CHICAGO — In a year when date night risked becoming just another evening in, many consumers found themselves searching for new outlets of entertainment—playing cards, kitschy socks, candy with toy-like packaging, puzzles and more. Novelty products in both general merchandise and candy boomed in many convenience stores across the country this past year.
Good pole numbers
For Newcomb Oil Co.’s FiveStar Food Mart, it was fishing poles. “We sold an inordinately high number of fishing poles in the spring and summer, as well as bait,” said Tim Young, category manager center store for the Bardstown, Ky.-based chain. “They were hot. We always carried [fishing accessories] but expanded space in 2020 as more people took up fishing. Last year it was vital to have an outlet like that.”
It’s just one more way the pandemic changed the product set in c-stores by shaking up consumer needs. This growth in novelty products “really shows that people are in the mood for a little bit of fun during these difficult times,” Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder of 210Analytics, a San Antonio-based consultancy, said while discussing the 2021 State of Treating Report the company created with the National Confectioners Association (NCA).
Doug Marquardt oversees the cellular accessories and sunglasses programs for Lil’ Drug Store Products Inc., Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As with most product segments, he says both areas struggled in the early months of the pandemic but have since made a comeback. “Business in March and April  was down, but it bounced back going into summer,” he said, noting that fewer people were flying places, making c-stores a more common place, rather than the airport, to buy charging cords and sunglasses. “We saw a lot of great sales in July and August , over the holiday time period.”
He expected an even greater boost going into summer 2020, noting new PD cords, which charge phones faster and carry a higher price tag, should drive sales. “Fast charging is important to people. … Now if people return to traveling this summer, I think we’ll see a nice bump in sunglasses sales this summer, too.”
Distributor S. Abraham & Sons (SAS) brought the novelty factor to cellphone charging accessories with USA- or Breast Cancer Awareness-themed cables. “This leads to increased basket sizes and gross profit for the retailer as novelty items generally have nice margins,” said SAS Category Manager Christa Verrier. “We are trying to capitalize on incremental sales for items a consumer would not typically seek out at a c-store.”
Verrier said the distributor saw success with offerings such as Halloween light-up necklaces and shot glasses, as well as Christmas “ugly sweater” beer and wine sleeves. “As category manager, I tend to gravitate toward selecting truly unique, new and seasonal-focused items,” she said.
In and out
“In the impulse [general merchandise] category, we have had success featuring these items as part of in-and-out displays,” said Verrier. “This gives retailers an opportunity to try a variety of impulse items and cycle through new and innovative products without dedicating valuable shelf space to things that consumers may get bored with after a short run.”
Verrier said over the past year, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company took this approach with multiple product types, including cellphone accessories, flip-flops, sports gear, novelty socks and silicone straws.
Seize the day
Talk about signs of the times: It’s not difficult to tie some of the best-selling c-store novelty products of 2020 back to cultural events happening across the United States. As consumers took shelter in their homes per pandemic protocol, as the presidential election heated up, and as the nation collectively clung to its mobile devices for communication, related products saw healthy sales growth in c-stores. According to Temple, Texas-based distributor McLane Co.’s 2020 Item Rank Report, here is a sampling of some products and product types that saw healthy growth last year:
- Hand sanitizer
- Face masks
- Bicycle dice
- Maverick poker cards
- President Trump doll
- Wet Ones travel pack
- Extra-long mobile-phone charging cables