Chocolate at CVS

CVS calls itself a “pharmacy innovation company,” so it is not the first place one thinks of when considering places to buy chocolate. However, the options for chocolate products in the 24-hour Cambridge, MA location claim a surprisingly large section of aisle space. More than half of the candy aisle is taken up by chocolate, and their aisle dedicated to holiday and seasonal products is also predominantly filled with holiday-themed chocolate items. There’s a tantalizing array of similar chocolate products lined up in the checkout line, neatly packaged for individual, one-time consumption. And for a customer who wants to try something fancier, there is an aisle endcap labeled “Premium Chocolates.” There are some interesting trends in the options available for purchase. With the exception of the small premium chocolate selection, all the chocolate is milk chocolate, most of it consists of chocolate in combination with another food such as peanut butter, caramel, or fruit, and all the options that I could find were produced by one of the four largest chocolate companies: Mars, Nestle, Hershey, and Cadbury. In fact, a lot of the options were simply the same product in different forms. A customer can buy a 2-pound bag of individually wrapped mini Reeses, or a bag of even smaller unwrapped Reeses, or an 8-pack of large Reeses, or an individually-wrapped large Reeses, or a bag of Easter-themed Reeses shaped like bunnies or eggs. It’s all peanut butter surrounded by a milk chocolate layer, but the customer can choose at least six different forms in which they’d enjoy eating this product. Additionally, most of these chocolate products were on the lower end of the price range. For only about two dollars, a customer can buy individually-wrapped chocolate items of up to eight ounces. Even the premium chocolate endcap is dominated by yellow stickers denoting huge sales. A picture of this is shown below.


(image taken by me)

A customer can buy two chocolate bars and get the third for free, and the most expensive bar was eight dollars.

Compiling these observations, we can see that CVS primarily sells inexpensive, sugary milk chocolate products produced by huge chocolate companies who are very focused on packaging, and that CVS branches out a little bit with their premium chocolate selection but still focuses on keeping the price down. Why is this? CVS is a drugstore where people shop to find household conveniences, health products, and snacks. According to one article, CVS tries to sell to all Americans because everyone needs pharmaceuticals, but its target market is the elderly. CVS is not primarily a food store, so it makes sense that CVS would try to sell chocolate products that are most likely to appeal to its target demographic of middle-class and elderly Americans. CVS is doing well as a company, so its products must be selling well. We can see, then, that the average American enjoys buying milk chocolate that is sugary, brightly packaged, and produced by Nestle, Mars, Hershey, or Cadbury. The explanation for why Americans prefer this style of chocolate lies in our history. Sugar production, industrialization, and aggressive marketing all contributed to the way our chocolate industry looks today.

Until the 1700s, sugar was a luxury product in Europe. People knew of its existence, but it was too expensive to eat frequently and was consumed primarily by the upper classes. Demand for sugar continued to grow, however, so from the 1500s onwards, European powers established sugar plantations in the Caribbean, imported slaves from west Africa to labor on them, and competed with one another to become the foremost sugar exporters. Britain, France, and Portugal were the most successful with sugar production and trade. Most of the sugar produced in their colonies was consumed back in Europe as demand continued to grow and grow. By the mid-1700s, sugar was a regular feature of most Europeans’ diets (Mintz 5-45). By 1850, the price of sugar in Britain dropped sharply due to new economic policies that navigated away from protectionist policies for colonies and towards free trade (Mintz 61). This decrease allowed sugar to become even more of a necessity to English diets, and since sugar was cheap, it served as a substitute for other, more expensive foodstuffs for working class people (Mintz 161). These same trends happened in the United States. The combination of the facts that sugar is cheap and that humans have a strong sweet tooth have contributed to the fact that more and more of our diet consisted of sugar until we have gotten to where we are now: a society that adds sugar to nearly all processed foods.   This explains why we like our chocolate so sugary; we like everything sugary.

This still doesn’t explain, however, why only four chocolate companies produce the chocolate we see in CVS. This limited brand choice is due to two main, overlapping factors: first, American industrialization allowed for huge economies of scale, allowing factories to mass-produce items such as chocolate at low prices. Second, a couple chocolate factories captured the American market while chocolate was still a new item and the American taste for chocolate was still forming, causing Americans to crave a certain flavor of chocolate that only those companies could produce. In the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution took off in the United States as people figured out how to use non-human sources of energy to power large factories that used automated processes to mass-produce items on great scale. This led to the rise of the working class and their mass demand for affordable foods. The mass manufacture of foods, then, became very important where it had previously been a small market (Goody 85). There were massive improvements in “four basic areas: (1) preserving; (2) mechanization; (3) retailing (and wholesaling); and (4) transport” (Goody 72). All of these innovations allowed for food to be produced and processed on a larger scale than ever before, shipped everywhere in the country for consumption, and sold at the lowest prices it had ever been. Processed food became a necessity in the working class diet, and mass production of foods by large-scale companies is still the way that most of our food is produced today. Chocolate is one of these foods that became mass-produced, and the first company to mass-produce chocolate in the United States was Hershey.

