In the relentless push to move business forward, retailers find that sometimes, there's plenty of profitability in the past.
Candy is one of those opportunities. From Necco wafers and Beemans gum to licorice pipes and wax lips, the sweets of yesterday are gaining new respect as they reappear on store shelves. For older shoppers, it's a trip down memory lane; for younger consumers, it's a bridge to their parents' generation, retailers and industry analysts told SN.
"In a lot of cases, the magic is still there. People remember how they used to eat the candy and how some of the candy is what took out their first tooth," said Scott Silverman, vice president of specialty food and wine at Rice Epicurean Markets, Houston. "It brings you back in your head to a time and a place when things were better."
Specialty candy stores have been carrying extensive selections of nostalgic candies year-round for some time now. But grocers have to rely on a more complicated mix of factors, such as demographics and season, to determine how best to play the sub-category.
That hasn't kept retailers from featuring retro candy. San Mateo, Calif.-based Draeger's "caters to somewhat sophisticated tastes," and operates relatively small candy sections, according to candy buyer Alexandria Christakos. "I have a small section just for the children -- I don't want the store to look junky. I think the adults are going to buy it for the children," she said.
But the store sold out "totally" of wax lips brought in earlier this fall, she told SN, adding that Necco's Candy Buttons also did really well.
Rice's Silverman said his nostalgic candy sales were buoyed this summer during a promotion called "Step Back in Time," which tied in old-fashioned soda water with all kinds of candies.
"We've been carrying retro candy for quite some time. It's all the stuff from your childhood -- Necco wafers, Candy Buttons, taffy, Slo Pokes, Bit-O-Honey ... movie theater kind of candy. Baby boomers haven't seen availability of it in a long time and maybe they picked up a package to show their kids and say, 'This is what we used to eat, try some real candy,"' he said.
It's that exact hook -- bridging age gaps -- that supermarkets selling nostalgic sweets should be taking advantage of, Jim Corcoran, vice president of trade relations at the National Confectioners Association in Vienna, Va., told SN.
"There is a lot of tradition throughout candy. 'Nostalgic' is a state of mind; people will buy candy based on nostalgia. There are a lot of opportunities to utilize that. [The trend] can be taken advantage of depending on the demographics of your stores," he said.
Sales data supports Corcoran's viewpoint. For the 52 weeks ended Oct. 5, market research firm Information Resources Inc., Chicago, reported that sales of Necco non-chocolate candy were up 3.5% to $2.4 million in the supermarket channel alone. Topps Ring Pop novelty candy sales were $4.3 million, up 1.5%, and Original Mega Warheads sales rocketed to $1.6 million, up 54.2%, during the same time frame.
Unified Western Grocers, Los Angeles, got a feel for this kind of profitability recently in one of the wholesalers' Southern California-based stores. According to Michael Ortiz, corporate candy sales manager and senior category manager for UWG, an annual promotion by Adams -- maker of Black Jack, Beemans and Clove gums -- was more popular than ever.
"Every year [Adams] will launch that nostalgic shipper, but this year I just can't keep it here. I had one store go through 25 shippers in the matter of a week and in the years past that would be two shippers in the course of a month, maybe, because it's a limited-quantity item," Ortiz said.
"We have always stocked Necco, [but] we're seeing an increase in movement. I think it's the phenomenon of all the baby boomers reaching an age with more disposable income, trying to recatch some of those younger years," he added.
Back East, Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle is also attempting to appeal to its older shoppers who "remember going to the five-and-dime stores and buying these items, so there is a sentimental value to them," said Tim Tackett, candy buyer for the chain.
His stores currently carry a variety of old-fashioned candy items such as Mike & Ikes, Clark Bars, Lemonheads, Mary Janes, BB Bats, Dots and Necco wafers in both the bulk department and the grocery candy aisles. The chain is also developing a "big bag" of nostalgic mixed candy, which will be rolled out early next year with advertising for these items beginning in January, Tackett said.
However, the trend seems to be taking a bit longer to develop in some of the more central states. Greg Overton, candy buyer at Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, told SN he hasn't seen much of a push for old-fashioned candies at his store just yet.
"Things tend to come from the East and West Coast and find their way here," he said. For now, he's just hawking "everyday" candy items. Likewise for Jodie Wilkins, owner of the single-store Joe Wilkin's IGA in Colquitt, Ga.
"We haven't [carried nostalgic candy] yet, [but] I'm not saying we never will." Wilkins said her selection is determined by the warehouse that supplies her store, which is located in a very rural area. "It's a Catch-22; how do you generate interest when you don't carry something?" she asked.
For those grocers who do carry old-fashioned candies, determining the best place to merchandise their selection can be tricky. Register aisles are hot real estate where trendy new items can gobble up space quickly, leaving little to no room for vintage selections.
"By the time you put in your Hershey bars and your Nestle bars and your gum and candy and the breath mints up there, the rack is full," Silverman said.
The dilemma prompted him to incorporate a retro section within his larger candy department. Occupying about two or three shelves of a four-foot section, the nook allows him to offer different sizes of various candies that he considers to be traditional favorites.
"We've always carried Tootsie Rolls, but had gone to the bagged one with the little pieces. You don't see the long ones, six inches long, as much. In that particular item, it's the size that went out of favor. So we brought back those," Silverman said.
At UWG, placement of nostalgic candies relies on auxiliary racks, "so we're kind of prepared for this [upswing]," Ortiz said. The limitations that slotting fees inflict on front-end positioning don't have to equal defeat, he added. "You've got lane closers, and there's all kinds of vehicles that are available. It's got to be in a high-traffic area -- if you hide that from your customer you're not going to see the spike."
"It's important to communicate to customers that these items are availble through appropriate advertising, signage, merchandising shippers, clip strips and other promotional tools, "Giant Eagle's Tackett added.
Once shoppers locate their blast-from-the-past favorites, they rarely hesitate in buying them, marking candy as that one indulgence they will splurge on no matter the hardships of the day. Add the powerful memories candy can evoke tothemix and consumers should be hooked.
"If I told you rightnow to name your 10 favorite brands of candy, you will go right back to when you were a kid" Corcoran of the NCA said. "That's a very important part of selling candy".
"I go to the Fancy Food show and everybody always says 'what's new, what's new? Sometimes you have to look at what's old".
The resurgence of nostalgic candies presents retailers with unique, and oftentimes amusing, opportunities to forge bonds with shoppers of all ages, not just those classified as the baby boom generation.
Michael Ortiz, corporate candy sales manager and senior category manager for California-based Unified Western Grocers, has been working in the department for more than 25 years. He likens the current popularity of old-fashioned candies to something "that circles around every 20 years and it becomes trendy to have this item [again] in your pocket."
Ortiz was recently reminded of the nostalgic power that candy can have in giving some to his 10-year-old son.
"He thinks they are brand new items and he's going to school and showing these things off and the question that is most commonly asked is, 'When do these become available?' Younger kids are being introduced to a Sugar Daddy that has been around forever."
Scott Silverman, vice president of specialty food and wine at Rice Epicurean Markets, Houston, also attracts new consumers with his displays of retro candies in the front end. "We put it by the registers and it gives [checkers] something to talk about with the customers. And, it's so funny, you hear kids that say, 'That's the greatest candy in the world,' like they've discovered something new. It's like when my kids hear a song on the radio and think it's a new song and it's 25 years old -- recorded long before [their] time."