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Despite a Rise in ‘Mask Breath,’ Chewing Gum Sales Have Come Unstuck

The pandemic has hit checkout-aisle impulse purchases hard

Do you need to worry about how fresh your breath is when you’re at a distance from everyone around you and wearing a mouth-covering mask?

The answer is, no, you don’t. As the Hershey Company, one of the major players in the gum market, elegantly put it, “The functional need for breath freshening continues to be impacted by social distancing.”

The pandemic has seen many business winners. But for so-called “impulse products” like chewing gum, that rely on consumer impulse and well-positioned sale points, it has been a sticky period. These products sell best when targeting people at till points and queues, both of which have been almost nonexistent worldwide as customers have moved online. David Nolen, vice president of shopper insights at Hershey, believes the pandemic has sped up the permanent move to online by 3–5 years. Grocery shopping online is up by over 61%. That’s bad news for sellers of these products because impulse buying is more effective with increased customer friction and dwell time in carefully controlled shopping environments.

It’s possible, of course, to make impulse purchases online. Thanks to frictionless payments and ever-faster delivery almost everything is available at the touch of a button. Yet when it comes to groceries, user willpower and resistance appear stronger. In a report titled “The Evolution of the Modern Grocery Shopper” by PowerReviews, 31% of people said their reason for turning to online grocery shopping was to avoid unnecessary buys. Chewing gum use is also heavily tied to social activity, which sharply declined as the pandemic took hold. As Simply Gum founder and CEO Caron Proschan commented last fall, “Gum is an item that is used in social situations, such as going to a meeting or a party… part of the decrease in sales is really because there is not as much demand from consumers because the usage case has declined.”

The pandemic and the change in consumer behavior have been felt by all the major players in the chewing gum market, the biggest of which are Mars, Wrigley, Concord Confections, and Hershey. Unit sales of chewing gum in the U.S. are down almost 15% from 2019, with some analysis showing a hit as high as 30% during peak shutdown periods. In a call to investors in April, Hershey CEO Michele Buck noted that gum and mint sales had been significantly impacted, saying, “These categories are much more functional than emotional, and they’ve experienced declines of 40% to 50% over the past several weeks.” The one bright spot in the segment has been fruit-flavored gum products, which have performed better than their mint counterparts, as customers chew for enjoyment — or boredom — rather than for fresh breath.

A mint before you mask?

The industry has been fighting the decline in sales, and preparation began long before the pandemic arrived. Shopping innovations like self-checkout have been slowly eating away at the success of the front-of-store sales tactic, and health campaigns have forced some supermarkets to remove items from the checkout completely. Chewing gum brands have been trying to move with consumer habits, offering variations on package sizes that may get picked up during a shop, but the markup is higher on single packets. Hershey has been experimenting with an “Add Hershey’s” button to the online experience that could allow users to add a product to their basket shortly after they checkout. Others have been tapping into the Instacart-led delivery boom, increasing their advertising spend on these services and grocery websites and promoting users to add typical impulse buys like chewing gum to their cart when they are just short of the free delivery spend.

Hershey has even launched a campaign around an unfortunate side effect of prolonged masking — bad mask breath. Promoting its Ice Breaker mints, the advert encourages people to “mint before you mask” to avoid a bad case of mask breath. With no immediate end in sight for our masked-up world, it’s a smart ploy to tap into a genuine problem (speaking from experience).

While it’s no replacement for the frequency of an impulse purchase during a regular grocery run; makers of gum may find a temporary sales opportunity in the vaccine rollout. With vaccination drives taking place in pharmacies and grocery stores, and patients being advised to wait around for 10–15 minutes in case of side effects, it’s a combination of dwell time and friction at mass scale, the necessary conditions to buy some chewing gum or candy while they wait. And even better, everyone has to go twice.

Editor-in-Chief of Post-Grad Survival Guide • Columnist in Marker • Thoughts on business, ideas, writing & more

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