Analyzing the CVS Chocolate Selection: The Need for Ethical Options

The contemporary chocolate industry allows consumers to enjoy a wide array of chocolate products that appeal to diverse palates and varying budgets. This chocolate has gone through many steps, being exchanged by multiple parties, in order to be transformed from the seeds of a fruit into the smooth, sweet, finished product that consumers expect. Although most consumers are largely unaware of this complicated supply chain, their decision to consume chocolate and their decisions about what type of chocolate to consume can have important impacts on all individuals involved in the production of the good. By looking at a store that is very familiar to all Harvard students, CVS, and comparing it to a more gourmet store, Cardullo’s, we can consider how the products CVS chooses to stock and how our purchasing decisions at this store tie into the global chocolate trade. Unlike Cardullo’s, which caters to a demographic of consumers who are shopping with the intent to purchase first-rate products and can therefore be more critical about the quality and even the potential consequences of their purchases, grabbing a chocolate bar before checking out at a CVS convenience store is likely devoid of consideration regarding the impact of the purchase. It is therefore necessary to work to educate consumers and change their behavior so that even casual consumers can make informed decisions when purchasing chocolate.

As CVS was originally named “Consumer Value Store,” it is not surprising that they aim to provide customers with relatively inexpensive products, which is reflected in their chocolate selection, much of which is made by members of the Big Five chocolate companies (Leissle 73), specifically companies like Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestle. Some of the offerings at CVS are much in keeping with the original vision of early chocolate producers, such as the Hershey family, who aimed to create a simple chocolate bar that could be mass produced and would be affordable for the general population. These chocolate-only products include Hershey’s chocolate bars, Hershey’s kisses, M&Ms, and the slightly higher priced Dove chocolate, among other options. Even these slightly more expensive options, which have sleeker packaging in an attempt to appeal to a more quality conscious demographic, are still quite cheap compared to the options at Cardullo’s. The image below shows Dove Chocolates and M&Ms and demonstrates how companies at a similar price point try to differentiate themselves with sleek packaging and ornate lettering versus playful, colorful packaging in order to appeal to different consumers.

CVS also offers a number of other Hershey candy products that include chocolate as one of several ingredients. We see how large chocolate companies employ this strategy just as they did nearly one-hundred years ago in order to decrease the costs of producing their chocolate products, thereby increasing profits. This strategy was employed by Frank and Forrest Mars when they first developed the Milky Way bar in 1924 (Brenner 54). The Milky Way had malt-flavored nougat as the main ingredient, which allowed Mars to produce a much larger chocolate bar that would be sold at the same price as the small chocolate bars produced by their competitors like Hershey. When consumers saw these two products next to each other on the shelf, they would therefore be attracted to the larger chocolate bar. This strategy is not unique to Mars, as it was employed even earlier in Europe by Toblerone, which also uses nougat, among other ingredients, in order to decrease costs and create a unique product (“Toblerone”).

Today, these types of chocolate products that have other ingredients that constitute the majority of the candy are quite common, likely both because of companies’ desires to decrease costs and because of consumer’s constant demand for new, innovative chocolate products. These types of products include Milky Way and Toblerone, which are still produced, as well as a number of candies that have a variety of other types of fillers. For example, Kit Kat has wafers, while Rollo has caramel, and many new types of M&Ms have various fillers including caramel and pretzels. All of these fillers are likely to be less expensive than chocolate. Combining this strategy with increasingly low cacao content, to which Americans have largely grown accustomed, allows large chocolate companies to be very profitable.

It is also important to note the lack of international chocolate brands that are offered at CVS. Among the few options in the small international section, the very popular British chocolate, Cadbury, is relegated to a tiny shelf that is largely in shadow due to the other shelf directly above it. (The Cadbury Chocolate is in the right side of picture below, four shelves up from the bottom, in the purple, yellow, and red packaging.) The reason for this lack of diversity in terms of national origin of chocolate products can probably be attributed largely to Hershey, which set the standard for what Americans came to identify as the usual chocolate taste. Hershey developed one of the earliest mass-produced chocolate bars in the United States, and their particular method of production resulted in a distinct taste. Unlike most European produced chocolate, which uses powdered milk, Hershey used condensed milk, which results in fermentation of the milk fat, leaving a sour taste (D’Antonio 107). As Americans are often exposed to Hershey chocolate as children, they grow used to this taste and it is therefore not surprising that there is little demand for international chocolate products.

