Chocolate Faceoff: An in depth look at Competitive Retail Markets

The relationship between humans and chocolate is very intimate.  Chocolate is one of those foods that people can share a deep connection with.  A love for chocolate can be born through special family moments such as a parent rewarding his or her child with a treat for good behavior; or through the traditional exchange of candy during holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween.  Prior to taking a course entitled Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food instructed by Professor Carla Martin, I did not realize how important – and impactful for that matter – chocolate’s effect had and continues to have on humanity to this day.  In this paper, I will examine the chocolate selection at Walgreens, Whole Foods and Furlongs (a locally owned craft chocolate shop) to provide a better understanding of what these retail establishments teach us about chocolate products and how our consumer choices affect the world around us.

Considering that Walgreens is the 2nd largest pharmacy chain in the United States, it was interesting to see them ditch their previous slogan of being at “the corner of happy and healthy” and replacing it with “trusted since 1901.”  Aside from filling prescription medications, Walgreens actually serves their consumers by selling a wide assortment of products; chocolate being those among them.  When recently visiting their candy isle, I noticed three observations about their chocolate selection: the products were easily recognizable brands, non-descriptive and most importantly, cheap.  For example, how can a household name such as Hershey’s milk chocolate be sold at 79 cents per bar?

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Michael D’Antonio sheds light on how this is possible in his article entitled HERSHEY: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams.  He states that with the aid of John Schmalbach “Mr. Hershey had discovered a batch of warm, smooth, sweetened condensed milk that accepted cocoa powder and other ingredients without getting lumpy; it melted smoothly in the mouth and could be stored for several months without spoiling.  Hershey would be able to make milk chocolate faster and cheaper than the Europeans.  Once he had his formula he began to adapt it for large scale production” (D’Antonio, pg. 107-108).  Milton Hershey was a capitalist who paid John Schmalbach $100 for a chocolate formula that he envisioned growing into a billion dollar business.  He was not alone either, as other chocolate giants such as Mars would join the race in creating a confectionery product whose ingredients were extremely secretive, yet could yield a major profit.

Chocolate products like Hershey’s Kisses, Snickers and Kit Kat are packaged in a way that refrains from telling the origin of where their respective companies sourced their cacao content.  This is not a revelation by any means as historically these American and European businesses have not reflected an honest and moral approach in how they conduct themselves from an ethical standpoint.  The European success of Quaker chocolate giants Joseph Fry & Son, Cadbury and Rowntree along with the success of their American counterparts in Hershey and Mars hinged on “mass production and cost cutting methods” (Coe & Coe, pg. 241).

These cost cutting methods coupled marketing strategies such as the ones Emma Robertson describes in her article entitled Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History proved to be successful.  Robertson states that “the consumption of chocolate in the West became feminized early in its history.  From the male dominated coffee and chocolate houses of the early 17th century, chocolate became associated with luxury and leisure in the domestic sphere of the 18th century.  Cocoa and chocolate became available for the working classes from the 19th century as women were charged with providing wholesome cocoa for respectable consumption within the family (Robertson, pg. 20).”  What Robertson is eluding to is how American and European companies began to implement a gendered and classed approach in marketing chocolate products as an essential component of the human diet.

It is a cost effective approach that capitalizes on the convenience of selling a chocolate product that takes months to spoil and creates a market for itself centered around trick or treating, gifting chocolates for significant others and hiding eggs around the home for children to hunt.  Walgreens in particular is the perfect retail market to sell confectionary chocolate as each holiday would bring a different theme for customers to purchase cheap and easily identifiable brands.  The shelves in the isle even provide an industrial like feel when you look at them.  This can be on purpose as both the producer and consumer enjoy the convenience of not having to think much about where their chocolate comes from.  It is a simple in and out shopping experience; one that can be used to argue that this is why Walgreen’s changed its slogan altogether.

