Hop to it!

An early Easter creates challenges and opportunities in the merchandising of seasonal candy.

Who cares if that lazy groundhog sees his shadow—it is the Easter Bunny who is foretelling an early spring this year. And by doing so he is throwing a monkey wrench into retailers’ efforts to top April same-store sales by drastically shortening the 2012 Easter selling season.

“In 2011 Easter was April 24 and now we are looking at April 8, so we are losing two weeks,” says Jenn Ellek, director of trade marketing and communications at the National Confectioners Association, based in Washington.

That is causing NCA members to plan their production accordingly. “The amount of candy produced by manufacturers is actually set by the retailers’ understanding of their shoppers’ needs,” Ellek says. “That’s because the retailers are the ones who are going to be placing the orders with the manufacturers. They put their initial buy-in orders in eight to 12 months out and then manufacturers produce to their seasonal needs.”

Manufacturers say the early Easter will likely impact impulse sales.

“Typically what happens at Palmer is that hollow [rabbit] sales remain the same, but our novelties and bags are impacted because of the early Easter,” says David Abramson, director of sales and marketing, R.M. Palmer Co., based in Reading, Pa. “A lot of our candy is also candy dish items from bags, so if you have two weeks less to eat the candy you are not going to go back and replenish it. We expect sales to be flat on the novelties and bags and in 2013 it will be even worse when Easter falls in March.”

That is why manufacturers suggest the Easter displays go up right after Valentine’s Day on Feb. 15—even earlier, if possible.

“Mars’ first ship was on Dec. 26, 2011,” says Timothy LeBel, vice president of sales–grocery/value/military for Mars Chocolate North America, based in Hackettstown, N.J. “Historically, Easter immediate consumption shapes are displayed at the first of the year, as long as the presentation does not conflict with Valentine’s Day. The remainder of the portfolio should be set on Feb. 15.”

“In our experience, the people who get the Easter displays up earlier have better success and sell-through,” says Allyson Myers, director of sales, Lake Champlain Chocolates, based in Burlington, Vt. “They communicate to their consumers that they are a headquarters for Easter and even if the consumer is not buying it in February they plant the seed that ‘when I am ready to buy it this store will have it for me.”’

Lake Champlain manufactures a gourmet line sold in upscale retailers such as Kings in New Jersey. “For Easter it is primarily all about bunnies and eggs,” Myers says. “We offer six different .45-ounce filled chocolate eggs that we sell in point-of-purchase dispensers that are great for the impulse sale, for immediate snacking and for people looking to build their own baskets in this do-it-yourself era.”

New this Easter, Lake Champlain is offering two certified organic chocolate Easter bunnies. “The bags we wrap them in are compostable in a backyard composter, plus the ribbons we tie them with are made from recycled soda bottles,” Myers says.
An Easter “must-have” for generations of children, Palmer is expanding its product offering this season with a 6.5-ounce hollow rabbit and 3.5-ounce hollow chocolate and white chocolate rabbits marketed under the Merlin’s brand name.

“We acquired the name and assets of Merlin’s Candy Co., which was based in New Orleans and huge along the Panhandle,” Abramson says. “Their equipment was extremely old, so we took the art from their box and their formulas and are making it out of Palmer’s plant.”

Easter pops

Under the Palmer brand the hot new item is Bunny Kabob Pops. “You have seen kabob pops out there all in non-chocolate or marshmallow and most of those are made and packaged in China,” Abramson says. “Palmer has come out with a chocolate version of the kabob pop with three distinct rabbit faces stacked on top of one another. We will be the only U.S.-made chocolate kabob pop.”

Lollipops from Original Gourmet Food Co. have also become Easter basket mainstays. The Salem, N.H.-based company’s lollipops are made via a deposited method at a factory in Ohio instead of being dye-stamped like most of its competitors, resulting in a smoother, more solid sucker. “We have state-of-the-art equipment that nobody else in the world has,” says Richard Alimenti, CEO.

“We have an Easter box of eight lollipops that come in a little gold tray with Easter graphics,” Alimenti says. “For Easter we are zeroing in on the lollipops, along with our little individual cookie tins that go into Easter baskets that are available in several different designs. We also do hand-decorated cookies and cookie pops with a stick in them.”

Alimenti says retailers should consider adding holiday-themed cookies and cookie tins as a way to boost sales and profits. “Retailers could increase sales and add some life into their seasonal set by adding cookies into the confections area,” he says.

