NCA Research Reveals 3 Ways COVID-19 Has Changed Confectionery Retail

Cleveland — As the U.S. enters its ninth month in the COVID-19 pandemic, the “new normal” has just become “normal” for most, if not all, confectionery shoppers.

New purchase habits, product preferences and enjoyment occasions have changed how shoppers approach their favorite treats, and retailers are seeing trends in how consumers are engaging with the candy aisle.

To better understand the changes, NCA has released a three-part research series exploring the impact of COVID-19 on consumer behavior and seasonal and everyday confectionery sales. The series pulls from sales performance data, insights from industry leaders and independent research conducted by 210 Analytics, which surveyed more than 1,500 shoppers from across the country, including more than 700 parents.

“Over the past several months, consumers have been eating more meals at home, visiting fewer stores and increasing their level of comfort with online purchasing,” NCA President & CEO John Downs says. “These actions have changed nearly every facet of retail for the confectionery industry.”

Following are three key finding of the research:

1 Everyday Chocolate & Candy Sales Are Up

Everyday confectionery sales have seen modest increases in both the chocolate and non-chocolate sectors, which gained 5.5 and 1.6 percent respectively between March 15 and September 6. The majority of consumers reported enjoying chocolate (92 percent) or non-chocolate candy (80 percent) during this period.

“This uptick might have been caused by chocolate and candy’s unique ability to contribute to consumers’ emotional well-being and serve as a source of comfort during stressful times,” 210 Analytics principal and founder Anne-Marie Roerink shares. “Many shoppers have turned to confectionery treats as a way to provide a brief moment of joy during a time when their choices are limited and they might be feeling stressed.”

Additionally, as many as six in 10 shoppers indicated a change in their typical chocolate and candy purchases to try something new. Changed routines, out-of-stocks, an interest in experimentation and purchasing for different members of the household were all given as reasons for sampling new items.

The disruption caused by COVID-19 has not been as kind to gum and mints, however. With fewer social interactions and a greater emphasis on social distancing, 64 percent fewer people have felt the need to consume gum or mints to freshen their breath. The top reason for decreasing consumption is being around people less, including working from home, followed by eating out less.

2 ECommerce & Grocery Are Shoppers’ Go-To

As shoppers attempt to socially distance and minimize store trips, grocery and ecommerce channels have become increasingly popular options for confectionery purchases.

The grocery channel saw everyday confectionery gains far above average, as shoppers attempted to reduce both the number of trips and the number of outlets visited in an effort to socially distance. Shoppers attempting to stock up on their favorite treats also led to a increase in popularity of bulk and large format packs. Seasonal purchases in the grocery and supermarket channel also saw a lift, with many shoppers turning to the holiday candy aisle to provide a fun escape or supplement a new hobby such as baking or decorating.

Ecommerce and hybrid solutions including click-and-collect have similarly exploded. Sixty-one percent of consumers reported having purchased groceries online since the start of the pandemic, and 26 percent bought confectionery online, nearly doubling in engagement. Online ordering with a local grocery store for delivery or pickup overtook online retailers as the biggest digital channel for confectionery.

Since July, the convenience channel has begun to show an uptick in confectionery sales, but alternative channels, such as movie theaters, bookstores and candy stores, continue to take the brunt of pandemic purchasing shifts.

3 Seasonal Sales Have Changed

The pandemic has drastically changed how Americans celebrate seasonal candy moments, including Halloween and the winter holidays. Most shoppers are searching for fun, safe and creative ways to connect with friends and family during these holidays, with many turning to confectionery as a unique gifting opportunity.

Although celebrations are different, they are still happening for most American families. About nine in 10 Americans still plan to celebrate the Big Four confectionery seasons — Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and the winter holidays — with confectionery gifting and sharing. Secondary seasons, such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, have lower but still substantial engagement, with only two in 10 Americans who typically celebrate these holidays opting not to participate during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has resulted in financial pressure for many Americans, and more are prioritizing promotions and price in their decisions,” notes Roerink. “At the same time, shoppers are looking to more at-home usage occasions for confectionery, including crafting, baking, filling candy bowls and decorating using 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 with their children.”

Importantly, seasonal confectionery is still seen as an escape from everyday life, a particularly enticing position for many U.S. shoppers. An overwhelming 77 percent of those surveyed say the seasonal aisle is a source of fun and inspiration, and 87 percent prefer seasonal confectionery that reflects the holiday through packaging, shapes, colors, flavors or characters.

As U.S. shoppers continue to adapt, the industry’s ability to keep pace through in-store and online merchandising and marketing will be essential in ensuring confectionery products stay top-of-mind and find their way into shoppers’ carts.

Executive summaries of NCA’s three-part research series on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on confectionery shopping behaviors are available online. The reports in their entirety can be downloaded by NCA member companies, Sweets & Snacks On Demand participants and select retailers at CandyUSA.com/COVIDReports.