"We dominate North Texas," Mike Sanderlin said at this week's Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago when asked about his cotton candy brand, called Cotton Candy A La' Cart. His pitch? Unlike other brands, it is packaged in transparent bags so "the kids can see it."
Like so many others, Mr. Sanderlin is looking to close deals at the three-day event, which is expected to draw some 15,000 people from across the globe. Buyers are seeking the next big thing in candy, while marketers large and small are hoping to fill orders as fast as they can. All the while, mascots like a walking Sour Patch Kid roam the exhibit hall, which is filled with enough free samples to induce a weeks-long sugar high.
There is plenty of money to be made. The $33 billion confectionery industry continues to enjoy positive trends. Sales jumped 3.7% last year, according to the National Confectioners Association. And candy and snack makers have a 98% household-penetration rate, which puts it on par with toilet paper, said Leon Nicholas, senior VP-of retail insights for Kantar Retail, in a presentation Tuesday kicking off the show.
Not everyone will succeed, of course, which is why marketers are hustling for shelf space in an industry that drew 765 new products last year, including 423 new chocolate items.
Here is look at the good, the bad and the ugly at this year's show, which ends Thursday:
Biggest trend: From Starburst "minis" to Twizzlers "bites," marketers continue to put classic brands in shrunken form, while stripping away individual wrappers in an appeal to on-the-go consumers. Hershey, meanwhile, is putting its chocolate in spreadable form with "Hershey's Spreads" set to debut in December
Newest gum pitch: Wrigley in June will debut Orbit for Kids. The sugarfree gum comes in tot-friendly flavors like strawberry banana and has 15% Xylitol, which is said to be good for oral health. (Regular Orbit has less than 1% of Xylitol.) Will moms buy it?
Gassiest candy: Farts Candy, by Leaf Brands, comes in Fruiti Farts, Sour Farts and Small Farts. CEO Ellia Kassoff described them as a chewy version of Nerds. And he swears the kids love them, because, well, they like to say the name.
Fewest ingredients: Peeled Snacks' Much-Ado-About-Mango is a bag of organic mangos. That is it, nothing else. It is part of the company's "real-food philosophy," which has helped it gain distribution in Starbucks and Whole Foods.
Sportiest sugar: Tennis star Maria Sharapova has a sweet tooth and now she has her own global candy brand. Her "Sugarpova" premium candy line hit stores last year in the U.S. and just debuted in Moscow. Varieties include gumballs that look like fuzzy tennis balls.
Chocolate with the most jitters: A lot of chocolate candy already has natural caffeine, but not enough for the founders of Awake Chocolate, which boosted their bars with added caffeine. The bars debuted last year in Canada and just made their way into the U.S. One of the targets is, not surprisingly, college students.
Most unlawful candy: Mexico's Grupo Turin makes chocolates filled with liquor, like Johnnie Walker and Baileys. In the U.S., it is only available in 16 states because of alcohol laws.
Best investment: Dave Lefkow won $5,000 from "America's Funniest Home Videos," which he used as seed money for J&D's Foods with partner Justin Esch. Their marketing plan is simple, but genius: They have won free publicity on late-night TV shows with prank products like bacon condoms, while cranking out more mainstream items like the new Sriracha Popcorn, which was showcased at the show. Some of the fake products have actually turned turn into consumer hits, like bacon sex lube. "[We had] 5,000 people on a waiting list, so we made it," Mr. Lefkow said. "We are shameless," added Mr. Esch.