Online Shopping and its Impact on the Chocolate Industry

Purchasing chocolate has never been as easy as it is today, in contemporary times. Chocolate is readily available at any convenience store, grocery store, and pharmacy, and is often found in two separate locations within the store: the candy aisle, and arranged in shelves lined up near the check-out register as a last-minute addition to the main items being purchased. In fact, much of the contemporary chocolate industry relies on the fact that, aside from major holidays such as Valentine’s Day, consumers most often purchase chocolate as an impulse buy. As Lawrence Allen describes it, there is a “grab-and-go” culture surrounding the purchasing of chocolate, as chocolate is present next to “virtually every cash register today” (Allen 20). This “grab-and-go” culture, however, is largely affected by the modern tendency to shop for most items, including groceries, online. Kate Taylor, a contributor to the Business Insider, writes, “More people are ordering groceries and other products online, meaning increasingly shoppers don’t have the chance to be tempted by snacks in the checkout line” (Business Insider). This shift in the shopping experience could indicate that online shoppers who purchase chocolate are doing so more intentionally than their in-store chocolate purchasing counterparts. In other words, when people buy chocolate online, it is more likely that their purchase is planned rather than impulsive. For example, when navigating the CVS website, one would have to type the word “chocolate” into the search bar to view the selection of chocolates available online. Only after one actively searches for the term “chocolate” can he or she view the results page displaying the selection of chocolate, and only after viewing this results page can he or she complete the process of purchasing it. Due to this contemporary cultural shift in the shopping experience from in-store to online, I thought it would be interesting to analyze the online chocolate selection of local chocolate retailers, rather than their in-store selections. I plan to compare the online display, available selection, intended audience, and price points of chocolate sold on the website versions of two local stores: CVS and Whole Foods. By doing so, I hope to reveal some ethical concerns and marketing strategies employed by companies involved in the current cacao-chocolate industry, in addition to the way these strategies may impact consumers.

CVS

Let us begin by exploring the chocolate selection available on the CVS website, (https://www.cvs.com/gbiSearch/?searchTerm=chocolate). After typing “chocolate” into the search bar, the customer is bombarded with four hundred twenty seemingly different chocolate products. The chocolate items are presented rather haphazardly, and although the default system of organization seems to be sorting and presenting the products by “relevance,” there is no clear rationale behind which products appear on the top of the list, and which appear further down. Customers do have the option of changing the way the products are displayed, with options such as “price Low to High,” “price High to Low,” and “top rated.” Based on personal experience, however, the default setting of a website seems to be used most often. The way the chocolate products are displayed online influences customers, as the products that appear on the top of the first page are more likely to be seen and purchased than those on the last page. This differs from the way chocolates are presented to customers in-store, as chocolate products are simply lined up on shelves in an aisle, so the customer has an equally likely chance of seeing one product as another.

(CVS Website vs Candy Aisle)

Some chocolate products on the CVS website are marked as ‘Best Sellers,’ with a bright red label presented next to the image of the chocolate product. Not all best sellers, however, appear at the top of the displayed list of chocolates. The “Best Seller” label is likely awarded to the chocolate products that are purchased most frequently by customers, or sold in the highest quantity. Yet, the label seems rather arbitrary, as there are several best-selling products—over ten to be exact. It is rather misleading to label products ‘best sellers’ when the term is not defined (could eight out of ten possible products all be labeled ‘best sellers?’). Additionally, the “Best Seller” label likely incentivizes customers to purchase more of that specific product, so by labelling a product a best seller, CVS likely ensures that the product will retain its best-seller status. Sales for the product either remain as high as they have been, or increase, as consumers feel they can trust the product since other consumers purchase it in high quantities. The “Best Seller” label, in this way, becomes a self-fulfilling advertisement.

