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Candy Crush: Pandemic Drives Consumers’ Chocolate Cravings

Sales soar amid changing shopping habits
Photograph: Shutterstock

The pandemic uprooted virtually all long-standing grocery shopping and food consumption habits, from making fewer trips and buying more per trip to buying different brands and products. Pandemic shopping trends have affected every department across the store, and confectionery was no exception. It changed the where, what and how of how people shop for groceries.

These larger pandemic shopping trends combined with other dynamics in the new normal, such as working from home and less eating out, have changed how shoppers approach their favorite treats. To better understand these changes, the National Confectioners Association (NCA) commissioned 210 Analytics to conduct a three-part research series exploring consumer behavior and seasonal and everyday confectionery sales since the onset of the pandemic.

Chocolate and Nonchocolate Increased Sales

The majority of consumers have enjoyed chocolate (92%) or nonchocolate candy (80%) since the onset of the pandemic. That resulted in sales increases for both chocolate and nonchocolate, at 5.5% and 1.6%, respectively, in the 26-week period between March 15 and Sept. 6 vs. a year ago. Clearly, confectionery treats have been providing a brief moment of joy or comfort during these unusual times. With the pandemic starting two weeks into the Easter selling season, year-to-date seasonal sales trail the 2019 results. The height of Easter sales, the last three weeks of the season, coincided with the vast majority of states being under shelter-in-place mandates. However, everyday confectionery sales have been strong.

The disruption caused by COVID-19 has not been as kind to gum and mints, however. With fewer social interactions, working from home and eating out less, 9% fewer shoppers buy gum vs. pre-pandemic and among those who do, 34% purchase it less often.

A Changed Confectionery Basket

Nearly 6 in 10 shoppers (59%) indicated a change in their typical chocolate and candy purchases, including 48% who purchased different pack sizes, 46% who tried different items and 42% who purchased different brands. Younger generations were the most likely to change. The top reason for buying differently was out-of-stocks of the brand or type, and others looked for individually wrapped candy, better value and experimentation. This has led to above-average strength of chocolate, in particular premium chocolate.

E-Commerce and Grocery Are Shoppers’ Go-To

The three winning channels amid the pandemic have been club, grocery and e-commerce. These same channels had strong confectionery gains as well. E-commerce, whether online players or click-and-collect and delivery from the local grocery exploded during the pandemic, with engagement jumping five years ahead on its growth trajectory.

Sixty-one percent of consumers have purchased groceries online during the pandemic, and 26% purchased confectionery online, nearly doubling the engagement vs. 2019. Ordering with the local grocery store for delivery or pickup overtook pure e-commerce retailers as the most popular way to purchase confectionery online. This resulted in a doubling of online confectionery sales during the 26-week period ending Sept. 6, 2020, vs. a year ago, according to IRI. Chocolate had the fastest growth, at 109.7%.

Since July 2020, the convenience channel has begun to show an uptick in confectionery sales, but sales through alternative channels, such as movie theaters, bookstores or candy stores, continue to be pressured.

Seasonal Confectionery Engagement

Throughout the pandemic, celebrations have been different, including Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation parties and the summer holidays. By and large, Americans celebrated, but differently with smaller gatherings and at home vs. traveling. This has also affected how Americans celebrate seasonal candy moments. For instance, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day saw about 2 in 10 Americans who typically celebrate these holidays opting not to participate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 9 in 10 Americans still celebrate the "Big Four" confectionery seasons—Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and the winter holidays—some or all years with confectionery gifting and sharing. Seasonal confectionery remains a source of joy, with 77% of shoppers finding the seasonal aisle a source of fun and inspiration. The vast majority wants to celebrate in style: Eighty-seven percent prefer seasonal confectionery featuring packaging, shapes, colors, flavors or characters that reflect the season.

At the same time, the pandemic has resulted in financial pressure for many Americans, and more are prioritizing promotions and price in their decisions. Additionally, shoppers are looking to more at-home usage occasions for confectionery, including crafting, baking, filling candy bowls and decorating using seasonal candy. This shift to at-home activity presents new opportunities for merchandising, particularly when marketing to parents, who are looking for special ways to celebrate holidays with their children during the pandemic.

As the virus remains in firm control of how and where Americans spend their food dollars, it is likely that confectionery sales patterns will continue to develop in everyday and seasonal periods. NCA’s three-part research series on confectionery shopping behaviors is available now to NCA member companies, Sweets & Snacks On Demand participants and select retailers at CandyUSA.com/COVIDReports.

Anne-Marie Roerink is principal of 210 Analytics, which specializes in research for the food retailing industry and authors studies in meat, produce, bakery, deli, frozen, confectionery, snacks and retail operations. She can be reached at aaroerink@210analytics.com

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