Dark Chocolate

Now that the ‘chocolate bar’ has been raised towards more premium varieties, retailers need to strategize to capture an even higher-impulse chocolate market.

C’mon, tell us your deepest, darkest, candy desires — and chances are, they’ll be covered in dark chocolate.
Because of “evolving” consumer tastes, there’s not a chocolate maker around that hasn’t seriously thought about — and more than likely, now gone the route of — the dark side, at least to some degree. It seems the more bitter, the better these days, thanks to refined palates and a flood of health news surrounding chocolate with higher cacao/cocoa content and less sugar content.
Making up about 11 percent of the total chocolate market, dark chocolate is $510 million dollars strong, with sales growing 43 percent vs. a year ago, according to the latest 52-week information supplied by ACNielsen.
A growing sub-set of the dark chocolate segment is the emergence of origin and organic concepts.
Overlapping (or perhaps more accurately, enrobing) dark chocolate with other popular consumables, such as savory snacks and mints, is another hot spin-off, often creating products that are perceived to be even more “gourmet” and commanding higher price points than the “naked” versions of the products.
Target Audience
It used to be that more ethnic, affluent, and/or European-traveling consumers were the best target for dark chocolate sales in this country. Today, the mass appeal of gourmet coffee houses (often now selling dark chocolates, by the way), as well as the rise in chocolate cafes and the healthy hype surrounding dark chocolate, has contributed to the desire for more “good quality daily chocolate breaks” from adult consumers of all walks. And that means more dark chocolate for everybody; the sensory experience of enjoying dark chocolate has become powerfully and universally appealing.
That said, this is not a category to target to kids or teens that typically do not have the palates for “candy” with less sugar, more bitter flavors.
The ideal audience is still adults with refined palates — and those used to savoring these not-so-guilty-anymore pleasures. Chances are, too, that if you have wine connoisseurs or strong coffee drinkers as your customers, you have built-in dark chocolate lovers to target.
And let’s not forget about the female market segment; dark chocolate manufacturers certainly have not. New packaging reflects a feminine appeal, not only in colors, fonts, but in clever sayings as well — such as those that play up the “PMS relief” aspect of their “dark” food.
With dark chocolate perceived as more “gourmet” chocolate (and often, the two categories overlap greatly), it commands higher price points, even from those consumers who are buying it through mainstream retail channels. Currently, dark chocolate bar prices often start at $1 an ounce, but can easily exceed $1.50 or even $2 an ounce.
Seasonal Opportunities
Sure, there are opportunities to sell more dark chocolate on holidays, but that’s just because more people are enjoying it all year long. Perhaps the best seasonal news about dark chocolate is that it can be both a “Valentine’s Day extravagance” and an “everyday indulgence.” This means that consumers will pick up a box of dark chocolates for a loved one on Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, etc., and be simultaneously reminded to buy a bar or bag, or both, of dark chocolate for their own consumption during the week. Dark chocolate, it is predicted, begets dark chocolate. Therefore, cross-merchandising “everyday” dark chocolate with “seasonal” selections is a natural opportunity.
Moving forward, expect to “see the dark” from all chocolate manufacturers, no matter how mainstream. Those already in it will aim for even “higher” dark places. Cocoa connoisseurs are emphatic that the industry will continue to see the rise of single-estate and varietal chocolate; the most discerning consumers will search for cacaos of different continents, countries, regions within countries and even farms within a region.
The word is that the industry can expect to see more chocolate actually made where the cacao is grown; right now these bean-to-bar chocolate makers are primarily in Europe and the United States, but Venezuela and Ecuador are catching on quickly.
Another trend — “hot” chocolate will become literal. While the Mexicans have laced their chocolate with spices for centuries, American consumers’ taste for more sophisticated chocolate has led to the up-and-coming coupling of darker chocolate (starting in specialty, but migrating to the masses) with spicier, more savory, ethnic flavorings, such as: all kinds of pepper, including black and cayenne; ancho chiles; lemon and lime; intense cinnamon; ginger; paprika; pine nuts; cloves; sea salt; rosemary, and even sun-dried tomatoes.
An additional dark treat on the horizon — “rustic” chocolate bars, which will allow consumers to crunch into cocoa nibs and sugar crystals.
$510 million
Dark Chocolate Estimated U.S. Retail Market Size

Source: ACNielsen

Merchandising Musts
• Shine the light on a dark place. Dark chocolate definitely deserves its own special place in the candy planogram these days. The latest category success has reportedly been generated by merchandising all of the dark products in a dedicated dark chocolate section — and perhaps providing accompanying explanation graphics, such as those that some bar suppliers now offer.
• Make healthy hints. Knowing that consumers recognize the health benefits of dark chocolate, cross-merchandising it with other products rich in anti-oxidants, such as wine, or even colorful fruits like berries, is a wise idea. Keep in mind, though, that most chocolate manufacturers will not make any health claims for their dark products, and neither should retailers. In this instance, it is best to let consumers make their own health conclusions/purchase with their own health perceptions. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to merchandise logical (and attractive) pairings.
• Let them trade up. The dark chocolate cocoa content has turned into a numbers game, and retailers should be prepared to let consumers “trade up” as their taste buds become more refined/less inclined to want a sugary taste. Planograms should include bars with lower, more “beginner” cocoa content (such as 60, meaning that about 40 percent of the bar is made up of sugar), then middle-ground bars with about 70-72 percent cocoa, and finally, have those that are for the “most serious” dark chocolate lovers, some at 85 percent or 92 percent. In fact, at least one manufacturer now offers a 99 percent “killer” cocoa bar in its portfolio.