A final point of particular importance regarding the selection of chocolate at CVS is the lack of brands that aim to address social and environmental issues. As mentioned above, this may be partially due to consumer’s preferences, as they are not accustomed to darker chocolate, which is often produced by socially and environmentally conscious companies that want to emphasize the quality of their cacao. Customers shopping at CVS are also likely from a demographic that is generally looking for cheap prices and may not be willing to pay the premium associated with these brands. This issue speaks to the need to further educate customers about the potential ethical issues with the chocolate that they are consuming, which could then change preferences.

The extensive chocolate selection at Cardullo’s demonstrates quite a contrast to that seen at CVS. One of the most immediately obvious differences is the price point at which they sell their chocolate. Whereas CVS sells the vast majority of their chocolate, including large bags, for under five dollars, Cardullo’s has a number of chocolate bars, relatively small in size, which cost over ten dollars. Most of these chocolate products are higher in cacao content and many of them aim to address specific social or environmental issues that are common within the chocolate industry, demonstrating an increased customer concern towards these important issues.

The concern for labor and environmental abuses has been mounting, driving customers to stores like Cardullo’s where they can make informed, ethical purchases. The issue of labor abuses has been a concern since large scale chocolate production began, as demonstrated by Cadbury’s concern with slavery on Sao Tome, Principe, and Angola at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century (Higgs, Satre). Despite the passage of over one hundred years, there have still been numerous recently documented cases of coerced labor, specifically child labor, in chocolate production. For example, Carol Off’s book, Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet sheds light on the issue of child trafficking in the Cote d’Ivoire, as children are brought from Mali and other surrounding countries under the false pretense of paid labor and are then often not allowed to leave once they arrive (Off). There have been attempts to address labor abuses such as these through measures such as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which called upon large chocolate companies to devote resources to eliminating child slavery (Ryan, 47). Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the Harkin-Engel has been successful at limiting labor abuses.

In light of the inability for the Harkin-Engel Protocol and similar measures to initiate change, many organizations and chocolate companies themselves have taken it upon themselves to affect change, as demonstrated by many of the chocolate options at gourmet stores like Cardullo’s. One example of an ethically concerned chocolate company that is stocked at Cardullo’s is Goodnow Farms Chocolate, which is a single origin chocolate maker that aims to monitor both the working conditions and environmental impact of the farms from which they source their cacao (“Goodnow Farms Chocolate”). Another example of an ethically concerned chocolatier is Castronovo Chocolate, who work to create a sustainable supply chain and ensure fair wages for all workers (“Castronovo Chocolate”). Castronovo even had a limited time deal where they sent fifty-percent of the purchase price of their chocolate to the Amazon Conservation team, which is a nonprofit organization that works with indigenous communities to protect tropical forests. Chocolatiers such as these must be commended for taking the initiative to tackle these serious issues, while stores such as Cardullo’s should also be recognized for their role in educating the consumer and making these products more widely available.

Another point of differentiation for Cardullo’s is the variety of locations in which the chocolate that they stock is made. Within North America, there are chocolatiers as close as Somerville, where Taza Chocolate operates, and as far away as Canada, where Jelina Chocolatier is run. There are a number of other US chocolate companies represented, including Akinosie Chocolate from Springfield, Missouri, and Raaka Chocolate from Brooklyn, New York. Cardullo’s has a good selection of international chocolates as well. Much of this chocolate is from Europe, such as Belgian chocolate companies like Neuhaus and Jelina Chocolatier, and French companies like Valrhona. Yet they also stock chocolate from countries that are not as often associated with chocolate production, such as Fossa Chocolate, which is made in Singapore. By providing chocolate options from a wide variety of places, Cardullo’s can both appeal to the interests of their customers and inspire curiosity about chocolate. As customers look into these companies, they can then make informed decisions about their purchases and have a better understanding of their impact within the chocolate supply chain. The pictures below show just some of the chocolates offered in Cardullo’s wide selection.