 

(screenshots of best sellers from CVS website)

Moving away from the manner in which products are displayed and labeled, and towards the selection of products available, it seems that CVS offers a wide selection of chocolate brands and products. To name a few products from the first page of results, CVS sells: Brookside Dark Chocolate-Covered Berries, M&Ms, York Peppermint Patties, Dove Chocolates, Cadbury Eggs, Ferrero Rocher Fine Chocolates, Kit-Kats, Taza Chocolate, and Theo Chocolate. Upon further inspection, however, the seemingly wide array of brands and products are not so diverse after all. After perusing through the Brookside website (http://www.brooksidechocolate.com/usa) , and clicking on the privacy policy link, it is apparent that the brand is owned by the Hershey Company. York Peppermint Patties (https://www.hersheys.com/york/en_us/home.html) and Kit-Kats are also clearly owned by the Hershey Company (https://www.hersheys.com/kitkat/en_us/home.html) , and surfing through the Dove (https://www.dovechocolate.com/Home) and M&M (https://www.mymms.com/home.do) websites for a few minutes is all it takes to uncover the fact that they are both owned by Mars. Aside from Taza Chocolate and Theo Chocolate, nearly all of the chocolate products sold on the CVS website are brands owned by the large companies Mars, Hershey’s, Nestle, Cadbury, and Ferrero. These companies, referred to as the Big Five, make up over 50% of the world’s confectionary market share (Martin Lecture 1). Not surprisingly, their chocolate products are also the most affordable products sold at CVS, as they minimize their costs by paying as little as possible for their cacao, since most of it is not Fair Trade Certified (Darhan 227). Theo and Taza Chocolate, both organic and fair trading companies, retail for over $40 on the CVS website, at around ten times the price of the Big Five chocolate products. Of course, this price surge is due to the fact that Theo and Taza Chocolate are sold in bulk rather than individually on the CVS website. To the average customer, however, prices this high are an enormous disincentive from purchasing the item, regardless of the amount of product he or she would be receiving. By selling Theo and Taza chocolate on their website only in bulk, CVS effectively advertises the other, less expensive chocolate product options– the very products that are owned by the Big Five companies. Whether intentional, or unintentional, the CVS website promotes chocolate sold by the Big Five chocolate companies over smaller, more ethical companies, like Taza and Theo.

(Comparing the prices of Taza and Theo Chocolate to Big Five Company chocolate products).

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 8.57.09 PM.png

(The Big Five Companies)

Whole Foods 

Moving on to the chocolate section of the Whole Foods website, the contrast between the CVS chocolate selection and Whole Foods chocolate selection is quite vast. After typing “chocolate” into the Whole Foods search bar  (https://delivery.wholefoodsmarket.com/store/whole-foods/search_v3/chocolate?page=1), the customer is met with thirty four pages of results. Similar to the CVS website, there is no clear rationale behind the organization of these chocolate products, and no explanation for why certain products appear on the first few pages, and others on the last few pages. This is one similarity in the method by which chocolate is sold on the CVS and Whole Foods websites. Within the thirty four pages of the Whole Foods chocolate products, brand names such as barkThins, Chocolove, Guittard, Justin’s, Theo, and Endangered Species arise. None of these brands, however, are offshoots of the big five companies: Hershey’s, Nestle, Mars, Ferrero, or Cadbury. They are, instead, independent chocolate manufacturing companies. Additionally, all of these companies produce products that are Fair Trade certified.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 9.21.51 PM

(Whole Foods website chocolate selection)

There are no Best Seller” labels strewn across any of the chocolate products, and none of the chocolate bars are sold in bulk, in direct contrast with the chocolate sold on CVS’s website. In terms of price, no single chocolate bar is significantly more expensive than another, since all of them are being sold individually, rather than in bulk. In this way, it seems there are no external factors pushing consumers toward certain brands or companies sold on the Whole Foods website. The fact that nearly all of the chocolate products sold on the Whole Foods website are Fair Trade certified, however, demonstrates the values of Whole Foods as a retailer. There may not be external influence from Whole Foods pushing a consumer to buy certain products, but that lies in the fact that Whole Foods does not carry chocolate products they do not approve of in the first place. Although the CVS website contains elements that may influence a consumer’s decision to purchase certain items (i.e. Best Seller signs and only selling certain chocolate products in bulk), the CVS online site carries chocolate products produced by the big five chocolate companies, in addition to certified Fair Trade chocolate products, like Theo and Taza. It is still ultimately the consumer’s decision to purchase the chocolate product they desire. Whole Foods, on the other hand, seems to pre-select chocolate products for the consumer; there are no chocolate products owned by any of the big five companies available for purchase on the Whole Foods website at all, so the consumer does not have the option to purchase them, even if he or she so desires.