Whole Foods on the other hand is quite the opposite.  If you’re upgrading your slogan from “America’s healthiest grocery store” to “World’s healthiest grocery store” you better have a great reputation to back that up.  When you visit the Whole Foods website and view their mission statement: https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/our-mission-values, you see a strong emphasis on quality food, treating the customer and supplier of their foods like family, and being very transparent about where they source their products from.  Their impressive selection of chocolate is no different.

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Upon visiting their isle dedicated to chocolate, the most notable observations were how descriptive each selection was.  The clarity of the images and many certifications embraced a certain level of transparency that is simply non-existent in comparison to the chocolate that is sold at Walgreens.  The price for a Whole Foods dark chocolate and almond bar is $2.99 (a $2.20 increase from Walgreen’s Hershey milk chocolate bar) and the cover proudly proclaims it contribution to the Tanzania schoolhouse project.  Pictures shows the Theobromine Cacao tree along with the cacao pods where cacao beans are harvested, roasted, dried and ground into chocolate liquor.  There is also an uplifting photo of the Tanzanian school children joyfully smiling and waving.  Reassuring words like organic, Fair Trade and non-GMO provide the consumer extra comfort in the security of knowing that they are making an honest purchase.  How can there be such a disparity between these two retailers if their essentially selling the same product?

There are many reasons why the Whole Food selection is priced higher, more informative and healthier than the chocolate that is sold at Walgreens.  For one, Whole Foods sells their own chocolate, but also carries chocolate that is produced by smaller independent companies who make it an initiative to respect the origin of chocolate and treat the people who harvest its most important ingredient with dignity and respect.  As we now know, the MesoAmerican origin and history of how Theobromine Cacao was discovered by the Olmecs and later advanced by the Mayan and Aztec people largely goes untold.  Whole Foods products makes it a point to acknowledge this history and identify that their cacao comes from various parts of the world, including Mexico, South America, Brazil, Venezuela and certain parts of Africa.

Certifications like the Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance are non-profit organizations that aid in making sure that companies do not take advantage of the people working on these farms.  While other entities like the International Labor Organization aim to protect children from being exploited by major chocolate corporations, their stories, along with the working conditions that they and other farmers face are what major chocolate companies do not want you to be informed about.  I will examine child trafficking further to justify why there is an intention for Whole Food’s to separate themselves from other retailers like Walgreens who don’t take this kind of initiative.

In Amanda Berlan’s journal article entitled Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana, she mentions “The ILO definition of the worst forms of child labour (ILO,2004) covers cases where children working in cocoa are not enrolled in school, work makes them leaves school prematurely or they have to combine school attendance with long hours or heavy work” (Berlan, pg. 3).  Considering that this article was written a short 5 years ago in 2013 emphasizes how blurred the lines are between what is actually “modern day slavery” and voluntary labor.  Slavery itself was outlawed in most countries prior to the 19th century, however, many chocolate companies have had their fair share culpability in being involved with illegal slave practices continuing after its abolishment.  Cadbury for example had famously dragged their feet in taking action against the illegal slave labor that was producing their cacao beans in Sao Tome and Principe in the early 1900’s.  For obvious reasons, cacao farmers and chocolate companies had tried to skirt the identification of taking part in illegal slavery, but the farmers had also resorted to trafficking children to work on their farms in order to maintain the convenience of not having to pay them.  However, it is not as simple as these farmers being the exploiters and these children being exploited.

Farmers are only paid two to three times a year by the weight of how much cacao beans they are able to harvest.  When you factor in the cost of living, paying workers and operational costs to keep the farm up and running you quickly realize that these farmers are in an unfair predicament.  A bar that sells at a retail value of 79 cents with no fair trade certification – a certification that farmers must pay for at that – verses a bar that sells for $3.99 with the certification yields a much smaller profit for the farmers as they are the last to receive their cut of business profit.  Farmers compensate for their foreseeable debt by trafficking children almost out of the necessity.  The International Labor Organization attempts to take preventative measures to avoid this from happening but the issue spans much larger than them in my opinion.  The local governments of where these situations take place need to step up and instill change by not charging farmers as much as they do for bulk cacao.  Professor Martin mentioned on the first day of class that “75% of the cacao produced in the world comes from Africa while 75% of it is consumed in the United States and Europe.”  These are all examples of why Whole Foods selection of chocolate is more conscious of the implications behind who they conduct business with and why they are selling their products to their consumers.

