With retailers turning away from bulk bins and office-goers not filling their candy dishes as often, hard candy sales have sagged throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Encompassing drops and lollipops, the category generated $539.5 million in the year ending June 13, according to IRI, a Chicago-based research firm. That’s down 4.2 percent from a year ago. Additionally, 11 of the Top 20 brands IRI tracks saw sales slumps from 2020 to 2021, with nine of them experiencing double-digit declines.

Last year, hard candy pulled in $571 million in the 52 weeks ending June 14, 2020, down 2.6 percent from 2019. By comparison, the category earned $591 million in the year ending Sept. 8, 2019. At that time, the category had grown 1.3 percent from 2018.

Unit sales have also tumbled over the same period, dropping from 392 million in 2019 to 365 million in 2020. In 2021, unit sales just missed 331 million.

The Hershey Co. continues to lead the segment, occupying almost 25 percent of the market. Its Jolly Rancher brand earned $132.1 million in the year ending June 13, up 7.7 percent from a year ago.

Storck, maker of Werther’s Original, follows with 18 percent of the hard candy market. The Werther’s Original brand is the second to cross the $100 million mark, pulling in $100.9 million in the year ending June 13. That’s up almost 2 percent from a year ago.

The remaining Top 20 hard candy brands IRI tracks all generated less than $40 million. Charms Blow Pops just missed that threshold, pulling in $39.9 million in the year ending June 13, representing a 10.7 percent decline from a year ago.

Mars Wrigley’s Life Savers brand took the No. 4 spot, earning $37.9 million in the year ending June 13. That’s down 13 percent from a year ago. Private-label hard candy sales also saw a double-digit decline, dropping 18.2 percent to $30.1 million over the same period.

Nonetheless, it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the hard candy category. In February, American Licorice acquired Torie & Howard, which produces organic hard candy in flavors such as Meyer Lemon & Raspberry, Blood Orange & Honey and D’Anjou Pear & Cinnamon, alongside chewy candies. The acquisition follows American Licorice’s purchase of the Cambodian-made hard candy brand Aprati Foods in 2019.

Building on the legacy of filled pops, Spangler Candy Co. unveiled licensed Starburst pops at the 2021 Sweets & Snacks Expo. Featuring the original Starburst candy flavors — Strawberry, Cherry, Orange and Lemon — each pop has a hard candy shell with a fruit chew center of the same flavor.

Hershey also introduced a tropical take on Jolly Rancher hard candies at Sweets & Snacks Expo. This mix includes four flavors: Fruit Punch, Golden Pineapple, Lime and Mango.

And in celebration of its centennial anniversary, See’s Candies introduced classic Lemon Drops as its July Sweet-of-the-Month. Delivered in a glass jar perfect for gifting, they’re sweet with a refreshing tart twist. 

"Sweet, just the right amount of tart, and the perfect summer treat,” said See’s President and CEO Pat Egan.

Globally, Transparency Market Research cast the hard-boiled sweets category in an optimistic light, citing population expansion, greater disposable incomes, and innovations in formulations and packaging as drivers for growth. The research firm also pointed to sugar-free offerings, many of which come in the hard candy format.

Over the last year, sugar-free hard candies have had mixed results. Sugar-free Werther’s Original generated $46.5 million, up 12.2 percent in 52 weeks ending June 13. Sales for Jolly Rancher’s sugar-free option climbed 31.7 percent to $7.2 million.

Meanwhile, sugar-free Life Savers generated $13.8 million, down 24 percent from a year ago. Like its traditional counterparts, sales of private-label sugar-free diet candy dropped 27.4 percent to $2.4 million.