Retailers introduce alternative candles to satisfy consumers' demand for cleaner-burning candles
The green revolution appears to be exerting its influence on candle sales.
While paraffin candles are expected to remain the category staple, supermarkets report a growing interest in alternative candles made from soy, beeswax, vegetable wax or blends. This may be in response to more environmentally friendly products, retailers said.
At Kowalski's Markets, Woodbury, Minn., associates at the chain's eight stores are promoting beeswax and soy candles, considered to be a cleaner alternative to paraffin. If Jerri Mahoney could, she'd carry a line of tapers made of soy, she said.
“You can't get a taper in a soy candle,” explained Mahoney, who is the retailer's gift marketplace and floral specialist. “The base doesn't conform like a stick candle.”
Mahoney is a big believer in alternatives to paraffin. She tested candles in her own home and concluded the soy and beeswax products burn cleaner without leaving sooty residue. More expensive than paraffin varieties, beeswax and soy candles don't sell as easily, she said. However, one popular soy item is a candle in a 12-ounce jar, retailing for $13.99.
To teach consumers about the differences, Kowalski's included a comparison chart, provided by its soy candle supplier, in the retailer's magazine. Among the points, the chart noted that paraffin candles might not burn completely, while soy candles do. The chart pointed out that burning paraffin wax emits harmful vapors while soy wax is entirely non-toxic, and natural. While paraffin wax is hard to remove from cloth, soy wax cleans up with soap and hot water.
“After you tell [shoppers] the differences, they'll pick the soy vs. the paraffin,” Mahoney said.
Soy candles accounted for about 12% of candle sales last year, and the outlook for the segment is promising, according to Kline & Co., a Little Falls, N.J.-based consulting firm that covers the scented candle industry as part of its annual home fragrance report.
Sales are expected to grow due to soy prices being lower than those for paraffin. Environmentally friendly, soy is consistent with the growing interest in natural or “green” products. Soy-blend candles are also on the rise. According to Kline, a number of manufacturers make blended candles because they burn better than pure soy candles, which tend to crack.
At Zupan's Markets, a four-store operator in Vancouver, Wash., specialty candles are still showing sales traction but at a slower pace.
Jim Cornwall, general manager and health and beauty care buyer/merchandiser, attributed the slowdown to increased competition from Febreze and Glade.
“That has cut in a little bit on the specialty candle market,” Cornwall said. “The increases are not what we were seeing a couple of years ago.”
Still, specialty candles are one of the chain's best-selling nonfood categories, he noted. In recent years, Zupan's has added steadily to the candle assortment. The retailer carries at least 30 different products, including scented aromatherapy candles made of beeswax in the housewares and gift areas in most of the stores. Tapers, tea lights, votives and travel tins round out the assortment. The votives and aromatherapy travel tins are top sellers, Cornwall added. The tins, sold in two sizes, retail for $4.99 and $8.99. Customers take them to work or on trips out of town. “Nowadays, people want to take the nice smell with them,” he said.
Zupan's doesn't sell pure soy candles. But Cornwall said he's actively looking for a soy line to add, possibly later this year.
“It's better for the environment,” he said. “With paraffin candles, they smoke a lot. With soy candles, you don't get the smoke.
Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., saw candle sales jump 15% in the past year after the stores replaced some of its brands. The retailer carries about 120 different candle products, mainly from two manufacturers. A handful of stores also offer beeswax varieties.
Aromatherapy is a growing part of the business, said Cathy Kennedy, general merchandise category manager for Bashas'. The stores will add a line of six soy-based aromatherapy candles to its assortment.
While vanilla is the perennial favorite scent with her customers, Kennedy has noticed greater focus on new fragrances that change with the seasons.
“A lot of the home decor shows are showing candles,” she said. “That's obviously helped.”
While demand for candles made from soy and beeswax is likely to grow, Kennedy doesn't think the interest will extinguish sales of paraffin candles.
“I don't know if consumers understand the difference” between candle materials, she said. “I don't think soy and beeswax are the future. I think paraffin is here to stay.”
