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Sweet comforts

From nostalgic classics to new innovations, candy is getting a new lease on life during the pandemic

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If you’ve found yourself indulging in sweet treats more often over the past few months, you’re not alone. Canadians seem to be finding comfort in candy amid the stress of the pandemic, with Nielsen reporting Canadian confectionery sales were up by more than 3% in August 2020, compared to the previous year.

And at Mintel, Marcia Mogelonsky, director of insight, food and drink, says the pandemic changed the trajectory of 2020 confectionery sales, which were initially down from 2019. “Consumers began to defect from candy categories, cutting back on consumption in order to maintain their health; but COVID changed that,” says Mogelonsky. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers, seeking comfort and security, are buying candy again.”

Mintel’s data indicates that young adults, in particular, enjoy the sense of nostalgia that some candy products bring. Nostalgia and comfort seem to be the driving forces behind the growth in candy sales at Alberta-based grocer Freson Bros., according to Lesleah Horvat, general manager and floral specialist. Horvat says their stores have seen an increase in candy sales, overall, but the boost has been especially large in the specialty candy section, which focuses on retro products.

Indeed, sales in the retailer’s specialty candy section have jumped by as much as 20% in some stores this year, says Horvat. “This candy isn’t your traditional grocery candy—the price points are higher—so [consumers] are treating themselves to a higher-priced item,” she says.

It may not have been the ideal year for new releases, however, says Kimberly Snyder, candy brand manager for Dare Food Limited. She says sales of Dare Cherry Canadian Eh, which was released in the summer of 2020, were not as strong as the company had hoped. “We chalked that up to the fact that fewer consumers were physically in stores and they wouldn’t see it,” explains Snyder. “If they’re doing online shopping, they wouldn’t have heard of it because it was new so they wouldn’t be searching for it.”

The desire for comfort also seems to be fuelling a trend towards bulk candy purchases. Mike Dziadyk, space and category management director for B.C.-based grocer Quality Foods, says he’s seen an uptick in the sales of larger-format candy packages this year. “I think with COVID, people are choosing to indulge more at home and [are] picking up a lot of what they want,” he says. Dziadyk adds that long, physically-distanced lineups of the  pandemic have created an opportunity for Quality Foods stores to add more displayers around the check-out areas to showcase these larger-format packs. “They’re right there as people are lined up, so they have no choice but to see them,” he says.

The trend towards larger format packs has also been observed by Mars Wrigley, according to marketing director Barbara Cooper. “We see ourselves in a category centred around moments, and many of them are rooted in immediate or impulse consumption,” explains Cooper.

“Mars Wrigley quickly identified that stay-at-home restrictions and less frequent trips to the store meant that how and when people shop was changing, and that this was going to have an impact on these impulse moments,” she adds, noting that consumers are now more likely to stock up on larger bags of candy for future consumption.

Consumer desire for larger bags of classic candy, however, doesn’t mean the trend towards better-for-you candies is slowing, says Dare’s Snyder. “I think low-sugar is here to stay. It’s not a fad,” she says, pointing to Vancouver-based SmartSweets as a company that’s shaken up the market with its low-sugar candies. SmartSweets debuted its first plant-based candies in 2018, and Snyder adds that vegan and plant-based candy is another emerging trend.

Vegan candy has long been a pillar for Squish, a Montreal-based candy company that launched in 2014. “I was surprised there weren’t more interesting vegan options in the market and I still think it’s quite limited in terms of flavour,” says Squish founder Sarah Segal. “Brands don’t have as much fun with it,” she adds. “They think it’s a serious category, whereas we think it’s as exciting as non-vegan. I think that’s why we’ve resonated.”

Ultimately, while consumers seem to crave the choice offered by low-sugar and plant-based candies, it’s important not to underestimate the classics. “The thing with candy is there’s a difference between what people say they’ll do and what they actually do,” says Snyder. “No one wants to admit ‘yeah, I’m eating way more candy.’ People will say they’re trying to be healthier, but then there’s the reality of dealing with a global pandemic and wanting to have affordable luxuries and indulgences. That’s where candy fits in.”

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