Counting on confections
By Craig Levitt
Bite-sized and better-for-you candies and snacks continue to drive sales. Each year candy manufacturers develop hundreds of new products aimed directly at consumers’ sweet tooth. For retailers, the trick becomes figuring out which products deserve a place on their shelves and which wind up on the proverbial cutting room floor. How do retailers decipher the winners from the less appealing? A good place to start is the National Confectioners Association’s (NCA) 18th annual Sweets & Snacks Expo. Held at Chicago’s McCormick Place May 20-22, the 2014 Expo features more than 650 confectionary and snack companies displaying their wares across three and a half acres—the largest in NCA history, according to association officials. However, with that much space to cover and that many exhibitors to visit, finding the latest and greatest products can quickly feel like a very daunting task for show-goers. Enter the NCA’s Most Innovative New Product Awards. Created by the NCA to help products gain visibility, the awards highlight products selected by an extensive panel of retail and wholesale representatives across nine categories. “It’s a great way to get visibility in a category that has so many product releases,” says Jenn Ellek, director of trade and marketing communications for Washington D.C.-based NCA. “That’s why we started this. It can be very hard to sift through all of the products on the show floor. This is like a gauge, an indicator to give retailers a starting point.” The nine categories include chocolate, non-chocolate, sweet snacks, salty snacks, savory, novelty/licensed, seasonal, gourmet/premium and new for this year, gum and mints. Also, debuting this year is the Best in Show Award. Products are evaluated on a number of criteria. Show officials say that while taste is an overriding factor, products are also judged on packaging, innovation, value, appearance and go-to-market viability. “You can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t have a way to take it to market, that kind of crushes the whole thing,” says Ellek. About 200 products will make the cut for the right to vie for Most Innovative New Product. It seems likely that more than a few among them, as well a great deal of products on the show floor, will be bite-sized offerings. According to industry observers, the tiny treats are hot with consumers and sales have grown four times faster than the overall chocolate category. “The last few years we have seen the explosion of the hand-to-mouth usage occasion,” says Brian Kavanagh, senior director, category strategy and insights, food channel for The Hershey Co. The Hershey, Pa.-based company launched its own response to the growing consumer demand for snacking and on-the-go options with Hershey’s Pieces. “We recognized that we had a huge opportunity for growth if we extended our portfolio of brands to ‘mini’ form,” says Kavanagh. “Soon after we added our Drops and Minis innovations. Today we continue to build on it with our Brookside brand offerings.” He adds that Hershey’s will continue to work with retailers to develop planograms that showcase new hand-to-mouth innovation by building prominent sections at eye-level. Kit Kat Minis were recently launched and York Minis will be available later this year. Mars Chocolate N.A. has capitalized on the bite-sized trends as well. Last year the Hackettstown, N.J.-based company introduced Snickers Bites and Milky Way Bites. Susan Gwinnett-Smith, vice president of grocery/retail, says the launches were extremely successful and will be followed by 3 Musketeers Bites, Milky Way Simply Caramel Bites and Twix Bites. “These bite sized cubes are ideal for consumers looking for the full taste experience of their favorite candy bar in a smaller portion, says Gwinnett-Smith. “It’s easy to share and the resealable pouch makes it possible to eat some now and save some for later.” The ultimate bite-sized candy, Mars’ M&M’S, is celebrating the “Year of the Peanut” with a yearlong marketing campaign for M&M’S Peanut Chocolate Candies. Gwinnett-Smith says the “Year of the Peanut” campaign was created to expand usage occasions. Smaller options are penetrating the non-chocolate segment as well. The Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., a subsidiary of Mars, Inc., recently launched Starburst Minis and Life Savers Berry Bites Gummies. David Kennedy, vice president of U.S. grocery for Wrigley, based in Chicago, says both products are available in resealable pouches that offer flexibility for storing and traveling, while also making them easier to share. Hershey’s, Mars and Wrigley are some of the biggest names in the industry, but retailers can get acquainted with some of the smaller confectioners at the Sweets & Snacks Expo as well. NCA’s Ellek says that often the Most Innovative New Product Award winners are lesser-known companies that go on to do business with top retailers. “It can be hard to compete against the bigger brands and get the shelf space,” says Tiffany Van Hemm, account executive for Sanders Candy, based in Clinton Township, Mich. “However consumers are starting to be adventurous and trying new brands, particularly if they are hitting on trends they are looking for. It can be risky for grocery buyers to bring in unknown brands. That is our struggle—to let them know that there is a fan base out there. Once we get on the shelf, our products sell.” Some of Sanders newer products include its Orchard Collection, which consists of a fruit and snack dip. Van Hemm says the purpose of the Orchard Collection is that they are still sweet snacks, but healthier options that consumers can feel good about eating. The positive health aspects of dark chocolate have helped that segment increase sales, say observers. Enjoy Life Foods’ newest product, Dark Chocolate Morsels features 69% cacao, and it is dairy-, nut- and soy-free. “Our customers love baking with it to make their own mom-friendly snacks, and they also love eating the chocolate right out of the bag,” says Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer for the Schiller Park, Ill.