The last stop on our retail tour is a small craft chocolate shop located in Norwood, Massachusetts called Furlongs Candies and Ice Cream.  Furlongs does not have a slogan per se but the about us section of their website reads as follows: Furlong’s has been in business for more than 80 years offering homemade chocolates made from the highest quality ingredients. Whatever the occasion, our chocolates make a great gift that anyone would love to receive.

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If you are a chocolate lover, this is the place for you; at least from a visual standpoint.  The presentation of their chocolate selection is much different than Walgreens and Whole Foods altogether.  The most notable observations here are that over 90% of the chocolate for sale is not pre-packaged.  If there is packaging it is clear plastic with minimal descriptions aside from the title of the type of chocolate it is.  Craft chocolate shops are a lot smaller than their giant retail competitors like the ones I discussed earlier.

To survive as a small business there has be a different approach taken from a marketing standpoint to build clientele.  In Jim Eber and Pam Williams’s book entitled Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate, Eber and Williams discuss the challenges the Mast brothers faced when attempting to gain traction with their business in the food industry.  “Like many fine flavor manufacturers, know that even their best traditional advertising, marketing and publicity efforts can’t compete with the big money of multinational chocolate manufacturers.  For them, education starts at the exact opposite of “mass,” – with direct connections tasting with and talking to as many customers as possible, which can sometimes lead to surprising results” (Eber and Williams, pg. 149).

Artisanal and craft chocolate shops like Furlongs have to fight an uphill battle of building relationships with their clients while dealing with a fluctuating availability of cacao supply.  Cacao supply can be hit or miss because their relationships with farmers can be fragile and industrial size chocolate companies like Hershey’s and Mar’s can quickly absorb large bulks of it without much advance notice.  However, smaller craft shops do have their perks as Eber and Williams highlight when they mention “whether it is Theo Chocolate in Seattle or TCHO in San Francisco, small manufactures are opening their doors to packed tours of people eager to learn about flavor, how chocolate is made and where it comes from” (Eber and Williams, pg. 157).  There are benefits when being the underdog that people can rally around and root for.  Norwood, Massachusetts has one in Furlongs.

The choices we make when purchasing chocolate products and food in general do have real consequences on our personal health and the world around us.  Walgreens, Whole Foods and Furlongs represent three different retail markets in the United States and sell chocolate in their own unique ways.  Walgreen’s sells it to make as much money as possible and ask little to no questions.  Whole Foods sells it to inform the consumer that they are purchasing a product that is ethically sourced and educate them on what makes it special.  While Furlongs sells chocolate to be staple in the community and display its authenticity as skilled chocolatiers.  Ultimately, we have the power as consumers to investigate these the products on the shelves of these establishments and make informed decisions about a delicacy we love so much.

 

 

                                                                       Works Cited
Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” Journal of Development Studies, vol. 49, no. 8, 2013, p. 3., doi:10.1080/00220388.2013.780041.
“Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History.” Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History, by Emma Robertson, Manchester University Press, 2013, p. 20.
Foods, Whole. “Our Mission & Values.” Whole Foods Market, 7 Mar. 2018, http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/our-mission-values.
“Hershey Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams.” Hershey Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, by Michael D’Antonio, Simon and Schuster, 2007, pp. 107–108.
Milk Vs. Dark Chocolate: The Ultimate Showdown. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rSaOv8vZyY.
“Raising the Bar: the Future of Fine Chocolate.” Raising the Bar: the Future of Fine Chocolate, by Pam Williams and Jim Eber, Wilmor Pub., 2012, pp. 149–157.
“The True History of Chocolate.” The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson, 2003, p. 241.
*The photos of the store shelves were taken in person via my Iphone.

 

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