Standing in line to pay at a grocery store, you’re in an optimized selling environment, carefully fashioned by marketers and retailers. That’s where the pushers put the “impulse buys”: gum, mints, chocolate bars, gummy bears, sodas, snack bars. They’re the kinds of products that, when you walk into the store, you’re not planning to buy. But stand in line for a few minutes and you feel that familiar twinge of want. Suddenly, you’re heading out with a few sticks of spearmint gum and a Baby Ruth.
But over the past year, fewer people have been standing in line to pay at the grocery store—or anywhere, really. One recent survey found that 61 percent of consumers are doing more grocery shopping online now than before the Covid-19 pandemic.
That means fewer impulse buys. In fact, some of the weirdest casualties of the pandemic have been gum and breath mints. North American sales of gum fell 14 percent by volume last year, and mints by 15 percent, compared with 2019, according to the market research firm Euromonitor. “It's probably the most affected area in 2020,” says Jared Koerten, a senior analyst at the firm, who observes the snacking industry. It doesn’t help the makers of breath-freshening products that less socializing with strangers means less need for fresh breath.
More people are returning to stores as lockdowns have lifted and vaccinated Americans feel comfortable resuming some semblance of their “normal” lives. But industry insiders expect some to stick with the internet for their weekly shop. The pandemic hastened the world’s pivot to online shopping by three to five years, says David Nolen, vice president of shopper insights at the Hershey Company, which makes Breath Savers mints and Ice Breakers and Bubble Yum gum as well as candy bars.
In general, impulse thrives online. Your browser or smartphone can save your credit card information so that a purchase is just a few clicks or taps. With no cash involved, or even a symbolic plastic swipe, spending on the internet doesn’t always feel real; tech marketers like to talk about frictionless payments. But impulse buys thrive in moments of friction. More “dwell time” spent at the sandwich counter or the pharmacy section or in line for the self-checkout means more time pondering the colorful items displayed there—things you don’t need, but things you want right now. In fact, impulse buys are almost antithetical to online shopping: If you want a candy bar, you want it immediately, not in the two days it will take Amazon to Prime it to you.
“The industry knows impulse buying is a big question,” says Koerten of Euromonitor. Manufacturers can, and do, change the size of their packaging; megapacks of gum, for example, have taken off in the past year. But a single pack has a higher profit margin. “A lot of the manufacturers that have relied on impulse in the past, they're trying to suss out, ‘What do we do next? Where can we reach consumers impulsively in these new shopping habits?’”
With great change comes great experimentation, and that’s what some of the country’s gum and candy makers have been doing since the pandemic began.
For one, they’ve recognized that impulse buys are changing. For years, they’ve known that the traditional front-of-store setup is under threat, both from online shopping and self-checkout lines. And it’s not that people skipped snacking during the pandemic—far from it. Cookies and ice cream, which can be consumed in front of a TV screen or during a family game night, are doing just fine. Both Mars Wrigley and Hershey noted a jump in bulk gum purchases among people playing video games. Fruit-flavored gum and bubblegum also did OK last year. Perhaps, Nolen ventures, it’s because parents used the stuff to keep Zoom-addled kids awake in online classes, what he calls “mouth entertainment.”
Snack manufacturers have also turned to digital- and ad-based tricks to encourage impulse buys. Food brands have upped their digital advertising during the pandemic and are now running ads on grocers’ websites, as well as on delivery services like Instacart.
Manufacturers and retailers are using data collected on shoppers’ past purchase and dietary preferences to offer up complementary products, like marshmallows and chocolate bars to accompany graham crackers. S’mores anyone? Some have paid for promotions that, for example, tell shoppers they're just a few dollars away from free delivery—would they like to add a bag of chips or a pack of gum?
“It becomes really important to make sure that we remind people about those products as they navigate their shopping experience, both online and in the store,” says Shaf Lalani, the vice president of strategic demand leadership at Mars Wrigley, which churns out gum and mint brands like Orbit, Extra, Altoids, Lifesavers, and Hubba Bubba. In February, the company announced an experiment with a ShopRite in Monroe, New York: It loosed a robot named Smiley on the grocery store, which sang, danced, and offered people M&M’s, Skittles, and packs of Extra gum as they shopped. The goal: Make every moment in a grocery store an “impulse buy” moment.
Hershey is experimenting with an Add a Hershey’s button at the end of the ordering experience. It’s also working with other manufacturers, to, for example, find easy and frictionless ways to add a quick snack to curbside deliveries. The company’s data shows that, even if customers order their groceries for curbside pickup, 50 percent will actually go into the store anyway, and 70 percent of those people will grab at least one unplanned item.
There is one event that promises to trap plenty of Americans in grocery stores and pharmacies, and give them plenty of time to consider a candy bar: the vaccine rollout. Those being vaccinated against Covid-19 are generally asked to stick around for 10 to 15 minutes, to make sure they don’t have an adverse reaction. To the makers of impulse-buy products, that’s time and friction—”built-in dwell time for them to walk around the store and buy an impulse item,” says Nolen. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate their personal end to the pandemic with a pack of mints or Twizzlers? And here’s the best part: Most people have to do it twice.