THE WEIGHT IS OVER

"Healthy" chocolate is emerging as a healthier segment of the candy category.Retailers are welcoming the many new additions in this segment, which include several varieties of low-fat, low-sugar and sugar-free confections. Many are hoping the new products bring new consumers to the category -- shoppers once left out because of health concerns.Karen Ferguson, health educator at Tidyman's, Greenacres,

"Healthy" chocolate is emerging as a healthier segment of the candy category.

Retailers are welcoming the many new additions in this segment, which include several varieties of low-fat, low-sugar and sugar-free confections. Many are hoping the new products bring new consumers to the category -- shoppers once left out because of health concerns.

Karen Ferguson, health educator at Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash., is one retailer who has closely watched the increase of sugar-free, low-sugar and low-fat chocolate products over the last couple of years. Customers are demanding more nutrition information, so compliant manufacturers are putting more emphasis on the sugar and fat content of their products, she added.

Other retailers have also seen an increase in these products, some more than others.

"Low-fat is definitely increasing. Overall, we're looking at a 30% increase in the sales [of low-fat chocolate]," said Dan Van Zant, buyer at C&K Market, Brookings, Ore.

"An awful lot of the increase that we're seeing in candy sales is due to the fact that we've gotten more into category management," he said, adding that the chain recently expanded and reset all of its candy departments. He also cited an influx of new product introductions as a reason for the segment's growth.

Jace George, candy buyer and merchandiser at Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., said he has not seen quite the increase Van Zant has.

"There may have been a small increase in sales of sugar-free chocolate over the last two years," he said. "Most of this increase would be due to the fact that more items are available."

Statistics from A.C. Nielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., show dollar sales of dietetic chocolate rose 9.3% from $7.5 million in 1994 to $8.2 million for the 52 weeks ended Sept. 9, 1995.

Retailers are waiting for those increases to have an impact in stores.

A buyer with a Pennsylvania-based company said his chain hasn't noticed any increase in sales because a leading chocolate manufacturer hasn't broken its new low-fat products in its market area. The buyer said the manufacturer expects the products to break in May or June. Dan McKernan, a buyer at White Rose Food, Carteret, N.J., said he was aware of new products coming into the market, but he had not noticed an increase in sales. "We have added a few [stockkeeping units]. Our sales are nothing to speak of, probably due to the fact that we service an inner-city, ethnic mix of stores," he said. Mike Tuleya, a buyer at United Grocers, Portland, Ore., said he has noticed "a little bit" of growth in the segment, but he, too, was waiting for more products to be brought into the section.

Retailers with burgeoning sales and a wider array of products springing into their stores are faced with concerns about where and how to merchandise this segment in order to reap financial success.

"We merchandise the low-fat candies from the big players right in with the rest of the main candy section," said a candy buyer at a Southeastern chain. "Products from some of the smaller companies are put with the sugar-free items.

"We're looking at redoing our candy aisles so we have all the candy in one place -- regular, low-fat and sugar-free -- right next to each other. It's something I think will happen throughout the store: the 'nutritional' items will be merged into existing categories. I think that could make it easier to shop and should boost sales of those products."

George said Spartan "puts in two everyday sugar-free chocolate items. Most items have been in-and-out presells. Sugar-free chocolate is merchandised in with all other regular and sugar-free candies."

Ferguson said Tidyman's raises awareness of its reduced-fat and healthier foods with its See the Light nutritional education program. When the program was implemented in August 1994, a traffic light symbol used on shelf tags indicated the fat content of products by signaling green, yellow or red, green being the healthiest.

"What's happened since then is the request for sugar-free products as well," said Ferguson. "One of the things we're going to do is dedicate some education in regard to the diabetic issue and give our customers information about products right there on the shelf." Ferguson and Rhonda Ketron, Tidyman's buyer and merchandiser of natural foods and health and beauty care, said sugar-free candy is merchandised in the diet section of the natural foods aisle and by an espresso section.

"Right now, we have kind of an upscale gourmet type [of chocolate that includes sugar-free] and it's by our espresso section," Ketron said. "Dixie Young [nonfood variety buyer at Tidyman's] is planning on redoing our sections and adding [to them] because there are some more things coming out. We realize that the sugar-free and fat-free type things are biggies. She's going to be looking for that to put in a little section in the actual candy set."

Janet Tenney, manager of nutrition programs at Giant Food, Landover, Md., said she encourages diabetics and others on restricted diets to shop the entire store. "There are hundreds of healthful foods throughout the store that could never be put in a single section," she said when asked if low-fat chocolate was merchandised in a dietetic section. Giant has an "Eat for Health" food guide that lists foods and gives nutrient breakdowns. Sugar-free and low-fat chocolate and candy are in the guide, Tenney said. Giant also uses extensions on its shelf price label with arrows pointing down for lower sodium, fats or cholesterol, and up for higher fiber, Tenney said.

Andy Knoblauch, grocery buyer with Coborn's, St. Cloud, Minn., said sugar-free is, depending on the store, merchandised in both the diet section and in the regular candy gondola.

Several sugar-free chocolate manufacturers agree with Tidyman's and Coborn's merchandising tactics.

"I think it would behoove retailers to actually carve out a section in their candy aisle called 'Better for You' and direct consumers to that so they can see their choices are wider," said Andrea Waldman-Shapiro, vice president of business development at Sweet 'N Low Confections, Port Washington, N.Y.

She also suggested merchandising in the vitamin aisle and in the produce section as well as on endcaps of nationally branded healthy products. Retailers should pay attention to National Health Month and create an event around that, Waldman-Shapiro said.

Scott Norris, marketing manager of Pangburn Candy Co., Fort Worth, Texas, suggested merchandising in the supermarket's pharmacy because "a typical diabetic makes a trip to the pharmacy every time they visit the grocery store." In-store sampling, demonstrations and buy-one-get-one-free offers were some other suggestions manufacturers had for adding dollar green to the category. Sasha Taylor, vice president of sales and marketing at Sorbee International, Philadelphia, said the "consumer base [for 'healthy' chocolate] has increased as a result of our aging population." She also noted "an ever-increasing health-conscious society."