By choosing to exclusively sell chocolate products that are Fair Trade certified, Whole Foods makes an ethical statement– that the company and its customers are Fair Trade supporters.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 10.28.35 PM.png

The image above is taken from the Fair Trade Website, and depicts a cacao farmer in Ecuador. With images like these, Fair Trade promotes the idea of close relationships between cacao farmers and chocolate producing companies. The idea behind forging these close relationships with farmers, and the “prompt payment of fair prices and wages” pushes chocolate producers and retailing companies like Whole Foods to support Fair Trade. There is also consumer influence on the push for companies to become Fair Trade Certified. As the demand for Fair Trade Certification increases, so do companies’ desires to become Fair Trade Certified.  As ethical and utopian as it sounds, the impact of Fair Trade certification does not always hold up to its claims, unfortunately. As depicted in the video entitled “The Fair Trade Shell Game” http://www.vocativ.com/40932/fair-trade-shell-game/, Fair Trade certification has negative impacts, such as hurting non-certified farmers, and does not have solid evidence to support its claim that money reaches farmers in the developing world (Martin Lecture 9).

Overall, it seems that the CVS and Whole Foods online stores cater to two different chocolate consuming populations. Consumers searching for chocolate on the CVS website likely purchase chocolates they have grow accustomed to eating, either from prior impulse purchases when shopping in the grocery store, or from acquiring tastes for certain brands of chocolate over time. These consumers are also likely influenced by the price of the chocolate, which ranges from one to around four dollars a piece. Consumers who purchase their chocolate from the Whole Foods online store are likely driven by the idea of purchasing healthy and ethical chocolate, since nearly all of the chocolate sold on the website is Fair Trade certified. The price difference in chocolate bars does not differ too drastically from the CVS chocolate products, with chocolate bars ranging in price from three to around seven dollars a bar. While CVS online chocolate shoppers may have different intentions from Whole Foods online chocolate customers, both sets of chocolate consumers share one thing in common: they are all influenced by the vendors they buy from. The CVS and Whole Foods websites influence customers’ purchasing decisions, either directly, through bulk retailing and influential labelling (like CVS’s website), or by simply excluding certain products from retail altogether. It may seem as though purchasing chocolate online is more thought-out and purposeful for consumers than impulse-buying chocolate in stores, but consumers are just as easily persuaded through online tactics as they are in person.

Works Cited

Scholarly Sources:

Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes the Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association, 2010. Print.

Dahan, Nicolas M., and Milton Gittens. “Business and the Public Affairs of Slavery: A Discursive Approach of an Ethical Public Issue.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 92, no. 2, 2010, pp. 227–249., http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621557

Martin, Carla D. Lecture 1: Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods. 01 February 2017. Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. Lecture 9:Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization. 04 May 2017. Lecture.

Taylor, Kate. “Online shopping is killing a category that retailers have been relying on for years– and now they’re scrambling.” Business Insider, 10 Nov. 2015.

Images:

Screenshots from CVS website: https://www.cvs.com/gbiSearch/?searchTerm=chocolate

Screenshots from Whole Foods website: (https://delivery.wholefoodsmarket.com/store/whole-foods/search_v3/chocolate?page=1)

Big Five Companies chart: Martin, Carla D. Lecture 9:Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization. 04 May 2017. Lecture.

Image of Fair Trade farmer:

Rodriguez, James A. Fortaleza del Valle: Manabi, Ecuador. 26 Oct. 2015. Fair Trade, Fair Trade USA,ftusa.photoshelter.com/galleries/C00006y5VLM3yg74/G0000r4djXMuM0aw/I0000bV8fmylvn5o/ Fortaleza-del-Valle-Manabi-Ecuador. Accessed 5 May 2017.

Video:”The Fair Trade Shell Game.” Vocativ, 20 Dec. 2013, http://www.vocativ.com/40932/fair-trade-shell-game/. Accessed 5 May 2017.

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