COVID-19’s Impact On The Chewing Gum Sector

Cleveland — From what is bought to where it’s purchased, seismic changes have occurred across industries since the start of the year, and while not without stable performers, the chewing gum sector has been severely impacted. 

In fact, sales were off by as much as 30 percent during peak periods of lockdown in the 12 weeks ending May 31, according to Rachel Chambers, vice-president of marketing for Perfetti Van Melle USA, Inc. 

“With the changes in consumer need states, COVID-19 has changed many of the key drivers of gum consumption including reduction in overall ‘on-the-go’ and fewer ‘in person’ interactions where freshness is needed,” she explains.  

Prior to pandemic measures, the chewing gum market was showing promise, with sales up 1.7 percent from January to March 15, according to Michelle Villarroel, director of sweets & refreshments, grocery & snack for The Hershey Co. During 2019, sector sales were up 1 percent compared to the year prior.  

In fact, 2019 was one of the best periods the gum sector has seen in a long time, according to Alyona Fedorchenko, Mars Wrigley Confectionery U.S., LLC global vice-president of portfolio gum and mints. 

Chief among the causes of the sector’s downturn were changes in usage occasions, confirms Simply Gum, Inc. Founder and CEO Caron Proschan. 

“Gum is an item that is used in social situations, such as going to a meeting or a party,” she says. “Because of COVID-19, those activities have been declining, so part of the decrease in sales is really because there is not as much demand from consumers because the usage case has declined.” 

Corroborating this, Gerrit Verburg, president of Gerrit J. Verburg Co., says: “It is a proven fact that there is a direct correlation between store visits and gum sales.” 

He adds the company’s online sales grew an eye-popping 250 percent during the period, helping the candymaker weather the storm. 

Similarly, Glee Gum has seen its online sales accelerate around its bulk offerings, according to Deborah Schimberg, president of Glee Gum-maker Verve, Inc.

“We don’t sell by the pound on Amazon or in-store, so it is a small sample size, but we have seen more consumers spend more time buying online and we’ve seen growth in what I call bulk Glee Gum. It isn’t hoarding, but stocking up instead of shopping multiple times.” 

In addition to changing occasions, the way shoppers navigate stores is also shifting, notes Tyler Merrick, founder and president of Project 7, Inc. 

“We saw more pantry buying and consumers doing larger grocery runs. By the time they got to the checkout lane, they just wanted to get out of the store,” he says. “There was also less queuing going on in front ends, and the behavior shifting in that part of the store was one of the contributors to declines.” 

On top of this, Ford Gum & Machine Co., Inc. Director of Marketing Brian Heiser says more click-and-collect activities further reduced front-end traffic, which “is huge for gum and mints sales.” 

Of course with less social interaction and more face coverings, the occasion for chewing gum’s number one function, breath freshening, has also decreased, he explains. 

“I’m seeing products that have a slightly larger piece and softer chew perform better,” Heiser says. “I’m also seeing a trend in more fruit-flavored gums. There are a lot of innovations in fruit and mint combos that are driving consumers’ interests too.” 

Power Brands, Fruit Flavors Hold Steady 

Although chewing gum has hit a rough patch, the segment isn’t without its bright spots with a number of sources pointing to brands such as Juicy Fruit, Mentos and Ice Breakers. 

“Fruit-flavored refreshment-type gums are performing relatively better than mint-flavored gum,” Villarroel says. “This is due to changes in consumer behavior as breath freshening has become a less relevant occasion, while boredom relief has become a more relevant occasion.” 

Chambers notes brands that were experiencing stronger growth pre-pandemic continue to perform better on the back of consumer loyalty. 

“Mentos gum, Extra and Ice Breakers have the highest loyalty in the gum segment and are all outperforming the sector,” she explains. 

Bottle Packs Show Strength 

In addition to certain brands, bottle packs and other large format packaging are proving resilient during the current climate, according to Proschan. She explains as consumers aren’t on-the-go as much, the need for smaller, convenience-focused packs has declined. 

“Jars are becoming the mainstay in gum. A lot of check sets are going that way instead of blister or sleeve packs,” Heiser says. “You are also seeing larger packs for stick gum too.” 

Perfetti Van Melle sees the trend toward larger packs continuing, particularly if consumers start displaying recessionary buying patterns and strive for value.  

Mars Wrigley’s Fedorchenko notes the sentiment surrounding the segment is “If I see it, I buy it. If I have it, I chew it,” further moving shoppers, and in turn manufacturers, toward larger packs. 

“Even before the pandemic, one of the key opportunities for chewing gum was to make sure consumers have it on them. Half of regular gum chewers don’t have it on them every single day,” she tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “What you see now is exactly that playing out. Because lives are being disrupted, they aren’t shopping as often, so the access to gum has been impacted.” 

To reverse declining sales, Chambers suggests retailers evaluate the assortment of larger pack types in front ends versus what is stocked in center store aisles. 

“Larger sizes found in candy aisles are growing faster and offer an opportunity for retailers to convert shoppers by improving the layout,” she says, explaining larger packs of gum typically work best when placed in the center of the aisle. This can also improve the adjacencies and flow of sugar confections, making it easier to engage with the category in-aisle. 

While many might look to COVID-19’s impact on chewing gum as the major contributing factor to sales declines, Project 7’s Merrick has a slightly different perspective. 

“COVID-19 didn’t really destroy any industries, with the exception of travel and tourism it just accelerated things that were already happening,” he explains. “Think about the challenges at brick-and-mortar and shopping centers. This just further revealed those fractures. You see something like chewing gum, and it was having challenges before and the pandemic just uncovered those challenges more.” 

He notes it will take major companies getting behind some significant innovation and ad spend to reeducate consumers on the benefits of chewing gum and different usage occasions. 

“If not, you are just hoping that you can stay at the check lane for the rest of a brand’s life and you can’t guarantee that can happen,” Merrick concludes.