Cleveland — While the concept might not be entirely new — slabs of chocolate embedded with nuts, seeds and other on-trend ingredients — snacking chocolate has carved out a niche with shoppers seeking differentiated products and new food experiences.
Noting the sector is still in its infancy, Ryan Reiss, director of The Hershey Co.’s BarkThins and Brookside brands, explains: “What makes a good snack is one where you can have good portion control with high-quality ingredients you want to savor and that will leave you satisfied.”
In addition to portion control, the shareability of the sector is a strong pull for shoppers, according to Tony Neuman, vice-president of marketing for Pearson Candy Co. Interestingly enough, the candymaker recently conducted its own consumer research and found that across cohorts, most consumers view eating candy as a solitary event.
“It is about their ‘me time’ and having a treat. There seems to be a lot of psychology behind that, and we’re digging into it more,” Neuman tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “However, when you look at what’s moving at retail, more shareable items are clearly the way things are going. This looks to be a classic example of consumers saying one thing and doing another.”
Further, the shareability of the sector gives consumers the chance to experience several flavors or brands, according to Troy Pearley, executive vice-president of Divine Chocolate USA. The chocolate maker jumped into the sector with the launch of Crispy Thins, chip-shaped pieces of chocolate made with air-popped rice, in late 2019.
Hershey’s Reiss takes a multi-pronged approach when he views the sector’s shareability factor.
“I look at it two ways. I can literally share it with you sitting on a couch. But there is also the shareability of ‘man, this is great. You have to try some,’” he explains, adding with a laugh: “Because BarkThins have irregular shaped pieces, it is easy to share. I wouldn’t, but you can.”
The sector’s predominant packaging format, standup bags, furthers the shareability aspect while also helping with portion control, according to Kathi Rennaker, marketing manager for Brown & Haley. “It is common to see people sharing these products, but if they don’t want to share, they close the pack and leave it in their car, bag or desk drawer,” she says.
In addition to portion control, standup bags offer more visual appeal for snacking chocolate brands, according to Allyson Myers, director of sales & marketing for Lake Champlain Chocolates.
“The bigger impression initially drives consumers to take note,” she tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “Many products also have reclosable zippers, and that’s a cue on the packaging that it is multiple servings and shareable.”
Flavors That Draw
Sea salts and caramels feature strongly in this sector, but trends in snacking chocolate also cover inclusions with crunch and inputs that offer nutrients such as protein, according to Reiss.
“Consumers are looking for something different they can feel good about eating,” he tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “Those are the inclusions we look at, such as seeds and nuts. We are looking at other items that fall into that category, including healthy snacking ingredients that complement our dark chocolate.”
Lake Champlain’s Myers concurs seed and nut inclusions are enabling snack chocolate makers to hit a slew of trends, adding: “Those also give the products texture, which is something consumers are looking for in terms of multiple textures.”
Among wider food trends, there is strong talk about collagen and other fortifications on the horizon, Reiss says, pointing out the BarkThins brand isn’t looking at “far out beauty-type chocolates.”
Additionally, sugarfree and low sugar offerings, including those sweetened with stevia, as well as nut and fruit inclusions and wafer/puffed consistencies are trending in the sector, according to Pearley.
“Fortunately, one of the bigger trends is all natural and better-for-you, which is where Divine Chocolate as a brand sits,” he adds. “Divine provides products made with premium-quality cocoa and vegan options to align with these trends.”
Unlike the wider chocolate segment, dark chocolate seems to play a larger role in snacking chocolate than it does in the world of bars, according to Brown & Haley’s Rennaker.
Pearley concurs, noting dark chocolate is a leader because of “healthier alternative” claims. However, he admits to Candy & Snack TODAY there are regional pockets where milk chocolate is preferred.
Driving The Core
When it came to developing the Pearson’s Thins line, the candymaker didn’t venture too far from the core, according to Neuman. “We matched our chocolates for the Thins line with what is in the actual candies.”
While flavor profile and ingredient choices drive trend news, Neuman says the sector’s biggest development is “consumers moving away from full-sized bars to either bite-size or other shareable options.”
Another big factor in the sector is the ability of larger candymakers to leverage shelf space for limited-time offerings (LTO), he says. “Each individual LTO might represent a fad or ‘flavor of the day,’ but the underlying trend is that consumers seem to want to be able to bounce to something new or adventurous, and then come back to the tried-and-true flavors they know,” he explains.
To this end, he tells Candy & Snack TODAY, Pearson is realistic when talking about trends vs. fads and really focuses on market movements it can win instead of getting distracted by passing fads.
“We simply don’t have the power at retail to launch 10 varieties of one of our products, and even if we could, I’m not sure that would be where we’d want to go,” Neuman explains.
Without argument, Hershey’s BarkThins could quite easily leverage an LTO strategy as described by Neuman. However, Reiss tells Candy & Snack TODAY the brand’s approach is much more akin to that of Pearson’s. “A lot of times there is a rush to innovate with any brand, but my concentration is exposing more people to the core flavors and not chasing after the latest trends,” he explains. “My hope is more people learn about BarkThins before bringing out new items.”
Packs Align With Buying Occasions
When it comes to pack sizes, four- to 12-ounce options seem to be the most popular, according to Reiss.
“We use a 4.7-ounce pouch, which is something bigger than single serve so people can keep it in a desk drawer at work, but a little bit goes a long way because the quality is high and it is very satiating,” he says. “You don’t necessarily need to buy a 20-ounce bag.”
He adds that unlike other segments, snacking chocolate tends to be more of a planned purchase.
With such a distinction, the sector’s sales are highly concentrated in mass, grocery and drug, according to Rennaker, who notes sales fluctuate depending on the time of year. “Grocery and mass seem to always be in the lead between the three channels,” she says. “Club-size packs do extremely well, but they tend to be in-and-outs that are rotated through different flavors or brands.”
As Pearson continues to roll out its Thins line, the focus is on the food, drug and mass (FDM) channel to build volume for the line, according to Neuman.
“The good news is our brands have a loyal following, and these products give them new ways to get to our flavors,” he tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “We see this as a core item moving forward, so our strategy isn’t overly fancy. It is just about executing well with current customers and channels.”
While Pearson homes in on FDM with its 7.5-ounce packs, which feature brands including Bit-O-Honey, Mint Patties and Salted Nut Roll, the company is not shunning other channels. In fact, three-ounce bags designed to work better in c-store sets are also rolling out, according to Neuman.