Last year, U.S. retail chocolate sales were approximately $18 billion, and over the last 10 to 15 years, they've been growing consistently at a roughly 3 percent rate, or slightly above conventional food sales, according to UBS.
A closer look at the data reveals that U.S. per capita volume consumption for chocolate peaked in 2005-2006 and has fallen at a 3 percent compound annual rate over the past decade, according to UBS. In other words, actual industry performance is slowing, not increasing, and pricing due to cocoa inflation is driving all of the chocolate category's growth.
Americans on average spent $56.80 on chocolate products during 2015, according to Euromonitor. And the amount of chocolate consumed per person last year was around 9.5 pounds — down from nearly 12.6 pounds in 2006.
To be clear, global chocolate consumption also is slowing. There's been a marked decline, especially in such markets as China, Brazil and Russia, which analysts attribute in part to economic challenges in those countries. Germany, too, has seen softening chocolate consumption in the past decade.
Yet, dark chocolate — considered a healthier indulgence snack — is holding up much better and actually beating some alternative snacks. While chocolate sales as a whole were up 2.5 percent in 2015, Nielsen data show dark chocolate saw healthier sales growth of 6.8 percent during the period.
Hershey and Mars are among the U.S.-based chocolate brands expanding their offerings in the dark chocolate category. Overall, dark chocolate accounted for 36 percent of all chocolate launched in the U.S. in 2014 and 37 percent in 2015, according to Mintel Group.
"What we find is whether times are good or times are bad, consumers still want to treat themselves," said Tracey Massey, president of Mars Chocolate North America. "Innovation is critical for this industry because consumers like to try new things. But they always go back to their old favorites, which is why Snickers and M&M's have done so well for so many years."
Mainstream chocolate still represents the majority of industry sales (88 percent) followed by the premium category, according to Nielsen. Seasonal chocolate is a big seller during holidays, although it usually is a lower-margin category due to promotional activity.
Last year, Mars — a closely held company — announced a $100 million factory expansion in Kansas. Massey said the investment is important as the Virginia-based company focuses on innovation in the U.S. chocolate market. One of the new product lines is Goodnessknows Snack Squares, featuring dark chocolate and fruit, and it follows the 2014 launch of Dove Fruit, another dark chocolate line.