020 also were strong with NielsenIQ reporting dollar sales of salty snacks jumping 14% for the year ending Feb. 6, 2021, and sweet snacks up 11%. In both cases, this was nearly four times the growth of the prior year when sales of salty snacks increased 4% and sweets snacks 3%.
Much of this sales increase was driven by consumers looking for a little levity in an emotionally intense year, entertainment or to safely connect with others – be it a movie night with popcorn and candy or a cookout with melted chocolate in smores.
“Chocolate and candy … have this uncanny ability to boost your mood and lighten your perspective, and I think what’s happened in the last year, year and half, is that while we’ve had this moment of introspection, people have turned to their favorite chocolate and candy and said, ‘Hey, you know this is something that I can occasionally have as a little treat to boost my mood,” Gindlesperger said.
Some players in the confectionery space also may have seen a bit of a boost from increased consumer interest in extra functional benefits from the products they consumed, but as Gindlesperger notes the main function of confections is as a treat.
“Some of the original functional products were gummies or jelly beans that the cycling community or running community as they go the distance would typically enjoy for small bits of energy to carry on over a marathon or long bike ride,” he explained. But, he added, the confectionery category is not about meal replacements or supplements.
“We’re truly chocolate and candy or treats, and we’re not at the center of the plate,” and most consumers know that, he added.
Always a treat
As consumers gravitated to sweets and snacks over the past year, the confections industry helped them from going overboard with indulgences through portion-controlled packaging and messaging that emphasized their products are always a treat.
“The Always a Treat initiative was started by the larger companies and adopted by the broader industry to bring more portion guidance options to consumers as they seek to manage their sugar intake,” and it involves reducing packages and options to limit calories while still allowing for a sweet indulgence, Gindlesperger explained.
He said one way that industry has reinforced this is by offering large value packs filled with individually wrapped treats – this allowed consumers to stock their pantries with treats, but also help them exercise restraint.
Indeed, according to NCA’s State of Treating Report, of the 61% of consumers who changed their confectionery purchases during the pandemic 41% bought more value packs with individually wrapped candies and 38% bought fewer individual items, such as those sold at the checkout aisle.
Shifting shopping habits
Part of the drop in sales of individually wrapped confections typically sold at check-out may be due to fewer people buying sweets in stores – preferring instead to buy them online during the pandemic. This trend not only facilitated ecommerce sales but also sales through grocery stores that offered click-and-collect or personal shopper services.
“The growth in online confectionery sales has skyrocketed in 2020 to the point where online confectionery sales were up more than 75%,” Gindlesperger said.
He also noted that grocery has become an important channel for the confectionery industry as more consumers consolidate trips and are drawn to the safety and flexibility of either ordering from a grocery online for delivery, curbside pick up or continuing to shop in store.
Emerging flavor trends
After 15 months of living primarily at home, many consumers are eager for something new – and the confectionery industry is delivering, according to Gindlesperger, who said three major flavor trends were on full display at the Sweets and Snacks Expo this year.
These include an influx of tropical flavors that recall for consumers beach vacations and escapes from real life, ‘mix-and-match’ flavors that blend sweet and salty or other unexpected flavors that are surprising but complementary, and added spice that takes the heat level a notch.
National Candy Month bridges holiday sales
The Sweets & Snacks Expo closes out a busy month for NCA, which also celebrated National Candy Month in June. The association launched National Candy Month in June 2016 as a way to bridge the gap between spring and winter holidays at which confections play a primary role. But as NCA research shows, confections can make summer a little sweeter – whether it is by enjoying chocolate while camping like 94% of Americans, snacking on candy while road tripping like 93% of Americans or enjoying chocolate or candy seaside like 89% of beachgoers.