Savvy retailers are realizing the sweet sales that bulk candy can bring when the offerings are presented as a destination location for customers seeking specialty items. To draw the crowd, operators are putting things like branded and seasonal selections, along with niche items such as sugarless and natural candy, to work in bulk areas.
With candy being available everywhere from the mass merchant down the block to the gas station convenience store, creating a boutique environment has become more important as supermarket operators strive to keep their competitive edge in candy. The one element specialty offerings bring to a bulk candy section is the creation of a destination. These items create traffic, not simply impulse sales, says one industry observer.
"Supermarkets are creating these departments and programs to distinguish themselves and to offer their customers an adventure," says Morty Cohn, president, SunRidge Farms, Santa Cruz, Calif. "The extent to which the store effectively merchandises the department will contribute to increased opportunity."
At Mollie Stone's, Corte Madera, Calif., specialty items drive the bulk candy department. The chain has separated bulk candy from the dry grocery area gradually over the years, creating a boutique-style area located in the front of the store at most units. Depending upon the unit size, between 100 and 300 bins offer up hard-to-find amusement park-style candy selections. Jaw breakers, gumballs, gummy pagers and candy necklaces are just a few of the offerings. Candy-related items, such as gumball machines, are also merchandised in the bulk candy area.
"The bulk candy buyer is just not the same consumer as one who would buy by the bag. A stand-alone candy department is exciting on its own. We are seeing growth in this area," says Dave Bennett, owner. "We don't want to compete with the main stream operators. We don't want to go head to head with the chains. Instead we have created a place where customers can find real special things."
Mollie Stone's also centers its bulk candy business on seasonal treats. Rather than positioning the seasonal items with the full complement of bulk candies, they are merchandised along with other seasonal products on the operator's end caps.
Haggen's, Bellingham, Wash., displays its destination department under the "Sweets & Treats" header. Within the unit visited by SN the 36-by-21-foot alcove offered up myriad candy, nuts and snacks ranging from branded Jelly Belly and Brach's items to coated pretzels and fine chocolates. Along with the huge variety and selection offered in traditional favorites such as Laffy Taffy, M&M's, Atomic Fireballs and Jolly Ranchers, one wall boasted gummy items. Another 21 bins offered sugar free hard candies. Along another wall traditional varieties of fine chocolates were merchandised with 12 bins of sugar-free items ranging from Almond Bark to Fudge Melt Aways and Cashew Clusters. Dried fruits, nuts, Asian rice cracker mixes and other snack blends, along with 10 styles of trail mix, rounded out the snack section of the department.
At Town & Country's newest Shoreline, Wash., Central Market location, bulk candy is king. The department is positioned Center Store with adjacency to the natural bulk items.
At Lamb's Thriftway, Willsonville, Ore., gummy specialty items and sugar-free candies are used as bait to lure customers into the 70 to 80 bin bulk candy section, according to Mark Fleskes, produce department manager. Additionally, strong branded programs from Jelly Belly and Brach's provide the five-unit chain with immediately recognizable images to anchor the area. Five to six varieties of trail mix appeal to the natural shopper with snack cravings.
Natural items, both sweet treats and snack favorites, have been making real inroads in the bulk candy section and help retailers to further differentiate their bulk candy offerings. Even bulk-rich natural food operators carefully merchandise the mix to include specialty items that fit into specifications that call for natural ingredients.
"Our customers look for bulk items," says Michelle Walker, new products coordinator, Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo. "They come into a natural food store expecting to buy bulk. Where we shine is offering unusual and hard-to-find offerings."
While Wild Oats offers trail mix, the operator presents a variety of selections that is customer pleasing. Additionally, customers can select from licorice, chewy gummy products, chocolates and caramels.
"Where we differ is in offering products that meet our product standards with ingredients," says Walker. "While the items mirror conventional brands we want them to fill a natural need. For example, the gummy products are made without animal products. Where we can we offer organic ingredients."
The Wild Oats shopper's willingness to support a reduction in packaging contributes to the success of bulk.
"While we offer more and more natural items, which is key to our mission to minimize processing, our customers are committed to not use as much packaging," says Jim Lee, president. "They bring in their own containers to reuse resources or use the ones we have available in our World of Bulk section."
The Portland, Ore., area's Nature's Fresh Northwest is another naturally bent operator finding success with snacks and sweets. Close to 30% of that operator's bulk section is devoted to the category. Often, the section is employed in new product introductions citing the fact that customers often try new things in small quantities from the bulk section.
Within Fred Meyer's newest formats, bulk sweets and snacks are only offered in the chain's "Natural Choices" section in organic and natural guises. The Western Washington unit, which recently opened, positions chocolate drops, peanut butter maltballs, carob selections, carob nuggets and yogurt-covered peanut clusters within the chain's 30-foot natural foods bulk set. This set includes grains and pastas. On the snack side, Fred Meyer merchandises dried fruits and nuts along with other goodies such as animal cookies made with organic flour.
Despite the popularity of the bulk candy and snack department retailers agree that the department simply cannot tend to itself. A clean, well-stocked and well-maintained area is key to sales. Merchandisers need to present an eyeful of flavor with food-safety issues in mind.
"Certain customers just won't consider bulk items of anything because of safety," says Fleskes. Lamb's Thriftway has retooled its bulk section with bin lids. Scoopers and tongs are physically attached to each bin and are positioned outside of the bins. "You have to keep on top of cleanliness and freshness."
One road many operators are going down to ensure safe, fresh and wholesome bulk candy offerings is participation in vendor-supported programs.
"With food safety issues so top-of-mind, we look to suppliers to help," says Mollie Stone's Bennet.
Lamb's Thriftway has also turned to vendors to keep stock levels high and freshness assured. "What we have lost in control we have gained in appearance," says Fleskes. "Since we have shifted the programs sales have gone up, possibly because of selections now offered."
Industry observers are also quick to point out that bulk candy sections simply will not work in all locations. Operators need to be keyed into their customer's desires and price-point sensitivity. "The size of the section is dependent upon demographics and what the market will bear," said one retailer.
Positioning of the department in the traffic flow also has an impact on sales, say operators.
At Lamb's Thriftway, product department adjacency is paramount and the operator has shifted operations to position bulk sweets away from the traditional candy aisle. According to Fleskes, repositioning bulk candy by produce has doubled sales. "The items were forgotten in dry grocery," he says. "Bulk candy needs to be by produce."
Meanwhile, Mollie Stone's opts for positioning close to the front of the store. "We don't correlate bulk sugar candy with fresh product," according to Bennet.
Western states' Safeway units agree, positioning bulk offerings in-line with bagged candy, perhaps to spice up the grocery aisles.
Other operators including Chicago-area Jewel and Dominick's, along with Rochester-based Wegmans and Florida's Goodings, have given candy a section with a store-within-a-store look including upscale and gourmet selections.
Harris Teeter, Charlotte, S.C., has 45 of its units equipped with bulk candy. Many are in-line in the grocery department; some are in separate sections. One unit has a freestanding department with low displays creating an island impact; another employs a large alcove area with showy, tall, tubular displays on the walls.
Albertson's, meanwhile, is bulging bulk with its Candy City section. More than 300 items are gathered together creating a separate sweet boutique.
Randall's also makes a statement for the power bulk candy can bring. It merchandises its offerings within a 10-by-13-foot kiosk.