While confectionery in the UK is often seen as kids' stuff by retailers and manufacturers keen to win over the pocket money market, spring occasions such as Valentine's and Mother's Day are altogether more adult affairs.

In fact, Mintel says that since the market for children's confectionery is being affected by curbs on advertising products high in salt, sugar and fat to children, adult-orientated seasonal chocolate and sweets will become ever more important to the sector.

According to Nielsen, consumers spend a massive £49m across Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Easter. This year these events are spread out over an extended period, rather than coming right after each other as last year. So, with shoppers keen to indulge, how can retailers make spring confectionery sales as sweet as possible?

Many manufacturers maintain that the key to boosting spring sales is stocking early.

Jonathan Summerley, senior buyer at Hancocks, says retailers shouldn't underestimate the importance of filled and mini eggs during this season: "The self-eat category has grown significantly in recent years and is absolutely in tune with what smaller stores can offer. Supermarkets tend to gloss over this sector of the Easter market, leaving the door wide open for independents."

Mars Chocolate trade relations manager Bep Sandhu adds: "There are opportunities for retailers to maximise sales and drive consumer awareness of seasonal offerings from the very beginning of the year. For this reason, Mars' Malteser Spring range has been available since December 26."

Nestlé Confectionery UK trade manager Graham Walker agrees: "Preparation for Easter and Valentine's Day kicks off the second Christmas finishes. When Christmas stock is taken off the shelves it's time to put out the filled and mini eggs.

"Impulse buys are key to convenience stores and mini and filled eggs really deliver on this. In the convenience channel they equate to 57% of all seasonal sales."

Premium prospects

At the luxury end of the market, Lindor's Mini Eggs 100g bags are top sellers in the premium mini egg category after experiencing a sales boost of 23% during 2009. Meanwhile, Cadbury Creme Eggs continue to dominate the rest of the market and were the best-selling confectionery brand for Easter 2009, according to Nielsen.

For 2010 Cadbury is focusing on the limited availability of Creme Eggs with a 'Here today, goo tomorrow' ad campaign. The ads were launched on January 1, 2010 (four months before Easter) which is good news for retailers looking to make the most of early sales. To encourage retailers with display the company is holding a Cadbury Creme Egg display competition for Independent retailers offering three national prizes worth £7,000 each and 28 regional awards of £500 each. Entrants who contact their sales rep will receive a pos pack. Full details are on www.goodisplay.co.uk.

Elsewhere in the self-eat category it seems that bunnies dominate with the launch of both the Nestlé Kit Kat Bunny Bar and Cadbury's Dairy Milk Caramel Bunnies and the return of the Mars 'Malteaster' Bunny, which made its debut last year. Mars has also redesigned its Galaxy filled eggs.

This year's range from Nestlé includes the kids'-orientated Smarties Shaker Egg, Smarties Mini Eggs and the altogether more adult proposition of the Aero Filled Egg.

Away from self-eat, Summerley believes that c-store retailers shouldn't let high-profile promotions from supermarkets steal their thunder.

"Some retailers might have given up on the spring season, due to recent domination by the supermarkets," he says. "This would be an extremely short-sighted decision as many of our customers have benefited from opportunities which are not the focus of supermarkets."

As well as stocking the brand leaders, Hancocks also has a range of value gifting items retailing at £1 including traditional cartons plus a range of Easter and Valentine's-themed gifts.

Summerley advises: "The most important thing is to have fun with displays. A creative display of gifting confectionery is sure to sell well if it is backed by the enthusiasm of the retailer."

Nestlé's Walker adds: "Create an area in the store and then theme it around the right occasion. Retailers can theme it around Valentine's Day first, and then transform it for Mother's Day."

Since Valentine's Day falls on a Sunday this year, c-store owners should be ready to cater for the inevitable rash of men (and the odd woman) frantically searching the aisles for a last-minute romantic gift for their loved one.

"C-stores will always do well with Valentine's Day because they specialise in top-up shopping and distress purchases," advises Walker.

Because out-of-town supermarkets are often not open early enough for consumers to make the V-Day deadline, with the right offer prominently signposted, retailers could find themselves saving the day on behalf of many disorganised shoppers.

Chocolate lovers

Mintel says that men are most likely to choose chocolates over flowers as a gift for Valentine's Day, which should put chocs at the heart of any serious spring selection. In the same way chocolates also make the perfect Mother's Day gift.

For 2010, manufacturers are keen to offer seasonal versions of popular chocolate products revamped for gifting.

Mars has redesigned its Maltesers box this year with six different theatre designs. Traditionally Toblerone revamps its packaging for special occasions and this year is no different with the 400g bar sporting a Cupid's Arrow and the words 'To Your Heart'. The Toblerone variant Torbelle is also getting a mini-makeover with red ribbon detailing designed to emphasise the product's gifting possibilities.

Mother's Day is also the perfect time for canny c-store managers to top up on their chocolate stocks. "Sitting squarely between Valentine's Day and Easter, Mother's Day is traditionally associated with chocolate and flowers," says Summerley.

"Hancocks recommends mixing a selection of £1 lines with a more traditional blend of core branded items in order to maximise sales.

"Beyond that, consider complementing the display with flowers and even wine and cards in order to make your store a one-stop shop for the occasion suiting the impulse nature of a high proportion of the purchases."

Mums might claim that they don't want their offspring to splash out on Mother's Day. However, dutiful sons and daughters know that confectionery is often the way to their hearts. But, with consumers still feeling the effects of the credit crunch, is it worth a c-store owner's while to stock high-end premium sweets and chocolates?

Natalie Brown, senior brand manager at Green & Black's, believes that it is. "Although retailers had concerns about the recession and selling premium products in 2009, consumers continued to trade up and continued to spend on premium chocolates," she says.

"Premium gifting and confectionery did very well in 2009 and showed strong growth (market sales are up 5% year to date, according to Nielsen). With early signs that the economy is in recovery, we predict that premium gifting will continue to peak at key seasonal occasions and grow further in 2010."

Market research from Mintel also suggests that quality still counts, even for cash-strapped consumers. Some 69% of shoppers polled agree that it's worth paying more for seasonal goods.

According to Nielsen, shoppers who prefer premium products can be more valuable to stores than those shoppers seeking value purchases, since they spend 12% more in-store through more frequent shopping trips and a higher spend per each visit.

"Simply placing premium products in key areas such as the till point will encourage consumers to trade up," says Lindt UK managing director Joel Burrows.

But not at the expense of the lower cost confectionery that make up the most of c-store seasonal sales says Mars Chocolate's Sandhu. "With the recession abating, but by no means over, consumers will remain cautious until the financial situation picks up."