CHICAGO — The day before the 2015 National Confectioners Association (NCA) Sweets & Snacks Expo opened its doors, a judging panel made of experts from top retailers and industry associations gathered to complete their mission: narrow down nearly 300 products to the top five in nine categories that would serve as finalists in the Most Innovative New Products Awards.
The annual awards program serves to honor new candy and snack products that are not only high-quality, but truly inventive and likely to enhance the category at market.
Judges had one hour to evaluate the entries in the four categories assigned to them, based on a set of weighted criteria: taste (30 percent), innovation (30 percent), saleability (25 percent) and packaging (15 percent).
In part two of the process, each category's top five products were chosen through a group discussion, during which numerous judges advocated strongly for the products they believe hold the most promise.
All the finalists were then voted on by Sweets & Snacks Expo attendees on the first day of the show to determine the winners.
The 2015 Most Innovative New Products are:
- Chocolate: Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Peanuts, Albanese Confectionary Group Inc.
- Non-Chocolate: Pancakes & Maple Syrup Jelly Beans, Jelly Belly Candy Co.
- Seasonal: Roca Thins Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark, Brown & Haley
- Novelty/Licensed: BeanBoozled Mystery Bean Dispenser, Jelly Belly Candy Co.
- Salty Snacks: Kettle Brand Thick + Bold Dill Pickle Potato Chips, Diamond Foods Inc.
- Sweet Snacks: Hershey's Snack Mix, The Hershey Co.
- Gourmet/Premium: SuperSeedz Maple Sugar & Sea Salt, Kathie's Kitchen LLC
- Gum & Mints: Project 7 Grapefruit Melon Gourmet Gum, Project 7 Inc.
- Savory Snacks: Peanut Butter Snappers, Edward Marc Brands Inc.
- Best in Show: Tic Tac Minions, Ferrero USA Inc.
Along with innovation, change was an overriding theme at this year's expo.
Day two of the event featured the first-ever Retail Impact Forum. Retailer panelists included Peter Whitsett, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing at Meijer Inc.; Joanie Taylor, director of consumer affairs and community relations at Schnuck Markets Inc.; and Steve Boomershine, vice president of merchandising at Giant Eagle's GetGo convenience store chain.
Moderator Michael Sansolo of MorningNewsBeat.com opened the panel discussion by noting that a large number of consumers are still living in an age of frugality despite being years out from the recession's end. To succeed in this environment, he said retailers must be "sharply in tune" with the needs and wants of their consumers.
The retail panelists concurred and cited innovation, growth in seasonal goods, portion control and affordable treats as keys to marketing in this new normal.
Joining Sansolo were Tina Manikas, president of FCB/RED in Chicago, and Darren Seifer of The NPD Group, also in Chicago. The panel of retailer executives provided real-time feedback and commentary on their presentations.
Manikas discussed the differences between baby boomers and millennials, who represent lots of spending dollars but approach the world differently. Millennials want more from work than just a paycheck; are battling negative perceptions; have an entrepreneurial mindset; define values of success as happiness, passion, diversity, sharing and discovery; and value experience over things, she said.
"They want happiness, they want success, but they're pragmatic about it," Manikas added.
Seifer discussed the changing role of snacks in consumers' diets. In 1986, 71 percent of people claimed to always avoid snacking; today, only 39 percent do so, and avoiding sugar is more important to consumers than avoiding fat. As a result, better-for-you is the fastest-growing snack segment.
"Things change," Seifer said, comparing the shift in snacking patterns to the tectonic plate movement of the Earth. "They change slowly, but they change."
The timing of snacking is also changing, as snack foods move into main meals and main meal foods move into snacking occasions. Seifer advised suppliers to understand their products' proper place during the day in order to connect with consumers. "There's a time and a place for these products," he said.
For example, sweet snacks are consumed more often toward the end of the day, but that doesn't mean suppliers should remove sugar in an attempt to reach another daypart. Instead, they should focus on when consumers seek to treat themselves and protect their brand equity. "Be true to who you are," he concluded.
The Sweets & Snacks Expo wrapped up Thursday at Chicago's McCormick Place convention center.