Hershey conceived a new business strategy that was previously unused by sweet-makers: he produced vast amounts of his products at low prices instead of making a lot of products at varying prices. This allowed him to sell his Hershey Kisses and bars to nearly “every grocer, druggist, and candy store owner in America” (D’Antonio 123). His strategy worked, and Americans liked the candy so much that Hershey made $3.6 million dollars in sales in 1911 and $5 million dollars in sales in 1912 (D’Antonio 123). Hershey has been a permanent fixture in American culture ever since. One explanation for why Hershey chocolate has stayed so popular in the United States is because it introduced a distinct flavor of chocolate to Americans before they had tried any other flavor of chocolate. Americans came to associate the Hershey flavor with true chocolate, and would be reluctant to try anything else. Europeans, meanwhile, often dislike the slightly sour taste of Hershey chocolate (D’Antonio 108). Other chocolate companies had to come up with their own innovations to compete successfully with Hershey’s initial chocolate monopoly. Mars company, for example, was mainly successful because it came up with the idea of enrobing other sweets in chocolate and selling it as a chocolate bar. This allowed Mars to sell a much larger “chocolate” bar than Hershey for the same price because other ingredients were cheaper than the chocolate, and this larger bar for the same price was very appealing to consumers (Brenner 57-59). The original Mars bar consisted of chocolate-covered nougat and caramel, and looked about three times as thick as a Hershey bar. We can see an advertisement below for the original chocolate Mars bar, where it emphasizes that it consists of 3 flavors.

Mars had the same flavor of chocolate as Hershey-in fact, Mars initially bought its chocolate from Hershey- so the only difference in products was the added nougat and caramel. Mars quickly became as successful as Hershey and competed for market share. These large companies were able to produce chocolate extremely efficiently, so they were able to sell their products at lower prices than local confectioners (Brenner 188). The large companies soon outcompeted smaller ones, and thus most of our chocolate today is produced by massive companies that can sell us chocolate for the lowest prices.

There are signs, however, that consumers are starting to pay more attention to factors other than flavor and price when purchasing chocolate. Now that chocolate is so affordable, Americans are starting to be concerned with the way in which chocolate is produced: is it fair to the cacao growers? Is it ecologically sustainable? Does it have health benefits? According to Kristy Leissle, demand for organic, healthier chocolate is on the rise (23), which is reflected by the resurgence of artisan chocolate makers. The number of bean-to-bar chocolate artisans has risen from one to thirty-seven from the 1970s until now (Leissle 23), and the number keeps growing. Recently, there has been an emphasis on how organic, dark chocolate has health benefits and is tastier than mass-produced milk chocolate. More and more Americans are buying “premium,” especially dark, chocolate (Bean to Bar 167). This growing interest in fine chocolate is reflected in CVS’s small “Premium Chocolate” section. CVS itself is attempting to become a more health-oriented drugstore. It stopped selling cigarettes and is stocking its shelves with healthier options overall (Thau). This could explain why CVS is selling some darker, higher quality chocolates. However, all of the premium chocolate that CVS sells is still made by large companies that put their chocolate through a lot of processing. The brands available are Ghiradelli, Lindt, and Chuao: all large and well-known companies with not much of an emphasis on producing their products in an ecologically and ethically sound manner. This is likely because although CVS is making steps to sell more healthy, environmentally conscious products, it still must appeal to its target audience, which wants inexpensive and convenient snacks. These brands of premium chocolate are more expensive than typical American milk chocolate, but they are still much less expensive on average than artisan bean-to-bar chocolate, or than organically produced chocolate. CVS is thus striking the balance between healthier, socially conscious options and low price options. Overall, the options at CVS are a fairly accurate reflection of American trends towards chocolate overall. Americans are still hooked on extremely sugary, processed chocolate and are not willing to pay high prices for candy, but are starting to demand more dark chocolate due to its health benefits and common linkage with socially conscious initiatives.

Works Cited

“About.” CVS Health. CVS, n.d. Web. 5 May 2017.

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The emperors of chocolate: inside the secret world of Hershey and Mars. New York, NY: Broadway , 2000. Print.

Convex Strategies. “CVS: Demographics And Business Model Mean Tons Of Upside For The Stock.” Seeking Alpha. N.p., 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 5 May 2017.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s extraordinary life of wealth, empire, and utopian dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2007. Print.

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 72-89. Print.

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 13.3 (2013): 22-31. JSTOR. Web. 5 May 2017.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin , 1987. Print.

Thau, Barbara. “Can CVS Become The Whole Foods Of Drugstore Retailing?” Forbes. N.p., 22 Apr. 2017. Web. 5 May 2017.

Williams, Pamela Sue., and Jim Eber. Raising the bar: the future of fine chocolate. Vancouver, BC: Wilmor Publishing Corporation, 2012. Print.

Mars advertisement image link:

The first image of Premium Chocolate was taken by me.


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