My Experience with chocolate at Walgreen’s
Where are most people first introduced to chocolate? Perhaps through advertisements, through their families, through popular culture with movies such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or maybe even cultural events such as Halloween. One might wager, however, that many of us first encountered the delight that is chocolate in the candy aisle of a retail store. Indeed, advertisements aimed at mothers often involved a child’s wide eyes upon the sight of chocolate in the candy aisle of a grocery store and their insistence that their mother purchase this chocolate. Thus, one finds it interesting to flesh out chocolate’s existence in a retail setting, given its prominence in the way that we purchase and experience chocolate. Chocolate is a product with global ties to a variety of issues including racial and economic inequality, illegitimate labor practices, and issues with the distribution across the supply chain. I contend that the retail setting in which chocolate is sold contributes to these issues, for better or for worse, and will detail these relationships in today’s blog post.
The picture I’m painting in this post is inevitably anecdotal – it’s based of my experience at one store – but nevertheless I feel it is representative of a typical, non-specialty marketplace where many people purchase chocolate. I conducted my field research at a Walgreen’s in Central Square. Of course, this was a bit ironic, given that a pharmacy/health store was selling chocolate and many other (perhaps less healthy) sweets, but I digress. As we all know, chocolate is an incredibly popular treat, and it is often the base for many other sweets such as Reese’s, Snickers, or M&M’s for example. However, for the sake of this paper, I intend to focus more on “pure” chocolate – or rather sweets that are presented as chocolate first and not those in which chocolate is simply an ingredient. For example, a Hershey’s bar may count (even with almonds!) but a Snicker’s bar or a Butterfingers would not. I choose to do this to minimize and focus the scope of my analysis, but also to ensure a fairer comparison between products and the various analyses that come from these comparisons.
High Class Chocolate
After entering the candy/snacks aisle of the store, it became exceedingly obvious that intentional thought had been put into the arrangement of the various delicacies. Let’s begin with the sexiest section, or the section of the aisle that was dedicated to the fanciest chocolates that the store had to offer. This section was clearly demarcated from the rest of the confectioneries, suggesting a fundamental difference in quality between these offerings and the others. This suggestion was further entrenched when one looks at the prices of these products. By my quick estimation, these products ranged from 33% to 50% more expensive than similar offerings in the aisle that weren’t presented as luxury. Additionally, these chocolates were encased in packaging with connotations of luxury and elegance.
As I mentioned previously, the packaging of the various chocolates had major implications. In order to unpackage (pun intended) these implications, I feel it appropriate to examine a few case studies found in Walgreen’s.
The first chocolate we will examine is The Lindt Excellence 90% Cocoa Supreme Dark chocolate (pictured above). Off the bat, we notice several intended effects of this packaging and branding. To begin with, Lindt is an established brand of chocolate from Switzerland. This indicates to a consumer that this product is high-quality (a point hammered home by the subsequent “Excellence” on the label) and that the product is from perhaps the most reputable country in chocolate production: Switzerland. With an academic background in chocolate, we understand that the cocoa beans that went into the production of the bar are likely from South America or West Africa, a notable omission from the packaging. Next, in large font, the package indicates it is 90% cocoa. This is important for a myriad of reasons, some of which we have covered in class. One, it indicates to a consumer that this product is literally 90% pure cocoa, a fact that should differentiate it from other chocolates with more additives. In a larger sense, however, this percentage is included to suggest to the consumer that this product is in a different class than other chocolate offerings due to its adherence to strong cocoa content in light of a confectionery market largely dependent on sugar-infused products. Interestingly, the label states “90% cocoa” instead of “90% cacao.” We’ve discussed in class how the term “cacao” is often used by marketers to instill a sense of higher quality or to connect the consumer more directly to the source product, suggesting that their product is more “real” or “pure” than other competitors. There are elements of classist dialogue in play here, mirroring historical realities of chocolate consumption, where chocolate was a delicacy enjoyed by only those of a high class.
