Candy Corn’s Growth: How It’s Survived As Chocolate Melts

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The most tempting, succulent confection of the season might be candy corn. The tri-colored pyramids epitomize autumn and Halloween, and 35 million pounds — or about 9 billion pieces — of candy corn will be produced this year, says the National Confectioners Association. Not too shabby for the confection started in the 1880s by George Renninger, a humble employee of the Wunderlee Candy Company.

But while much of the Halloween candy market has suffered the bitter onslaught of the recession, candy corn has found a sweet spot.

Its colors, conjuring the harvest, have become a major, nostalgic selling point for the fondant and marshmallow candies.

“Interestingly, the company didn’t intentionally develop the market for utilizing Brach’s candy corn for fall decorating or for use in arts & crafts,” said Suzanne George, a spokeswoman at the Ferrara Pan Candy Company, which owns Brach’s, the candy corn market leader. “It just happened on its own, likely due to the product’s crisp, bright orange and yellow colors that appeal in the fall season. When you Google ‘decorating with candy corn,’ you’ll see wildly imaginative uses of the product in vases, wreaths, around candles, et cetera.”

And caveat Googler: The candy corn frenzy even extends into lingerie design.

The Fall Of The House Of Chocolate

People’s discretionary spending patterns have spoken: Though consumers spent $2.3 billion on Halloween candy alone in 2011, Halloween chocolate remains one of the underperforming segments in the seasonal chocolate category, according to Mintel Market Research. FDMx 2011 sales are expected to be down 9.1%, and this will mark the fourth consecutive year of sales decreases. The chocolate drip will continue through 2016, according to Mintel.

The reasons are clear: Chocolate has a higher price-point than candies that can be bought in bulk, according to Mintel. 2008’s recession rotted the segment’s sales, and consumers aimed for more economical, non-chocolate candies to give out to trick-or-treaters. Anti-obesity initiatives have also stigmatized rich chocolate candies. Some 21% of parents who typically buy chocolate during holidays are buying healthier snacks for trick-or-treaters. (Call it “anti-flab economics” for a health-conscious country).

While Halloween chocolate sales reached $106 million in 2007, they dropped to $85 million in 2011, according to FDMx. This year’s figures are forecast at a measly $82 million.

The Cocoa Scandal

The high cost of chocolate may be incentive for consumers to expand beyond their typical fare, with Mintel predicting the non-chocolate confectionery category to grow 26% from 2010 to 2015.

Chocolate, indeed, is taking the brunt of the Halloween savings trend: Consumers are scaling back the amount they spend on candy, but not on costumes, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2010 Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey.

And Hershey’s (HSY) loss is candy corn’s gain. Mars Inc. dropped the most with a 16% decline from 2010 to 2011, according to FDMx. The Hershey Company accounted for half of the sector’s sales but dropped 11.3% in sales over the same period.

According to the NRF 2010 Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, 30.1% of consumers said that the state of the U.S. economy would influence their Halloween plans. Some 86.8% of respondents indicated that they would spend less overall, with 45.1% saying they planned on buying less candy.

Beyond the mere expense of chocolate, there’s the ethical hazard — 35% of the world’s cocoa derives from African’s Ivory Coast, where over 100,000 children are exploited for labor, according to the State Department. The precarious geopolitical entanglements for big chocolate providers like Hershey’s adds a thick layer of disincentives for consumers to buy their products.

Halloween has the highest number of chocolate packages sold among holiday consumers, followed by Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day. But with folks trying to cut back on spending — and on chocolate — the changing consumer patterns may be a boon for candy corn.

Seasonal Encapsulation

“Because younger consumers are less tradition-bound to chocolate as a gift or as the only type of candy to mark a holiday, seasonally packaged non-chocolate candy sales may see an increase in the coming years,” the Mintel report states. “These buyers are likely to pass this mindset on to their children, which could further erode chocolate’s sales position with regard to various holiday seasons.”

Halloween evokes candy, and younger consumers — particularly those in hip urban centers — are not as attached to brand-name chocolate as they are to the sweet that symbolizes the Halloween season.

The nostalgia attached to candy corn may be its biggest asset.

Brach’s has even initiated a “Fall Flavors” chocolate-covered candy corn to try to ride the autumnal spirit straight into Thanksgiving. And then there are the gourmet iterations of the candy, such as Blackberry Cobbler Candy Corn from Zachary Confection Inc., considered No. 2 in the candy corn category.

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