Following three good years of growth, hard candy has been on a downward slope in the past year.

Dollar sales are down 2.08 percent and unit sales are down 4.87 percent, according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.

While there’s no smoking gun to explain the decline, one thing’s for sure, as far as Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive practice leader at IRI is concerned — there is a huge need for innovation.

Coming off of multi-year increases is always a huge challenge. But Lyons Wyatt says there hasn’t been a lot of advancement in the world of hard candy and lollipops recently, and that’s going to have to change if hard candy wants to make a comeback.

“It can be just packaging innovation, it can be product innovation, it can be a new experience, but that’s got to be on the plate for a lot of manufacturers if they’re going to continue to grow,” suggests Lyons Wyatt.

The good news is, the future looks promising and a bounce-back could be looming. After talking to different players in the hard candy and lollipop industry, all three of those things seem to be taking place.

A new experience

Take for example, Dosha Pops based in New York. The artisanal gourmet lollipop boutique just launched in December and it’s centered on a beneficial mind and body experience.

Owner and Founder Peggy Andrews says she’s seeing healthier products that come at more of a premium price because of the quality they offer.

With a tag line that encourages balancing your life “one lick at a time” the start-up, no doubt, fits right into those trends. The $15 six-pack of lollipops they offer are Ayurvedic for Pete’s sakes!

Ayerveda is a form of holistic healing, practiced in India for more than 5,000 years. The idea behind Ayerveda is that each person has a unique pattern of energies, A.K.A. Doshas. Hence the name, Dosha Pops.

A primary ingredient of the handmade lollipops is herbal tea, a primary component of an Aryvedic lifestyle as well. They are infused with natural herbs and spices, such as turmeric, ginger, and cardamom.

The six unusual flavors, like lemon tunic with ginger oils and hibiscus appeal to people of all ages, and the pops have created such a buzz that just as she was launching the business Andrews received a call requesting her to make gift bags for Oscars nominees, then later for the Grammy’s!

“I’m still kind of shocked. Definitely a dream come true,” Andrews exclaims.

Product innovation

As for veteran and hard candy leader, Jolly Rancher brand, it’s all about taking a well-loved product line and spicing things up. Right now the brand is working toward growth with a wider variety of flavor mixes and line extensions for on-the-go options.

For example, the Jolly Rancher Awesome Reds bag and Jolly Rancher Stick Pack are both about reaching more consumers.

The Big Reds bag was recently launched with consumers in mind who love watermelon and cherry flavor candies especially.

“It gives this contingent of consumers the option to enjoy their favorite flavors,” explains Jim Kilts brand manager at Jolly Rancher.

As for the Stick Pack release late last year, it fits perfectly into retailer’s front end and does a good job of offering busy consumers the option to enjoy the bold fruit flavors of Jolly Ranchers on the go, Kilts says.

But that’s not all. Jolly Rancher also is expanding its services globally, by launching in India!

“India is the first international market for the Jolly Rancher brand outside of North America in the brand’s 65-year history,” Kilts exclaims.

The first product to drop in the second most populated country in the world will be Jolly Rancher lollipops.

“In the U.S., lollipops are most often considered a youthful treat,” says Kilts. “Outside the U.S., lollipops is a big market, and they’re enjoyed by the entire family.”

The lollipops will come in Green Apple, Watermelon and Mango. In fact, Mango was specifically developed for the market in India.

Jolly Rancheris still committed to bringing lollipops to a more youthful audience back in the States though. That said, it makes sense that their lollipop business is key in seasons such as Easter, Valentine’s Day and Halloween.

This past fall, the brand released the Jolly Rancher Caramel Apple Lollipop for Halloween. They basically took the traditional Green Apple flavor and extended it into a fun seasonal product.

“What we’ve found is that we can easily take our hard candy equity for bold fruity flavors and deliver it in lollipop form,” Kilts explains.

Meanwhile, Spangler’s Dum Dums brand is being serious about seasonal offerings as well, launching three new seasonal items.

This past Christmas the brand released Holiday Pops featuring limited edition holiday-themed flavors like Sugar Cookie, Hot Chocolate, and Gingerbread. For Valentine’s Day Dum Dums launched a new version of its Valentine Kit that allows kids to create lollipop bouquets using to/from labels included in the kit. And this Easter, moms can find Dum Dums with a special jelly bean center filling that creates an innovative and delicious mix of textures and flavors.

Even better, the brand is responsive to the better-for-you consumer demand.

“We think Dum Dums has benefitted from the portion control movement,” says Evan Brock, brand manager atDum Dums. “At less than 25 calories per pop, moms are telling us that Dum Dums are a small treat they can share with their children without feeling guilty.”

Also increasingly involved in the move toward healthier hard candy is Primrose Candy Co.

Rick Griseto, v.p. of sales and marketing at Primrose, says the company is well positioned to take advantage of the new trend.

“Primrose produces organic hard candy for some of its customers, which enables us to keep many other natural ingredients on the floor for others,” he explains.

The company hasn’t come out with any new product launches recently, according to Griseto, who says that as a mostly private label manufacturer Primrose is driven by what it’s asked to do. However, he hints that new hard candy projects are in the works, but the fact that they’re customer specific means they must remain confidential.

He can say that the ingredients are constantly evolving.

“We are dealing with new ingredients all the time — mostly vitamins, minerals and super fruit extracts to produce a better-for-you hard candy for our contract customers.”

Packaging innovation

The need for change is not limited to flavors and ingredients, however. A big part of product presentation is packaging, and GEA Food Solutions is on it.

“The key question for many of our customers is, ‘How can I diversify my product in this competitive market?’” says Angelique van der Rijken, product sales manager at Aquarius Lollipop Equipment.

GEA is offering an opportunity for lollipop wholesalers to distinguish their products by their wrappings. The candies can achieve added value through the use of GEA’s latest feature label-on-stick and label-on-film application.

“For example,” van der Rijken explains, “when our customer decides to make a 3D soccer ball lollipop, extra value can be created when adding pictures of the players.”

While it’s still common to take things the traditional way and place the picture inside or outside the wrapping, van der Rijken says they’re suggesting that lollipop makers take it a step further and create interaction between the candy and, for instance, and online game or contest by applying a QR code on the label. Interaction can also be achieved by distributing a book to consumers, where they can collect the pictures.

Perhaps the biggest advancement GEA is involved in is assisting more and more customers in their request to create 3D lollipop shapes. The company is doing this for flat and ball lollipops.

 From the contents to the wrapper, new players to old players, big brands to boutiques, innovation is in the works on all levels of the hard candy and lollipop industry.