Although the chocolate selection in Cardullo’s is largely dedicated to one specific area of the store, it is important to consider how decisions regarding location in the store, particularly within CVS, can impact consumer behavior, and how chocolate could be better organized to induce informed, ethical purchases. At CVS, the location of chocolate products, both in terms of which shelf they are on and their level on the shelf, demonstrates clear strategic decisions to maximize sales. There are two primary locations for chocolate within the store. The first location, which holds the majority of the chocolate, is the candy aisle. Although labeled as a “candy” aisle, the vast majority of the products include some type of chocolate, demonstrating the overwhelming popularity of chocolate relative to other sweets. Most of the chocolate products in this aisle are large bags, which hold many chocolate pieces, some of which are individually wrapped. It is clear that this aisle appeals to customers who have entered the store with the intention of buying chocolate products. The second primary location where chocolate is sold in CVS is at the checkout counter. These chocolate products are smaller, individually-wrapped items that are meant to appeal to impulse buyers who will grab a chocolate bar as they are checking out. The picture below shows some of these options.

The other important location decision within the store is at what level to place the products. It has been shown in a number of studies that shelf height is very important in driving consumer decisions. Some evidence of this importance comes from the British marketing company 4imprint, which aggregates a number of studies on the topic and shows that consumers start looking at the shelf at eye level and typically take fewer than eight seconds to make their purchasing decision (“Eye level is buy level”). The decision to place well known types of chocolate at eye level is therefore clearly intentional, as CVS wants consumers to immediately recognize the name and impulsively decide to buy the product. The decision to dedicate significant space in CVS to chocolate products and trust consumers to give in to their impulses and buy chocolate at check-out also demonstrates the effectiveness of advertising in the chocolate industry, which has worked for decades to depict chocolate as a product which can instantly satisfy cravings.

 Although CVS may never exclusively stock chocolate that aims to address ethical concerns, as this would not be in keeping with their goal to provide accessible, low prices, it is clear that there is much room for improvement. Ideally, CVS would give the consumer more options, adding some ethically produced products like those seen at Cardullo’s. This change would allow consumers to decide for themselves whether they sufficiently value these ethical concerns to warrant paying a premium. If CVS was willing to place these ethical chocolate products in the prime eye-level shelf real estate, that could also help to encourage consumers to purchase these types of chocolate products. Even if the consumer did not purchase these bars, they would still be forced to engage with them, making them aware of other options and encouraging them to learn more about the chocolate that they currently consume. Therefore, as more attention is increasingly paid towards environmental and social issues, hopefully CVS and other value-focused chains will increasingly learn from more premium stores and provide the consumer with a more balanced experience.

Works Cited

“About Castronovo Chocolate – Single Origin, Small Batch, Bean to Bar Craft Chocolate.” Castronovo Chocolate, http://www.castronovochocolate.com/. 

“About Us.” Goodnow Farms Chocolate, goodnowfarms.com/about-us/. 

Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: inside the Secret World on Hershey & Mars. Broadway Books, 2000. 

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey. Simon and Schuster, 2006. 

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2012. 

Krishna, Manu. “Eye Level Is Buy Level: The Importance of in-Store Product Placement.” Trax Retail, Nov. 2017, traxretail.com/2017/11/22/eye-level-buy-level-importance-store-product-placement/.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018. 

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: the Dark Side of the Worlds Most Seductive Sweet. The New Press, 2006. 

Ryan, Órla. Chocolate Nations Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. Zed Books, 2011. 

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2005. 

“Toblerone – Our History.” Toblerone, http://www.toblerone.co.uk/history. 

Media Cited

All photographs were taken by me.

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