Monday, March 30, 2009

Candy is Dandy

What sells? That is the bottom line in retail, but it’s also a huge question in turbulent times. While President Obama’s economic advisors work hard to convince the public, investors, and the world that we will return to productivity and consumption, even they can’t completely answer the question of what products, services, or goods will be the key items in the new, post-fiscal-traumatic-stress market. But here’s a pretty interesting answer:

Well, yeah, probably not the first item that came to mind (imagine the headlines: “Hersheys Saves American Economy”).

But despite the hype about drastic and dramatic change, some aspects of recovery are necessarily conservative. And what’s more conservative than comfort foods? The recent surge in candy sales (The Times reports an 80% increase since last year in one major Chicago candy store) can be seen as a sign that folks are anxious, eating what makes them feel better in anxious times. Candy is always a good bet -- especially on what seems like a bad day that keeps repeating -- notwithstanding the things I'm sure my nutrition-savvy friends will say about sugary sweets adding to hyperactivity rather than calmness, but hey, that’s background noise.

The cultural history of sugar is as both luxury and necessity. The great anthropologist and author of Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz, points out that by the 1500s, sugar production was already pre-industrial in the New World, which generated a whole host of other industries, including the tools and gears, molds, and iron casts used to refine the substance and food production (think: canning). Within the next 200 years, Europeans colonized the Caribbean, imported slave labor from Africa (after wiping out much of the indigenous population), and produced sugar in large quantities that could be shipped back to be consumed by the working populations who were fueling the industrial revolution on that side of the Atlantic. As Mintz points out, what was once a luxury item soon became a necessity for survival (most workers subsisting on sweetened hot tea or jam and bread, foods that provided energy for long days of factory labor). But sugar retains its connection to luxury, with its use in desserts and confections. Nobility were no longer the only ones to have their cake and eat it too.

In terms of today’s sweet tooth, candy may be a quick pick-me-up for difficult times, an indulgence and a necessity that most people feel they can still afford.

And finally, there’s that whole pantheon of choices. American consumers have been deeply indoctrinated in the value of choice. When asked what makes someone or some thing American, my students almost invariably answer, “we can choose what we want to do, how we live, and what we eat.” Food marketers in particular have had to hone the message of variety – a type of Oreo cookie for every mood, every personality, and every season – in order to keep selling when it’s possible to have fed the world three times over with the excesses that generally flood our marketplace. Having wholeheartedly taken that message in, the shift in attitude can be a little rough for some consumers: yes, people are suddenly saving more, making frugality sexy, and adapting to the green “less is more” mantra. But does it mean they have to give up variety everywhere? The endless pleasures of a fertile marketplace? An inexpensive and satisfying treat? Not in the candy aisle! The last ten years have seen an explosion of types of new candy and re-introductions of old favorites. The candy section in many supermarkets is the last refuge of those 70s co-op bulk bins, no longer filled with dry lentils and granola, but colorfully bursting to the brim with Smarties, Mary Janes, Starbursts, and Jelly Beans.

But as for Hershey’s saving the economy, don’t bet the last of your nest egg just yet. Questions about its stock value, mergers, and steady sales after the last of the big candy holidays (Easter) suggest that you might be better off buying a few bars to sooth the soul and waiting to see if demand is more than just a recessionary sweet tooth.

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