BUBBLE GUMPTION

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It's time to put the pop back in the chunk bubble gum category.Retailers have been chewing on a flat market for years, despite a constant parade of new bubble gum flavors from suppliers. But now the industry is working up some real product innovation.It's the only way to blow up sales, according to Alan Grupp, director of marketing at Topps Co. here, manufacturer of the long-standing

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It's time to put the pop back in the chunk bubble gum category.

Retailers have been chewing on a flat market for years, despite a constant parade of new bubble gum flavors from suppliers. But now the industry is working up some real product innovation.

It's the only way to blow up sales, according to Alan Grupp, director of marketing at Topps Co. here, manufacturer of the long-standing icon Bazooka bubble gum and holder of about 10% to 15% of the bubble gum market.

"There's been a lot of new flavors, but no real innovation," said Grupp in an interview with SN. "Innovation drives sales for category growth, and, for the most part, the traditional chunk bubble gum category has been flat because there hasn't been a product breakthrough that the consumer could latch on to."

What consumers -- especially kids -- have been sinking their teeth into are novelty gum products, because novelty manufacturers saw the writing on the wall and responded with clever products that boosted that category's sales.

Grupp doffed his cap to this industry segment. He also commended Warner-Lambert Co. for spicing up the chewing gum business with its Cinn-A-Burst product, which he labeled an innovation.

"Kids' novelties are doing quite well. But that's a separate segment, which includes gums in the shapes of squeeze tubes, Band-Aids and so forth. It's the main bubble gum segment that has been stagnant," he said.

In essence, he explained, bubble gum has not changed since the late 1970s, when soft bubble was introduced to the market. "It revolutionized the bubble gum category. Since that time, it's been more of a flavor-of-the-month strategy. And that has not resulted in any significant growth for retailers, who've been switching flavors, but with no net increases in sales."

Taking a cue from their counterparts in other categories, chunk manufacturers are going on the innovation offensive to introduce new and different types of gum to boost their share of the market, he said.

Topps' own part in this new wave for bubble gum is Bazooka Bursts, which is a soft chunk bubble gum with flavor crystals "for longer-lasting flavor."

Supermarkets, he added, present a special challenge for bubble gum marketing. Nationally, bubble gum sales account for 20% to 25% of total gum sales. However, in supermarkets that figure drops to 15%, said Grupp.

"Moms are more of a gatekeeper in supermarkets, as opposed to drug and convenience stores, where kids discriminate and buy it themselves," he said.

But when the new products start hitting the racks, creative merchandising is likely to jump-start bubble gum sales in supermarkets -- as long as the products gain the right amount of space in the stores and the right positioning within the gum sets.

Grupp said sufficient space needs to be devoted to the category -- space that's commensurate with the importance of bubble gum sales. "There should be 15% to 20% of the total space devoted to the gum section.

"Secondly," he continued, "bubble gum should not be merchandised on the very bottom shelves, because it would get lost in the shuffle due to poor visibility."

Grupp suggested merchandising the gum in the middle or lower-middle part of the unit, which would give greater visibility to the smaller stockkeeping units that characterize bubble gum.

Grupp added that the slot is likely to become more productive overall once suppliers, wholesalers and retailers climb out of the rut of flavor-of-the-month switching and become more selective.

"When all that manufacturers are doing is switching one flavor for another, there ends up being no appreciable growth in the category.

"It has been that way for the last three years or so. It may be building a certain manufacturer's sales, but it's not doing a lot for the retailer. All it does is use the retailer's resources and it doesn't generate incremental sales.

"I'm not minimizing the importance of new flavors. But what I am saying is that retailers should not rely on flavors alone to build category growth, because it hasn't happened in the bubble gum category, and it's not going to happen.

"What the retailer needs to do is focus in on those high-velocity items, the proven winners. And, secondly, start bringing in new items that are true innovations. That will increase consumption among current bubble gum users and also bring in new users," said Grupp. He referred to the successful track record of Warner-Lambert's Cinn-a-Burst, as an example of how a smart innovation can brighten up sales in the chewing gum category.

Also, to maximize bubble gum sales, Grupp said the category should be afforded space at every checkout, not every other one.

"Again, bubble gum is still a very important segment of total gum sales and it's important to give it its fair share," he said. "We have seen cases where stagnant or weak bubble gum sales has been a self-fulfilling prophecy for a given chain, in that they don't merchandise it in every checkout. "And if they do merchandise it, they give it a lot less space than is warranted. As a result, those accounts are underdeveloped in terms of bubble gum sales compared to the rest of their market and the U.S."

Another way retailers can arouse more interest in bubble gum sales -- or, for that matter, any sales at all at the front end -- is through multiple promotions.

"Even though bubble gum, like gum in general, is a pretty low out-of-pocket expense for the consumer, it still responds to promotions such as three for a dollar or four for a dollar," Grupp noted.

Grupp said it's also important to offer prepriced, special trial floorstands or shippers to get customers interested in products at a low-cost investment.

Another opportunity is to mate bubble gum merchandising with that of other up-and-coming categories. "For instance, more and more retailers are developing kid novelty candy sections, where they're putting in not only more novelty products, but some staple bubble gum products as well."

Cross-merchandising offers other, more unusual possibilities. Grupp said a good bet would be to place bubble gum where kids generally make a buying decision -- the cereal aisle.

"When shopping with their parents, children are very active in the selection of breakfast cereals. It might be interesting to test a program where certain gum and candy products are merchandised in the cereal aisle. It's an obvious tie-in because of the similar demographics.

"And certainly another opportunity is in-store sampling, especially if you have an innovative product. And that's something that we're looking into for Bazooka Bursts. We're convinced that once consumers try it, they'll want to buy it. In-store sampling is a very effective way to do that," said Grupp.

Topps, which garnered $270 million in net sales in the last fiscal year, is hoping its own innovation, Bazooka Bursts, gives its own business a big boost. "We've worked six years on this concept to make sure it is truly an innovation and not just a new flavor," he said.

Like Cinn-A-Burst, Bazooka Bursts features flavor crystals that were designed for longer-lasting flavor, and uses a new technology that adds more flavor. Like the traditional Bazooka products, it comes wrapped in comics for kids as well, he said.