Whether alternative or paraffin, sales statistics show demand has moved to high-end, quality candles. From 2004 to 2006, sales of high-end candles increased $132 million, hitting $772 million last year, according to Mintel International Group, Chicago. These are candles that retail for at least $30, said Chris Haack, Mintel's consumer market analyst. “That's where you see the most innovation,” he said.
Candle Sales Up: Study
Subject to lifestyle and home decor trends, candle sales continued to be a strong category for supermarkets. A big sales push should come in the fourth quarter. More women are using candles to make their homes smell pleasant, spruce up the decor or set a relaxing spa environment, reports Mintel International Group, Chicago, in an online survey of 2,000 adults, conducted last December. The number of survey respondents who reported buying candles rose from 64% in 2002 to 77% in 2006. Close to a third of consumers said they bought candles at least once a month. Traditionally slow in the summer, candle sales light up when the weather cools off in the fall and winter, particularly when the fourth quarter holidays approach.
The boom in spas has triggered some interest in aromatherapy and with it a jump in the production of candles, which are scented with essential plant oils. Candles that supposedly promote specific feelings of well-being — vitality, balance, clarity, calm and relief from stress, for example — have made a dent in the market.
Shoppers use candles in many different ways, but the No. 1 reason cited was to burn and eliminate odors and freshen the air in their homes, according to the survey. Consumers also mentioned holidays and festive events as well as religious occasions. Some shoppers said they buy candles simply for decoration, not for burning.
However popular candles have become with consumers and retailers, suppliers are being squeezed by competition. Makers of low- and middle-market candles have seen profits drop in recent years, the result of competition from lower-cost products and rising production costs, according to Mintel's research. The candle industry is also highly fragmented, with few companies commanding any brand recognition with consumers. The upscale segment appears to be the one bright spot.
Dollar sales of candles sold in food, drug and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, inched up 2.8%, to $752.4 million, in calendar year 2006, according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago. However, the actual number of candles sold slid nearly 2%.
“It's a tougher game right now to sell candles,” said Chris Haack, consumer market analyst for Mintel. “You have increased competition from foreign competition pushing prices down.” Manufacturers also have felt the impact of the recent swings in the price of petroleum, used to make candles, he said.
Specialty manufacturers, whose candles can be found in the housewares and gift areas, also have to compete with the big names in the air-freshening business — Glade, an S.C. Johnson & Son brand, and Febreze, from Procter & Gamble. Glade has rolled out candle products including a new flameless scented “candle” that runs on batteries. The Febreze candles, offered in several fragrances, promise to get rid of odors and freshen the air with clean, pleasant smells.
For many stores, religious candles are a big business.
Food retailers that cater to devout Hispanics see notably strong demand for Catholic patron saint devotional candles. Known as veladoras, or as seven-day candles, they bear the image of a particular saint and are imprinted with prayers. Hispanics buy the candles throughout the year, but during important religious holidays, they make bigger purchases. Price points are low — 99 cents is often seen — and highly competitive.
The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a 16th century Mexican icon of the Virgin Mary, is celebrated on Dec. 12. Latinos observe the day by attending church services. There they pray before statues of La Virgen, who is regarded as a symbol of hope and redemption.
Food City stores normally see a spike in sales of the Lady Guadalupe pillar candles in the fourth quarter. Food City is a chain of 63 Hispanic format stores operated by Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas.' The Bashas' stores also carry the candles.
“We sell that candle all year-round,” said Regina Hemmele, general merchandise specialist for Food City.
The stores carry more than 30 devotional candles, featuring other popular saints and religious figures. Some come in colored glass holders. Most do not have a fragrance, though the stores rolled out some scented products a couple of years ago. In the fourth quarter, churches that can't find the large assortment at conventional markets will buy cases of devotional candles at Food City, Hemmele said.
“It's our No. 1 category for nonfood departments,” she said.
The spring Lenten season is another strong period for devotional candles, she said. Stores set up extra candle displays during the peak seasons. Bashas' buys the candles from the Reed Candle Co., San Antonio.
Hispanics use candles for religious reasons more so than non-Hispanics, according to recent research from Mintel International Group, Chicago. Using candles for religious or spiritual purposes was cited by 30% of the people who participated in a consumer survey, vs. 40% of Hispanic respondents.