CHICAGO - After stalling in early 2009, the dark chocolate market finished the year with a 9 percent increase in sales.
Not bad for an industry that many analysts thought would see demand from recession-weary consumers melt away, particularly amid higher prices for cocoa beans and predictions of a shortage in the world cocoa harvest. In the first two months of 2009, dark chocolate sales were off by 2.2 percent.
But while consumers started to pull back on unnecessary spending, they found ways to treat themselves. Economists call it the "lipstick factor," referring to the historical rise in lipstick sales during tough economic times as women look for an affordable way to cheer themselves up. In the candy industry's case, during the recession people sought chocolate as an affordable indulgence to feel better.
"There is no [vacation], but people stay at home and find small moments of joy," said Tim Quinn, vice president of trade development at Mars Inc.
Candy sales as a whole increased last year by 3.6 percent, with 2,843 new products introduced to the market. About two-thirds were chocolate products, according to the National Confectioners Association.
Now, as the nation emerges from the recession, candy makers hope consumers will continue to indulge themselves. If they do, new products will be waiting.
Paul Pruett, chief executive of Bubble Chocolate, started selling his chocolate infused with tiny air bubbles about seven months ago. The aerated chocolate, which sells for about $2.50 to $3 a bar, starts out dry and tasteless; as it melts, the taster's mouth is coated with either milk or dark chocolate.
Pruett believes consumers are ready for innovative chocolate products.
"Americans are more brave now and are trying new things," he said.
Dark chocolate saw the greatest demand in 2007, when sales peaked at $829 million, a 35 percent jump from the previous year. Then the recession hit, and the pace of sales growth slowed in 2008 to 12 percent, according to the National Confectioners Association.