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By Renee M. Covino
CHICAGO -- It was three days of previewing, sampling and strategizing sweets and snacks at the National Confectioner Association's (NCA) 2008 All Candy Expo held here last week. For the second year in a row, the country's largest confectionery, cookie and candy show included snacks in its lineup, which initially grew the exhibitor base by more than 12 percent. This year more than 500 exhibitors represented the $275 billion industry. Total attendance tallied at more than 15,000, with the participation of more than 5,000 key confectionery buyers, as well as more than 1,000 international visitors representing over 75 countries.
One of the primary attractions was, of course, to see new treats.
"New products are essential to our industry," said Larry Graham, NCA president. "Nearly 30 percent of U.S. confectionery retail sales are generated by products released in the last two years."
New-product trends seen at the show continue to span the gamut from more health-conscious, sugar-free and all-natural selections to full indulgence treats -- but now in more portion-controlled sizes. Premium played a big role, too, and even with more mainstream players -- M&M's, for example, were unveiled in a new Premiums boxed Line, which takes the round hard-shelled colorful candy bites a step up to new pearlescent jewel-tone colors and more "glamorous" flavors such as Raspberry Almond and Mocha. Hershey's Bliss, another mainstream-chocolate-name-gone-premium, was also created to bring a more "everyday premium" chocolate to all consumers and all channels of retail, including c-stores.
Currently driving consumer spending in the confectionery category is indeed chocolate, as well as gum, according to Carolyn Hendriksma, senior director of U.S. insights and advanced analytics for The Hershey Co., who spoke at an opening day seminar called "Confectionery & Snack Industry Trends." While chocolate is being driven by the aforementioned premium and bite-sized trends, gum is being fueled by sugar-free and functional introductions, as well as new sour and tropical fruit flavors, she outlined.
Nearly all of American households, or 97 percent, purchase confections, according to Hendriksma. On average, consumers buy candy or chocolate every 18 days, and 60 percent of confectionery purchases are unplanned. That leaves category opportunity for retailers, but not much time in the aisles to grab customer attention, as studies show customers spend less than 60 seconds in confectionery aisles and 25 percent of them will walk away if they can't find what they're looking for quickly, Hendriksma cautioned.
While confectionery products account for 34.4 percent of snacks purchased by consumers in the U.S. marketplace, salty snacks constitute 22.8 percent, according to Jill Manchester, vice president of immediate consumption for Kraft Foods, speaking at the same seminar. She said the $2.1 billion salty snack segment is growing at a rate of 3.6 percent, led by category leader Frito-Lay and private label brands.
Of the "other" segments that make up the snacking marketplace -- cookies, crackers, bars, meat snacks and nuts -- there is one gaining attention. The $2.8 billion nut segment is growing at a rate of 4.9 percent, according to Manchester, largely due to the growing consumer interest in health.
Manchester noted all categories and channels are benefiting from increased competition in the overall snacks category; for example, quick-service restaurant (QSR) snack traffic is up 5 percent and growing twice as fast as overall QSR traffic, she pointed out.
In addition to the educational seminars, other features of the All Candy Expo included:
-- It's All About Merchandising, a showcase of the latest cutting-edge retail merchandising displays for confectionery and snacks, including permanent and temporary displays, shelving, signage, in-store solutions and other display aids.
-- The Gourmet Marketplace, a "show within a show," featuring a variety of specialty products in every candy and snack segment, from premium and upscale to fortified, all-natural and organic. This is where show attendees also got to experience upscale tastings and pairings, while meeting the world's top chocolate artisans.
The Gourmet Marketplace was also the location of a show first -- a couple was given permission by the NCA to get married, right on the show floor with show attendees as their witnesses.
Renee Hill, wearing a white gown and holding a bouquet of Madelaine's chocolate roses, was escorted down the "candy aisle" by a caricature Willa Wonka and taken to her groom, Larry Murano, who was waiting along with his best man, a caricature Jelly Belly, both donning tuxes. In both the candle and candy business, Murano said "candy is a big part of our lives right now. Renee wanted a wedding that was fun and different, and she came up with having it here at the candy show."
One audience member could be heard saying "well, at least they're off to a sweet start."