Another case worth looking at is the Ghirardelli Intense Dark 86% Cacao Midnight Reverie chocolate. Right away, we notice some similarities between this product and our first case. The producer is a well-known, reputable chocolate brand. Although Ghirardelli is an American brand, it’s name suggests the quality of its European competitors. It includes a reference to its high cacao content (notably utilizing the term cacao as opposed to cocoa). The similarities end here though, as we are able to determine a different means by which Ghirardelli intended to reach their potential customers: portraying chocolate as an aphrodisiac. This is expressed in multiple ways. First, they refer to the chocolate as an “intense” dark. While I’m sure the chocolate is quite dark (86% cacao), the use of the adjective intense is a loaded move meant to add a level of sensuality to the name of the chocolate. This point is hammered by home by the last part of the name:”midnight reverie.” Midnight suggests the darkness of the chocolate, but also has sexual connotations, while reverie means a state of bliss or pleasure, again with obvious sexual connotations. Candy is often thought of as a treat that children enjoy, but evidently Ghirardelli is attempting to influence an adult market with this product.
Top Shelf Status
In addition to the various messages put forth by the packaging on the chocolates I researched, the arrangement of the items on the shelves indicated the importance of the various products on the shelves. The first (and perhaps most intuitive observation) is that the most expensive chocolate products in this section resided on the top shelf, with prices decreasing as one looked down. For context, the top shelf in this store would be about eye level for the average woman. Additionally, one noticed that the packaging became less fancy as one’s eyes followed down the shelves, which is consistent with the falling prices.
The existing literature has much to say about the way that shelves are arranged in retail settings and consumers’ interpretations of these arrangements. Consumers believe that expensive products exist on the top shelf, while the middle shelves contain the most popular products (Valenzuela et al. 2012). We also know that consumers take advantage of “visual saliency” in their decision making, meaning that they utilize their knowledge of products’ appearance or placement in a retail setting to help determine their purchasing decisions (Gidlof et al. 2017). Additionally, simply looking at a product longer results in a higher chance of a consumer buying the product. Thus, a consumer is definitely impacted by both the placement of a product and the ability of its packaging to catch their eye. These facts are consistent with my experience at Walgreen’s despite the fact that I was at the store for observation purposes, and not to actually purchase anything.
What about health and spirituality?
Notably absent from my field research at Walgreen’s were two archetypes of chocolate that we have discussed in class: products promoting health benefits (whether in an absolute or relative sense) or those attempting to connect a consumer with the products historical and spiritual roots of cacao by using aztec or mayan imagery to promote the product. Perhaps this absence was tied with the similar absence of any craft or local chocolate products. Intuitively, it makes sense that a national chain like Walgreen’s would only carry the standard fare of chocolates that one might find anywhere else, but considering that they did have a surprising variety of chocolates in general, one might’ve expected some craft chocolates as well.
Products for the health-conscious are a particularly interesting omission considering the setting: a pharmacy. Many people consider chocolate as an unhealthy snack, while others espouse its supposed health benefits such as fighting hypertension and minimizes cardiovascular disease (Howe 2012). Of course this point is debated, although it is often the other products found in chocolate (sugar being the main culprit) that contribute to negative health effects of chocolate. Nevertheless, one might’ve expected to see some products advertised as healthy (or heart-healthy). Only one product was noticeably labeled as organic. Perhaps, this suggests that even in a pharmacy setting, chocolate companies don’t feel that marketing explicitly to the health-conscious is the most effective means of marketing. Instead, they prefer promoting ideas of luxury, sensuality and quality.
The Other Guy(s?) – Hershey’s and …?
