KANSAS CITY — Sales of chocolate and candy increased during the pandemic as shoppers sought comfort amid uncertain times, according to data from the National Confectioners Association (NCA) released in late August. Overall, between mid-March and August sales of candy increased 3.8% and chocolate grew 5.5%, with premium chocolate up 12.5%. In grocery stores, candy sales were up nearly 17%, and chocolate sales increased 18%, with premium chocolate up 21%, during the same period.

“Chocolate and candy have been very resilient in this COVID-19 environment,” said John Downs, president and chief executive officer of the NCA. “Consumers appreciate and value chocolate and candy during these uncertain times because of their uncanny ability to boost your mood and lighten your perspective.”

Spooky seasonal shake-up

As the key Halloween season approached, the industry braced for softer demand on the assumption trick-or-treating may decline due to social distancing; however, the NCA cited survey data suggesting the majority of parents in the United States planned to celebrate.

“Nearly 50% of Halloween candy spend is on ‘treat for me’ and candy bowl occasions, which start early in the season,” Michele G. Buck, chairman, president and CEO of the Hershey Co., said in late July during an earnings call. “Trick-or-treating represents the other 50% of the season with sales concentrated in the last two weeks of October.

“While research indicates trick-or-treating participation will likely be below prior-year levels due to COVID-19 concerns, the expectation of this holiday tradition has been consistently improving over the past several weeks. We expect to outperform the category, given our iconic brands, strong innovation and merchandising and great execution.”

Mars, Inc., meanwhile, prepared for a variety of outcomes for Oct. 31, said Timothy LeBel, president of sales for Mars Wrigley.

“We typically begin the planning process for Halloween about two years out, and this year, we obviously had to pivot quickly so our communities can keep their traditions while also planning to celebrate as safely as possible,” Mr. LeBel said. “We’ve worked across different functions to plan for a few different scenarios. In 2020, we’ll be focusing on solutions like working with community leaders and health experts to ensure a safe Halloween season, creating a fun and innovative virtual trick-or-treat experience, and offering some fan-favorite seasonal innovations
like the return of Zombie Skittles and M&M’s Ghoul Mix.”

Another segment impacted by the pandemic was gum and mints. The category continued to decline during the month of June, with sales down 20% to 25%, Ms. Buck said during Hershey’s earnings call.

“Our business has trended relatively in line with the category,” she said. “We expect category trends to remain challenged until social distancing guidelines relax.”

Sugar reduction in focus

The industry’s marquee event, the Sweets and Snacks Expo, is usually held in May and was canceled this year, limiting opportunities for manufacturers to showcase the latest innovations in chocolate and candy. New products launched from a growing number of smaller players this year largely focused on reduced-sugar formulations.

Sonoma Brands, the maker of Smashmallow, introduced a line of better-for-you gummy snacks featuring 3 grams of sugar per serving. Smashgummy is available in two varieties: a fruit-inspired medley of strawberry, cherry, orange and peach flavors, and a sour collection of watermelon, lemon, raspberry and green apple flavors.

Smart Sweets expanded its portfolio of low-sugar candies with the debut of Sweet Chews, which are sweetened with the rare sugar allulose and contain 3 grams of sugar per serving. The individually wrapped chews feature mango, strawberry and watermelon flavors.

Lily’s Sweets introduced no-added-sugar confections, including chocolate-covered caramels and three new chocolate bar varieties. All products are sweetened with stevia.

Behave Foods Inc., a New York-based startup, debuted reduced-sugar gummy bears, which are sweetened with monk fruit and chicory root fiber and feature lychee, passionfruit and raspberry flavors.

Project 7, Inc. rolled out sour fruit gummies and gummy bears sweetened with allulose and containing 3 grams of sugar per bag.

Mashups and multiple textures

New products from the market leaders include flavor mashups and multiple textures. Mars announced plans to introduce Snickers Peanut Brownie, a chocolate bar with caramel and a chewy peanut brownie filling. Mocha meets chocolate in a new mashup offering from Hershey. Following last year’s successful launch of the Kit Kat Duos Mint + Dark Chocolate bar, the brand is adding a second Kit Kat Duos variety, featuring crisp wafers in mocha crème with coffee bits and chocolate. Over the past year, the Kit Kat brand introduced such limited-edition flavors as birthday cake, pumpkin pie, raspberry crème, apple pie, lemon crisp and, for Halloween, a marshmallow-flavored Witch’s Brew variety.

New from Ferrara Candy Co. are Nerds Gummy Clusters, which feature a fruity gummy center coated with crunchy, tangy Nerds candies.

“Nerds has driven significant growth in the past year, and with research showing that consumers are seeking fun and multi-textured candy, our team came together to deliver the fun of our Nerds candy in an innovative and poppable way,” said Katie Duffy, vice president of marketing at Ferrara Candy Co.