Next to chocolate bunnies, perhaps the most iconic Easter candies are the marshmallow Peeps from Bethlehem, Pa.-based Just Born. This year Peeps fans will enjoy a rainbow of fluffy fun with the new Peeps Rainbow Pop, an assortment of marshmallow Peeps chicks available in four individual colors and vertically nestled on a stick in one package. The treat includes a yellow, green, pink and blue chick on a lollipop stick.

Peeps are also taking a cue from chocolate bunnies with the new Peeps Chocolate Dipped Chocolate Mousse Flavored Marshmallow Chicks, a combination of chocolate mousse flavored marshmallow dipped in milk or dark chocolate.

National push

Retailers can also boost seasonal sales by carrying an extensive assortment of national brand products, industry observers say.

“National brands play a critical role at each season, driven by the brands’ 360-degree consumer support,” says LeBel of Mars. “During Easter more than 50% of households use candy for decorating and one of their favorites is M&M’S Brand Candies in festive pastel colors. This year we’ve added two new flavors to our Easter offering: M&M’S Brand Speckled Coconut Chocolate Eggs and M&M’S Brand Pretzel Chocolate Candies.”

Mars is also introducing a broad assortment of bunnies, eggs, gift boxes and candy canes under its Snickers, Milky Way, M&M’S and Dove brands. “According to our consumer research, 80% of Easter consumers typically purchase chocolate in seasonal shapes, such as eggs and bunnies,” LeBell says.

The Hershey Co. has also found success with Easter-themed versions of its year-round best-sellers. New this year is a 5-ounce Reese’s Milk Chocolate and Peanut Butter Bunny, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Drops and Hershey’s Cookies ‘N’ Crème Drops decorated with spring-time images of a butterfly, Easter egg, flower and baby chick, Jolly Rancher Sours Bunny Gummies and Cadbury Chocolate Crème Egg Candy.

“The outer shell is made from Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate, similar to the Cadbury Crème Egg Candy shell, but it’s filled with a thick, rich, soft chocolate crème center certain to delight every ‘bunny’s’ taste buds,” says Anna Lingeris, spokesperson for the Hershey, Pa.-based manufacturer.

Lingeris says Hershey is also introducing the Reese’s Lovers Assortment 40-piece Bag. “Reese’s fans get a special treat with this assorted bag featuring individual packages of Reese’s Pieces Candy, Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs and Reese’s White Peanut Butter Eggs,” she says.

The New England Confectionery Co. (NECCO) has expanded its Easter portfolio to include new takes on old favorites with Skybar PAAS Caramel Eggs, individual one-ounce eggs filled with caramel. “We believe our Skybar Chocolate PAAS Eggs are going to take off,” says Jennifer Chambers, products manager for Revere, Mass.-based NECCO. “Chocolate items and Easter basket stuffers are always popular Easter items. Big trends—and products we offer—include great value, fun graphics and quality American-made products.”

For several years now NECCO has been partnering with PAAS, the 125-year-old Easter egg dye that is now a unit of St. Louis-based Signature Brands. “We are fortunate enough to be partners with PAAS, which is a strong and reputable American Easter brand,” Chambers says.

Of course no Easter basket would be complete without jelly beans. This year Jelly Belly is introducing a line centered on Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. “We’ve created an entire collection featuring the iconic artwork,” says Jana Sanders Perry, public relations media specialist at Fairfield, Calif.-based Jelly Belly Candy Co. “There are several different package options including a special Easter Mix Collection that features just colors of the jelly beans that are inspired from the illustrations themselves.”

Jelly Belly also has smaller, convenience-size packages of its Bunny Corn this year. “It is like Halloween candy corn, but seasonally themed with green and pink pastel colors,” Sanders Perry says, adding that the 4.25-ounce carrot-shaped triangular bags of orange-colored Sunkist Tangerine Jelly Belly jelly beans is another hallmark of Easter baskets everywhere.

The Easter Bunny is also adding treats with value-added toy components to more baskets, say officials with Louisville, Ky.-based CandyRific. Among its new products this year are Peeps Treats for Easter, bunny and chick-shaped marshmallow treats and M&M’S Brand candy dispensers shaped like eggs.

“Consumers want a value-added component, so after the confectionery is finished, the toy and/or play value is still there,” says Rob Auerbach, president of CandyRific. “All of our items are refillable and we promote portion control by packing 15 grams in an individual packet.”

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