Chew on this: Gum not only freshens breath, it also may help control weight, reduce stress and improve concentration.
At least that's what the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. hopes to prove with the launch of the Wrigley Science Institute, which will support at least 10 studies on these topics this year alone.
The creation of the institute comes at a time when gum is getting a shot in the arm in other ways, thanks to new flavors, ingredients and packaging.
Retailers, too, are looking at the category in a new light. Take Jungle Jim's International Market in Fairfield, Ohio.
After a 10-year absence, individual packs of gum have re-emerged at its checkout, said Marion Stricker, the candy buyer there.
Gum was removed a decade ago to make room for a host of new confections that hit the market. But Stricker, ho recently assumed the candy buyer post, opted for a change.
"We decided it was time to bring gum back to the registers," she said.
Sales have since increased, according to Stricker.
"Everyone loves gum," she said.
The category needs initiatives like that. Overall category sales are flat at $628.6 million in food stores for the 52 weeks that ended April 16, according to Information Resources Inc. Most of those sales came from sugarless gum, which rose 3.8% to $454.4 million. But regular gum sales declined 7% to $174.2 million.
The gum market could face even bigger challenges as baby boomers move into their 60s and 70s, said Erin Fowler, an analyst for research firm Mintel International Group.
The sheer size of the boomer population makes it a key factor in whether regular gum sales will
stay the same, rise or decrease even further. As people get older, they grow less likely to chew gum, she said.
"The question is, 'Will they continue to use gum because they grew up with it, or will physical problems like dental work make them move away from it?'" Fowler said.
Boomers aren't the only issue. The limited amount of shelf space at the front end has forced many retailers to cut back on the number of gum stockkeeping units they keep at the checkout.
"Gum has had a longtime presence at checkout, but because front-end space has become so valuable, gum is getting inched out little by little," she said.
Manufacturers are fighting back by introducing attention-grabbing flavors like "citrus mint," "lemon-lime" and "fire."
"Whitening is still a strong segment, but the majority of the new items have been focused on unique and fun flavors like watermelon, apple and strong mint," said Tim Tackett, candy category manager at Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh.
Candy makers are also trying to make an impact with packaging improvements. Cadbury Adams, a business unit of Cadbury Schweppes, Parsippany, N.J., launched the Trident EZ-Close Pack, a reclosable package. And in July, Wrigley plans to introduce the Eclipse Big-E-Pak, which contains 60 pellets of gum. Wrigley is positioning the package as something to store on a desk or counter, or even in a car cup holder. The Big-E-Pak will come in spearmint and winterfrost flavors.
"Ultimately, truly innovative products, like the Eclipse Big-E-Pak, answer unmet consumer needs and provide our retail customers unique offerings to grow their business," Martin Schlatter, vice president and chief marketing officer for Chicago-based Wrigley, said in a statement.
While many new products only help sales for the short term, the Big-E-Pak could be different, said Michael Osornio, candy category manager at United Supermarkets in Lubbock, Texas.
"I've never heard of anything like that," he said. "It could be a hit because it's such a novelty."
Osornio questioned how he will make room for it on the front end, though.
"It probably will require a merchandising vehicle," he said.
Tackett of Giant Eagle has high hopes for any new product that creates a point of difference.
"Wrigley's Big-E-Pak is truly unique and targets frequent gum users," he said.
Retailers, for their part, are tweaking their own strategies. Giant Eagle has increased space in most stores on multipack gum in the past year, and typically uses floor displays for multiple placements throughout the store.
Carving out more space for gum and mints on the constrained front end is a bit more challenging. But resourceful retailers are taking steps to ensure that the category is better represented at the checkout.
United Supermarkets has added six facings - three for gum, three for mints - at the checkout, making room by adding two shelves to its checkstand merchandiser, Osornio said.
Osornio said consumers are reacting positively to the change. Gum sales are up in the double digits, with sugar-free sales leading the category.
"Gum needed some work and attention, and it paid off," he said.
Fowler of Mintel said confectionary innovations have given gum cross-merchandising potential.
"Why not put whitening gum near a can of coffee?" she said.
Functional products like Jolt caffeine-energy gum and Nutra-Trim weight management gum also lend themselves to cross-promotions.
But consumers appear somewhat skeptical of functional gums. According to a consumer survey commissioned by Mintel, 23% of consumers are very interested in gum that kills germs in the mouth, yet just 13% said the same about gum that helps with dry mouth; 12%, in gum with antioxidants; and 6%, in caffeinated gum. For now, retailers may want to stick with the tried and true.
New package types are one way gum makers are trying to revive people's interest.
Consumers aren't completely sold on functional gum,
though nearly three-fourths are at least somewhat interested in gum that kills germs in the mouth, according to a survey.