If there’s anything everyone can agree on right now is that we all deserve a treat, whether that’s a bowl full of freshly scooped ice cream, a warm chocolate chip cookie, or just an unwrapped bit of chocolate to get our spirits up for another day in uncertain times. During economic turmoil and hard times in the past, comfort foods, like bakery items and ice cream, have still shown strong sales as people look beyond what’s “needed” and indulge in what’s “wanted” to provide a little emotional comfort. While shopping trips right now are more about picking up the basics, as the weeks go by, we’re seeing more and more now consumers agree: there’s always room for a sweet treat in their carts.

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Health and Well-Being a Priority

Shopping behavior during COVID has shifted more towards consumers prioritizing their health and buying more nutritious foods and drinks with long-term benefits for themselves and their families, especially on for immune system support and mental health. Shoppers stocked up on frozen, canned, and fresh vegetables; meats; dairy and plant-based dairy alternatives; and boxed products with long shelf life in preparation for an unknown time at home. As the weeks have gone by, however, the need for indulgent treats and sweets has taken hold as a way to cope and bring a little comfort during an uncertain time.

While consumers are concerned about their physical well-being, emotional well-being is just as important, and being forced inside and separated from friends and family is taking its mental toll on many people. Sometimes for them, sitting down with a bowl of ice cream is enough to chase away the fear for at least a few minutes. Now is the time for sweet, confectionery goods to be the hero we deserve to bring a little happiness to shoppers during a tough time, and as we’ve seen with sales during 2020, it’s doing just that.

Looking Beyond Chocolate and Vanilla

Even before COVID, dessert sales have been on the rise in certain categories since 2017, with some of the top selling points within the frozen dessert category for customers being low/no/reduced allergen, gluten free, dairy free, all natural, and organic. And while the trend of “healthier is better” is becoming a major concern for consumers, “premium” products within desserts was also on par with the healthy alternatives, so people want to keep the indulgence but lose the unhealthy elements of their favorite frozen treats. This bodes well for the rising trend of consumers in quarantine looking for the healthiest options for their families now as we see a rise in ice cream and frozen yogurt boasting health benefits alongside delicious, indulgent flavors.

Flavors on the rise reflect the consumer need for a more premium dessert experiences with coconut and coffee being the top too with the most growth; however, when people are looking for comfort, they go for what they know and love first, as we’ve seen reflected in sales across categories, like alcoholic beverages, during the pandemic. Classics like cookie dough, caramel, and cookies and cream remained strong but stagnant as must-have flavors.

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Dairy alternatives are also on the rise as brands find new ways to create indulgent flavors and frozen desserts for those looking for healthy, non-dairy options. Vegan and plant-based ice creams have moved beyond basic flavors and are now able to offer more advanced, trending options, including bakery-inspired flavors like cream puff, red velvet, and biscotti. Premium ice cream brands are exploring non-dairy options as well and delving further into the idea of indulgence with alcohol-inspired flavors, like their Amaretto, Black Cherry, Almond and Toffee Frozen Dessert. In a time where alcohol sales are skyrocketing, putting together frozen sweet treats and cocktails in one conveniently sized, easy-to-eat-in-one-sitting tub is a winning combination.

A Boon for Bakery

In-store bakery sales have also been on the rise with growing by just under $1 billion since 2017, with best-sellers being desserts, breads/rolls and bakery breakfast, which combined account for 99% of the category’s market share. Flavors on the rise for baked goods are brighter, fruitier, and less classically indulgent as their frozen counterparts, with raspberry, berry, and vanilla varieties topping the list. This flavor preference also speaks to the health-conscious consumer with fruit as the perceived “healthier” option when choosing baked goods. Bakeries that offer alternatives to flour, dairy, or sugar in the products are also benefitting from the same health-conscious quarantine shoppers who want dessert without the guilt.

One circumstance to people finding new hobbies and reinvigorating their need to cook at home is a shortage of yeast and packaged flour, sugar, and other baking needs as everyone tries their hand at baking bread and cookies in quarantine. Fortunately, this new widespread hobby is a boon to the in-store bakery stocked with the fresh-baked sweet treats people can’t make otherwise. They offer convenience in a time where people are cooking at home more than they have in years and offers a reprieve from the kitchen while also satisfying the need for indulgence.

Can’t Mess With the Classics

While compared to frozen treats and bakery items, chocolate and fudge as a category has been on a downturn since 2017 as people shift focus to perceived healthier flavors for their indulgence. When people do turn to chocolate, however, they go all out as they see it as the ultimate indulgence, with the top rising category within chocolate being premium flavors like salted caramel, sea salt, hazelnut, coconut, and espresso. People are more concerned about ethics in their chocolate as opposed to health as there’s been a notable rise in people buying brands boasting environmental and sustainable practices in their packaging and manufacturing over concerns of healthful ingredients and convenience, proving that sometimes the most comforting thing we can do during this time is to simply bite into a guilt-free bar of chocolate.

Continue reading the latest on COVID-19 and the food and beverage industry:
Culinary Chronicles: Finding Comfort in Food During Turbulent Times
Foodservice Adaptations in the Age of COVID-19
Social Distancing Cuisine With Pantry Made Soup Recipes
COVID-19's Impact on Alcoholic Beverage Categories
Consumers 'Quarantine and Cook' With Social Media Inspiration
COVID-19: Center of the Store Report

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