GOOD AND PLENTY

A powerful wave of better-for-you products has flooded the candy aisle with fat-free and sugar-free nonchocolate selections.At the crest of the whitecap are candies like licorice, hard candies and chewy confections -- most of which never had fat to begin with -- that are now being prominently labeled as fat-free. Licorice sales are rising at Safeway's Seattle division, according to Anne Hardman, candy

A powerful wave of better-for-you products has flooded the candy aisle with fat-free and sugar-free nonchocolate selections.

At the crest of the whitecap are candies like licorice, hard candies and chewy confections -- most of which never had fat to begin with -- that are now being prominently labeled as fat-free. Licorice sales are rising at Safeway's Seattle division, according to Anne Hardman, candy buyer. The division is a branch of the Pleasanton, Calif.-based chain, which services all of Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

Consumers who may have opted for chocolate are now choosing fat-free confections because they feel they're better for them. Licorice, for instance, is appealing because it's a tasty, nonfat treat, said Hardman.

"People tend to take a look at it especially now that most companies are putting fat-free on their labels. [Consumers] think it's better for them than chocolate," she added.

An executive with Salt Lake City-based Associated Food Stores concurred, saying new fat-free labels are heightening interest in the assortment.

"The nutritional facts on the bag have clarified the fact that the product is fat-free," said Glenn Davidson, the co-op's packaging department manager.

"People tend to treat themselves to anything that's fat-free, so it's been a big boost to the candy sales," he added.

Safeway has revamped its in-aisle sets to concentrate on nonchocolate. Additional stockkeeping units, such as expanded flavor offerings of Twizzlers and LifeSavers, have been incorporated into the mix, Hardman said.

In some cases, a few sizes of chocolate products have been discontinued to accommodate supplemental nonchocolate items. For instance, an additional shelf has been added in most stores, Hardman said.

About 90% of the Safeway division's "candy carnival" in May consisted of nonchocolate items, Hardman added. In addition, an August promotion touting licorice garnered surplus space via floor stands, she said.

"They're usually placed at the end of the snack aisle or up front somewhere in the lobbies for impulse sales," Hardman added.

As with all candy, capturing impulse sales is paramount. Shoppers may avoid the temptation of the candy gondola altogether, so retailers often use shippers and other in-aisle displays to grab customers' attention.

The fat-free nature of nonchocolate candies in conjunction with perimeter displays has helped retailers draw new shoppers into their confection aisles.

"In promoting many nonchocolate items as low-fat, non-fat or better-for-you, we have taken advantage of impulse sales to otherwise very health-conscious consumers who felt they had to avoid candy altogether," said Mike Shultz, senior vice president at Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif.

Like Safeway, Hughes displays nonchocolate candies in shippers with strong ad support around better-for-you themes, Shultz added.

Items performing well at Hughes include licorice, Twizzlers, pegged bags from Brach's and Starburst jellybeans, according to Shultz. "We are showing a 12% increase in sales of these nonchocolate items year to date over last year," he added.

Nonchocolate sales at wholesalers and co-ops have been on the rise over the last year as well. Associated Food Stores has bagged several varieties of seasonal nonchocolates under its private label. Halloween graphics were included on the Western Family label for a promotion. Ninety-nine-cent bags of confections like candy corn and spice drops were merchandised on spinner trees.

"That gave an opportunity for the retailer to place them strategically in any traffic area throughout the store," Davidson said.

"We felt it was successful for our first shot at it," he added.

Promoting nonchocolate candies at Halloween proved successful for other grocers as well.

At stores like Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., and Harps Food Stores, Springdale, Ark., promotions including "fun sizes" of licorice, chewy candies such as Dots, SweeTarts and Starbursts, in addition to chocolate items, swept in Halloween profits.

For example, to combat the competitive seasonal pressures from alternative formatted stores, Harps dedicates more space to nonchocolate items and orders a larger assortment, said Peter Jost, head grocery buyer.

Though it sometimes doesn't make any margins on its chocolate items, it gets attractive price points and good margins on [nonchocolates], Jost added.

Another retailer said he boosted his Halloween sales by bringing in an additional line of nonchocolate confections.

"We picked up the Leaf line because we felt it was a part of the [candy] category we wanted to get into," said Rick Hagan, sales manager at Camellia Food Stores, Norfolk, Va.

His stores have been promoting the new line with ads and price reductions, Hagan added.