When it comes to the heart of the candy aisle, you can't box in chocolates, no matter how elaborate bulk candy programs become.
While the growth of nonchocolate has outpaced chocolate over the last few years, chocolate hasn't flinched as it's strutted along, flexing its yummy muscles with new products and powerful promotions.
Scan data from A.C. Nielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., shows supermarket chocolate sales for the 52 weeks ended March 11 rose 5.1% to $1.1 billion. Nonchocolate weighed in with an 8.4% increase to $671 million.
It seems bulk programs have only added to traditional candy bar/gondola sales, not taken away from them. And if a retailer throws out an in-store candy promotion, nothing soothes the cravings of consumers like chocolate.
"We were just talking to some of our [candy] reps here a couple of weeks ago, and it appears that chocolate sales are getting just a little stronger," said Roger Burks, senior vice president at The Mad Butcher, Pine Bluff, Ark.
"The way I see it with our business is that bulk is growing the candy category, but not really cannibalizing or eating away at any of our chocolate business," said Benny Dominy, assistant grocery buyer at Brookshire Bros., Lufkin, Texas.
Indeed, since the beginning of this year, Brookshire has been paying special attention to its candy bar business to keep its chocolate consumers happy.
"We've been running some in-store promotions on chocolate bars and our business has increased tremendously this year," said Dominy, adding that the promotions often are not advertised in weekly circulars.
"Nothing has cut into the chocolate business; we're selling more chocolate bars than ever," Dominy said. "We have a [promotion] display and we have a reduced-price retail, three for 99 cents, on it."
Dominy said these promotions are now monthly occurrences. "It's just something we've started since the first of the year. We alternate our [supplier] players. We alternate it out and it never skips a beat.
"I would say we have tripled our chocolate bar sales. It's been a challenge keeping up with it, but I'm thrilled with what we're seeing."
So, too, are other retailers who have made a concerted effort to promote chocolate more in order to keep the category in fighting shape.
Bryan Ryckeley, grocery buyer at H.G. Hill Stores, Nashville, Tenn., said, "We've been doing single-bar promotions lately and we've had some good results. Now we're getting ready to gear up for back-to-school and Halloween."
Generally, Ryckeley said, the candy bars are a multiple, three-for deal and the items are displayed in large bins away from the candy aisle.
With Ryckeley it's location, location, location when it comes to promoting candy, rather than the low price.
"Being such a high-impulse item, I'm trying to get more off-shelf displays to increase the movement, even if it's not a price reduction."
While Ryckeley noted cheaper products are more appealing to the shopper's wallet, when it comes to chocolate bars, it boils down to what's appealing to their sweet tooth. Price becomes secondary, he said.
"If you go real deep when you reduce the price, sometimes the volume won't offset the price cut," he warned. "So, the most important thing, rather than lowering price, is getting a display out there [off-shelf], because consumers will pick it up."
Kent Carlston, vice president of marketing at Acme Markets of Virginia, North Tazewell, Va., said nonadvertised, mass displays of chocolate candy products do particularly well in his stores.
"Point-of-sale tie-ins with things like Pocahontas [Nestle] also is a strong draw," he said. For instance, Acme featured a drawing contest for children, who were asked to sketch a character from the movie "Pocahontas."
To generate further excitement around the candy bar display, Carlston held a display contest for his store managers. "Together, all of that combined for strong sales," he said.
A buyer with the upscale Byerly's chain, based in Edina, Minn., agreed that bringing products off-shelf and into other areas of the store is a sure way to boost chocolate sales.
"Once in a while we'll have a table display in our meat department," he said, noting that candy sells particularly well if merchandised there.
Of course, retailers have also reported bulk candy sales -- which are primarily nonchocolate items -- also are showing impressive sales these days. Hence, there's a growing number of dramatic bulk candy departments featuring stimulating displays of colorful candy.
But branders of the public's favorite chocolate products haven't rested on their laurels. Rather, they've adopted bulk programs of their own. Don't want a regular Milky Way? How about scooping up a bagful of individually wrapped miniatures?
Reasor's, Tahlequah, Okla., recently instituted a bulk chocolate program featuring miniaturized popular brands. But they're not found with the Brach & Brock Pick-A-Mix display. Reasor's has merchandised them at the front checkout, according to Les Weese, the company's head grocery buyer.
The other end of the bulk chocolate spectrum would be of the service case variety.
"We have bulk chocolates in a case with a service clerk for individual sales," said Cindy Yost, specialty food buyer at West Point Markets, Akron, Ohio. "They're all handmade pieces. You can't really pile or stack them; they need a lot of care taken with them."
When it comes to nonchocolate eating away at chocolate, Yost said that's not comparing "apples to apples because West Point's chocolates are very-high-quality imports." Basically, she said, nonchocolate and chocolate complement each other to enhance overall candy sales.
One sure thing to enhance overall candy sales is to offer consumers something new. This year, retailers are betting on one particular chocolate bar to grab shoppers by their sweetest taste bud: Hershey's Cookies "n" Creme product, a white chocolate bar with bits of chocolate cookie.
"We're getting ready to put that in our program," said Bob Richmond, grocery buyer at Kroger Co.'s Mid-Atlantic division, based in Roanoke, Va. "That's a real hot item," he added, noting that he's seen no letup in chocolate sales due to nonchocolate competition.
"We're kind of excited about this new Hershey's Cookies 'n' Creme," echoed Acme Markets' Carlston. "I think they've got a winner there."
H.G. Hill's Ryckeley, too, is expecting the white chocolate product to do well in his market, since one of his best-selling chocolate products from a local manufacturer was white. The brand has since been discontinued, and consumers will be looking for a good replacement, he said.
Retailers also are looking for the major manufacturers to jump on the low-fat chocolate bandwagon.
"Those products do well for customers with restricted diets," explained West Point's Yost.
"We do have low-fat and natural products," said Dixie Young, grocery buyer at Tidyman's Inc., Greenacres, Wash. "I think the people who buy those are the diabetics, because I don't think when people go to buy a candy bar, they're watching their diet."
Nonetheless, Kroger's Richmond said that when more recognizable brands make their appearance, the low-fat chocolate category might do well, following in the footsteps of their hard candy brethren.
"If you get into the national brand lines -- Mars and Hershey -- if they come out with products, I think they will sell," he said. "I think you need the branded product that consumers will recognize as quality."
According to Nielsen's numbers, supermarket dietetic chocolate sales rose 3.7% to $7.7 million for the 52 weeks ended March 11.
That number could grow if consumers adopt a different attitude about low-fat chocolate, said Brookshire Bros.' Dominy.
"But so far I haven't seen a major switch or attitude change [among consumers]. We have had trouble in the past selling our customers on the low-fat, low-sugar line. People are still thinking, 'Snickers is a Snickers, and I'm going to eat it anyway.' "
Chocolate still takes the cake when it comes to candy sales. However, combined sales of kids' novelties and nonchocolate products are slightly higher than those of chocolate.