Having extensively examined Walgreen’s “luxury section,” I continued down to the aisle to examine the store’s other offerings (which I’ve already used as a comparison point for the initial group significantly). To my initial surprise, this section consisted nearly entirely of Hershey’s Bars and its variants including bars with almonds and Hershey’s dark chocolate offerings. I thought to myself: this is odd – why is there only one brand here? This was particularly interesting given the relatively large selection of brands of the luxury chocolates. Then it struck me: Hershey’s IS the standard for the average chocolate consumer in America. The Hershey’s bar is nearly archetypical of chocolate bars in the US. For bite sized pleasures, the Hershey’s Kiss comes to mind first for many. I had to think for a good while trying to name any other US chocolate bars not promoted in a luxury or craft manner but failed to do so.
It’s well documented that the chocolate and confectionery market is concentrated, with Hershey and Mars dominating over 60% of the 2015 US confectionery market share (Statista 2018). As we have encountered in class, Hershey’s recipe for chocolate is largely responsible for shaping Americans’ taste for chocolate (D’Antonio 2007). In practice, Hershey more or less represents the standard chocolate bar in the United States, and the way Walgreen’s presented Hershey’s bars in their aisle seems to follow the research. The separation of these chocolates from the luxury chocolates (across the aisle from each other) depicts a dichotomy in decision that a consumer must face. Will you choose the tried and true product that everyone is familiar with? Or will you venture into the exotic, the unknown, or the luxurious temptations of the products across the aisle (while paying more to do so)?
This dichotomy brings to light thoughts about classism in food, a topic we have touched on briefly before. Unlike its luxury peers, Hershey’s chocolate bars do not offer a perceived sense of higher-class consumption. Of course, this is truly a “perceived” sense of class, considering that by and large one’s social class is not determined by the chocolate that one eats. Additionally, given the previously discussed omission of craft or local products from the chocolate section, one can’t necessarily argue that their purchasing of luxury chocolate from multinational corporations provides any sort of access to the inner circles of the chocolate aficionado world. Indeed, those searching a more intimate experience with the finer and more exclusive side of chocolate perhaps would be better served to visit a chocolatier instead of a nationally-branded pharmacy such as Walgreen’s.
Evidently, something as seemingly simple and standard as the candy aisle at a pharmacy can tell us a great deal about the chocolate industry, and even a bit about ourselves. Chocolate is a treat that we experience in a variety of contexts, and often these contexts can affect the way we think about chocolate and the way that chocolate affects us. Retailers make conscious decisions about the way they market and present chocolate products, which in turn influence the way that we experience and enjoy chocolate. Next time you are at a retail food store, take a stroll through the candy aisle with a new perspective on how chocolate exits in its “natural habitat.”
D’Antonio, Michael. Herhsey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Gidlöf, Kerstin, et al. “Looking Is Buying. How Visual Attention and Choice Are Affected by Consumer Preferences and Properties of the Supermarket Shelf.” Appetite, vol. 116, 2 Mar. 2017, pp. 29–38., doi:10.1016/j.appet.2017.04.020.
Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, 2012, pp. 43–52., doi:10.1525/gfc.2012.12.1.43.
“U.S. Confectionery Market Share 2017, by Company.” Statista, Sept. 2018, http://www.statista.com/statistics/294497/us-confectionery-market-share-by-company/.
Valenzuela, Ana, et al. “Shelf Space Schemas: Myth or Reality?” Journal of Business Research, vol. 66, no. 7, 12 Jan. 2012, pp. 881–888., doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2011.12.006.
“90% Cocoa Chocolate Bar.” Lindt, Lindt, www.lindt.ca/en/shop/our-brands/excellence-ca/excellence-cocoa-90-ca.
Bddgang404. “Luxury Chocolate Section in Walgreens.”
“Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Bar, Midnight Reverie.” Amazon, www.amazon.com/Ghirardelli-Chocolate-Intense-Midnight-3-17-Ounce/dp/B001G0MG2I.
“Milk Chocolate Bar.” Hershey’s. https://www.hersheys.com/en_us/products/hersheys-milk-chocolate-bar.html