Traditional pre-New Year product purchases in Russian cities and towns did not look quite usual in late 2017. It seemed as if the whole Russian trade had been covered by a consumer tsunami. Over the 2–3 weeks before New Year 2018, huge queues formed in stores, and shopping halls were flooded with crowds of people with full baskets and carts. This unprecedented consumer hype took place after a three-year period of abstaining from purchases and was astonishing in terms of its scope even to experienced commercial workers.
Sweets have a special place in this pre-New Year bustle. Holiday sets for kids, chocolate candy boxes, gifts and sweet souvenirs for friends and colleagues, cookie tins, edible Christmas tree decorations and figures, sweet delicacies for oneself and loved ones – all of this is purchased before New Year’s and is made up of confectionery goods. Chocolate products are placed first among them.
On the eve of the New Year 2018, demand for sweets and chocolate confectionery in particular exceeded all expectations. In the first half of 2017, consumption of chocolate confectionery products was set at the maximum level of the past decade, at 5–5.2 kilograms per year per capita throughout the country. Compared to European leaders in consumption (8–12 kilograms per capita per year), this indicator is not particularly high, but it is much higher than the volumes that were consumed by Russians before, for example, 4 years ago in 2014, when the volume equalled 4.3 kilograms per capita per year. Before and during the year 2014, consumption of chocolate confectionery in Russia was growing gradually without any jumps. However, the crisis that started, the sharp increase in prices for finished products (up to 60% in 2 years, from 2015 to 2016) and the need to save on everyday expenditures changed Russians’ consumer habits, and many Russians opted to ‘forget’ about chocolate until better times.
There are a number of reasons for the improved consumer sentiment; the key ones include the slower price increase, and consumers having been tired of the need to save. The most important aspect that should be mentioned, however, is the current growth in consumption – it is not just increased volumes of candy and chocolate in kilograms that is in question, but qualitative changes in preferences of Russian consumers that have been starting to occur, even if slowly.
Undoubtedly, the mass market is rather conservative, and trends which will be mentioned below are only a light contour of hypothetical shifts. However, what is important regardless is that chocolate has been increasingly attracting consumers’ attention, and its audience has been expanding, getting much wider than the previous consumer group of children and women.
One of the main trends gradually entering the Russian market is the purchase of goods not only at a higher price, but also having more valuable consumer properties – when the shift to a higher price category has to do with qualitative characteristics rather than the store margin or logistics costs, when imported goods are in question. For instance, the buyer switches from simple dark chocolate to chocolate from special cocoa varieties, or from mass-produced chocolate to handmade chocolate. Or, trivial milk chocolate does not satisfy the consumer any longer, and they require a more sophisticated flavour range and properties. This trend mainly covers the adult audience in Russian cities, where a wide variety of products is available and appropriate demand is formed. This is indicated by the growing number of specialised chocolate boutiques and the emergence of small manufacturers of non-mass chocolate goods which can be found in niche establishments such as healthy foods stores. More and more aspects of chocolate preparation have been gaining importance, similar to wine, fine tea and coffee, and these nuances have been turning into a consumption culture or even a lifestyle.
Chocolate – namely dark chocolate – has long had no objections from nutritionists; it stimulates the release of ‘happy hormones’ and contains substances that trigger an antioxidant effect. At the same time, chocolate is often criticised for its high sugar content. Decreased sugar volumes, appeals for moderate consumption, and information on acceptable consumption volumes available right on the package are novelties demanded by consumers, and nowadays they can often be seen on the shelves of Russian stores.
In the struggle for consumers, manufacturers expand their offers through specialised goods – lactose-free, nut-free, sugar-free etc., even though examples of said products in Russia are isolated at the moment. Another Western trend that has not found support in Russia yet is environmentally friendly goods – that is, goods produced with minimal damage to the environment.
Chocolate has been turning from simply a dessert into a trendy food product. And just like in the fashion world, someone sets the trends here, and others replicate the most demanded products in the mass market. Chocolatiers have been actively experimenting with the most extravagant chocolate flavours. Apples and cumin, turmeric and tropical fruit – these are just some of the ideas offered by innovators in the world of chocolate high fashion. Which of them will be well-received by consumers is yet to be discovered. Nevertheless, as recently as 10 years ago, the combination of red pepper and chocolate could leave Russian consumers baffled, whereas nowadays said chocolate has a lot of fans across the country.
The main consumer audience for chocolate in our country are children, and therefore it will be reasonable to state that the most demanded chocolate variety is milk chocolate. It may have additives and fillings, be aerated or have other modifications, but it is still milk chocolate. More than half of all chocolate consumed in Russia falls on this variety. In the crisis year 2015, due to a sharp increase in prices for the main raw materials for chocolate production, its output was balancing on the verge of profitability, and a number of manufacturers were actively bringing chocolate with large volumes of fillings to the market, as additives were cheaper than chocolate raw materials and allowed them to keep selling prices from growing. As a result, the market demonstrated an increase of the range diversity due to interesting new goods with unusual flavours and properties. This was supported by consumers, and even today the variety of flavours, additives and chocolate formats available on the store shelves is well-received.
Most certainly, the adherence to traditional flavours as well as chocolate and candy brands familiar from childhood remain the unchanged mass characteristic of the Russian consumer audience. For several years, the Confectionery Market Research Center has been analysing the composition of New Year’s gifts for kids, which are purchased by state organisations and various budgetary institutions before the winter holidays. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the supply terms include that the gifts are to consist of chocolate and candy of specific brands, most often those that have existed since the Soviet Union and that are apparently known and loved by those who form said delivery orders. Nevertheless, every year the amount of gifts oriented at changing preferences of the child audience has been increasing, and these have not been in favour of aforementioned ‘good old’ flavours. It seems like at the very least, the younger generation desires more than just traditions. Time will show what their choice will turn out to be.