A spoonful of sugar ...

Expanding the product offer with sweets could be a tonic - or a bitter pill, reports Jaq Bayles

Under-age sales are never far from the news, and responsible retailers are constantly looking for new ways to make sure they don't fall into test purchasing traps.

Yet earlier this year, Threshers came under fire in the Guardian newspaper for "behaving unethically" when it started selling children's penny sweets.

The newspaper reported: "Employees were told the sweets were aimed at 'nostalgic adults', but one Threshers worker told the Guardian he felt they served a less innocent purpose.

"'My colleagues and I feel that [this is] morally dubious and socially careless and will continue to fuel the youth disorder problems we have in this country.'"

The paper went on to quote Frank Sodeen, press and parliamentary officer for Alcohol Concern, saying: "While Threshers may be targeting legal drinkers, these sorts of promotions further perpetuate the idea that alcohol, this time by association, is entirely innocuous."

Threshers' response was that it was "committed to trialling a number of new product categories, including confectionery, bread, milk, financial services and many others to enhance our offering on the high street".

So do "childlike" products attract children into off-licences, acting to help "condition" them to the environment, or are they merely fulfilling the nostalgic demand of older consumers?

Shane Brennan, spokesman for the Association of Convenience Stores, believes it is the latter. He says: "We don't see sales of confectionery and alcohol linked in any way.

"Many convenience stores sell confectionery and many sell alcohol. It's an acceptable mix. Young people go into convenience stores to buy products but they're not allowed to buy alcohol. From Threshers' point of view, off-licences are not the sort of places young people go. Sweets are made available on the counter - they are not advertised outside. The focus is on selling to adults who are the majority of consumers of confectionery."

But Hancocks Cash & Carry thinks there's a real opportunity for off-licences to create a point of difference by concentrating on stocking confectionery that is specifically targeted at adults, thus demonstrating "they are not trying to attract children as customers".

The wholesaler says: "Much confectionery is clearly targeted at children . This can be a potential issue for off-licences if they stretch the variety of their confectionery range too far. So how can they take advantage of the sweet opportunities while not attracting children?"

Hancocks this summer relaunched its classic bagged sweets to "develop a distinctly adult feel" and says the result has been a

boost to sales

thanks to the product 's clear positioning.

Hancocks purchasing director Richard Brittle says: "Off-licences can earn a good margin from a n adult confectionery range that is distinctly different to the supermarkets, while offering

customers great value."

Maximising the adult confectionery potential, Hancocks has launched a branded pick and mix stand for La Suissa - "an indulgent range of 12 individually wrapped Italian chocolates which might include delicacies such as cappuccino or amaretto".

Brittle says: "This is a tremendous opportunity for all types of independent retailer, from convenience stores to off-licences. Targeted at adults, La Suissa quite simply provides a quality that exceeds the majority of comparable UK brands. The premium sector is growing well and this sits at the top of that market. Coupled with the fact that adults are the biggest pick and mix spenders, La Suissa has great potential."

Among other adult-focused products on offer from Hancocks in the run-up to Christmas are Ephesus Turkish Delight and a host of new £1 lines. "We really do want to labour the point that there is tremendous profit and sales volume to be had at a £1 price point, especially if the range spreads beyond the core brands," says Brittle.

Other premium products that sold well during the 2006 season were Lindt, Guylian and Gordon Ramsay chocolates, and Hancocks cites

Liquorice Allsorts, Mint Creams, Orchard Fruit Jellies and Turkish Delight as top Christmas sellers.

But it's not just in confectionery that there are chances to exploit the "adult" offering. Soft drinks, too, can provide a point of difference, particularly around the festive season.

Shloer quotes 2006 Nielsen data showing the key dates for purchase of adult soft drinks

around Christmas start in late November , peaking a few days before Christmas.

Shloer managing director Mike Coppard says: "Christmas may traditionally be viewed as a period of excess consumption, especially on the alcoholic beverage front. However, year-on-year sales growth proves consumers still want the choice of a sparkling non-alcoholic alternative."

Also hoping to get the Christmas vote from those attempting to minimise the effects of overindulgence is

new non-alcoholic Pharaoh's Wellness Drink ,


"refreshing adult flavours" carob, hibiscus, tamarind, peppermint and liquorice.


drinks are said to be inspired by the ancient Egyptians, who 3,000 years ago used these

plants to prepare medicinal recipes. The

drinks are

available in Harrods at £1.40 for a 33cl bottle, but will be available nationally soon.

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