-based company. Old is new Developing new products based on hot trends can help sales, but it does not assure success. Observers say that products with nostalgic qualities are in demand now as well. After being away for few years, the Atkinson Candy Co. is relaunching its Sophie Mae Peanut Brittle line. Products in the line include the Sophie Mae traditional peanut brittle, as well as a gingerbread pecan peanut brittle. “Sophie Mae was at one time the box brittle of choice nationally,” says Eric Atkinson, president of the Lufkin, Texas-based company. “So it is a name that still resonates with buyers and consumers.” The relaunch harkens back to Sophie Mae’s history, while an added modern angle plays up the products’ better-for-you benefits. “You have got to make it relative to the consumer today,” say Atkinson. “That means a lot of different things need to be there. Sophie Mae has only five ingredients; it is all-natural, vegan-friendly and has no trans-fats—yet still made in an artisanal factory. It has a lot of positives.” Atkinson also has better-for-you iterations of two of its other classic brands, Slow-Poke caramel chew and Black Cow chocolate caramel. Sometimes nostalgia does not have to refer to a long-ago product, but an idea or state-of-mind. As the weather turns warmer, baseball fields across the country will become busy with youngsters. Officials for the ice cream cone- and fruit snack-maker, The Little Slugger, say that its packaging—it features boys and girls playing baseball—goes a long way in differentiating itself from competitors. “The cone category has been stagnant for a long time,” says Tony Antonacci, CEO of the Chicago-based company. “There has really been no innovation since the waffle cone. Our packaging sets us apart, and creating that impulse is important. We have also added sprinkles inside the packaging so that has created a kind of kit for moms and kids.” Observers say creative, eye-catching packaging should not be overlooked when trying to generate sales in the category. DeMets Candy Co. recently launched a collector’s edition packaging of FLIPZ coated pretzels in support of the X-Men Days of Future Past movie release. The package features imagery and characters from the movie, and the product nomenclature has been changed to: Mutant Milk Chocolate, Wolverine White Fudge, Mystique Chocolate Mint and Magneto Dark Chocolate. Jim Gerbo, executive vice president of marketing for the Stamford, Conn.-based company, says that in addition to packaging, supporting products with promotions helps generate interest among the target consumer. “For our FLIPZ/X-Men promotion, the packaging assisted in creating strong displays and developed cross sell in another area of the store where the DVD will be sold,” he says. “In addition to promotions we also use social media to engage the consumer with the brand and drive them directly to the aisle for purchase.” In time for the holiday season, DeMets is launching its Dark Almond Turtles. Gerbo says consumers are looking for new gift-giving confections and this time frame has proven successful for previous new product releases. Officials at Cornfields, maker of the G.H. Cretors popcorn brand and Hi I’m Skinny sticks, are using the holiday season to introduce a Greek yogurt drizzled caramel corn. The item is being rolled out as a holiday exclusive but may be expanded pending its success, says Claire Cretors, president of the Waukegan, Ill.-based company. “Buyers are always looking for excitement,” says Cretors. “So whether a product is intended as a seasonal item or for everyday use, they are willing to put it on the shelf to see if it becomes a regular purchase. The risk is obviously you don’t want to cannibalize the existing product line but buyers and manufacturers are clever; they know consumers will hopefully pick up two bags instead of one.” If current trends are any indication there is a good chance the Greek yogurt drizzled caramel corn will become a year-round item, as observers say popcorn-related items have become quite popular. “Over the last two years we have seen a real increase and demand for popcorn,” says Cretors. “From everything from traditional salted to gourmet to caramel corn. It has just been a really fun category to watch.” She says organic is another area that consumers are looking for and G.H. Cretors is introducing two SKUs that address that growing trend: Organics Simply Salted and Organics Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Crunchies Food Co. used to offer organic snacks but took them off the market a few years ago. The resurgence in organics has brought them back. The Westlake Village, Calif.-based company revamped the packaging and now has a full organic line, consisting of strawberry, mango, banana, mixed fruit and peas. A Little Crunchies Organic line geared toward kids is also available. “We have a partnership with Warner Bros. so the packaging features different Looney Tunes characters,” says Jessi Brennan, director of marketing for Crunchies. “The product is diced instead of sliced and the tag line is ‘for little hands and little mouths.’” The Little Crunchies Organic line consists of strawberry; strawberry and mangoes; strawberry and banana; and apples and banana.