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Seeking solace in chocolates

It has been talked and written about, filmed, used as currency, and for the heartbroken, as a substitute for love. But around the world, it is best appreciated when it melts in your mouth.

Chocolate has come a long way from when it was used as a beverage for the elite Aztecs. History is testament to its popularity across the globe, as every palette succumbs to its rich charm. In the US, the chocolate industry is worth more than $5 billion (Dh18 billion), which is surprising, since the US is only the eighth largest consumer of chocolate. The Swiss lead the chocoholics' list, consuming an average of 9.5kg a year of chocolate.

But no matter what country or culture one hails from, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and all other celebrations would be incomplete without chocolate. The International Chocolate Day tomorrow (September 13th)brings the "divine food" to the fore and reminds us why chocolate is the uncontested bearer of good news.

Global confectionary makers are happily catering to the tastebuds of unabashed chocoholics in the UAE and Middle East.

Chocolate: you either love it or adore it - there is no middle path. As International Chocolate Day on September 13 called on chocolate lovers to unwrap and indulge, the growing confectionary industry readily responds.

The business of chocolate in the Middle East is reaching new heights, according to Helena Shpakovich, sales and marketing executive at Moka General Trading, the distributors of Godiva in the UAE.

She said: "The market for confectionaries in the region is booming and becoming more aggressive. Manufacturers from all over the world feel the potential of UAE's market, as it is still easy to enter."

Consumers in the UAE are unabashed chocoholics, according to a 2007 study conducted by the market research company Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS). When respondents were asked if they consumed chocolate within the week, 98 per cent of those surveyed answered in the affirmative.

This is not news to Ahmad Mohsin Ezz, manager for chocolates at Sharjah-based chocolate manufacturing company, Tiffany. He said: "The confectionary industry has grown by 13 per cent in volume in the past year. Demand for chocolate products is in an upward surge."

Mars GCC, previously Master Foods Middle East, also saw its market grow by 10 per cent in 2007.

According to TNS, consumers in the Middle East spend billions of dollars on food every year, with the food service market in the Gulf worth more than $31 billion (Dh114 billion) annually.

There is an inclination toward manufacturing products for consumers with discerning tastes.

Shpakovich said: "In the UAE, people are very particular about what they want. Every customer is special and everyone wants something individual and unique."

While the chocolate industry has to work harder to manufacture products that suit everyone's taste buds, most have found solutions to tackle the problem.

Ezz said: "We constantly develop new products to meet the growing demands, and tailor our chocolates to suit local tastes." Tiffany produces chocolates such as Gotcha and Break.

However, confectionaries from premium international brands such as Godiva are not as easy to modify.

Shpakovich had other solutions: "We update the range of our products with seasonal collections and focus on presentations, promoting new collections by changing our window displays, and by using stimulating advertising."

Packaged and positioned perfectly, chocolates can be dangerous for the weight-conscious. It is no wonder that the intensifying focus on obesity and health are causing serious changes in the industry.

Shpakovich said: "Significant changes have come about in the industry because of health concerns. But this has created other trends, such as the increased consumption of dark chocolates and sugar-free products."

According to the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO) website, the global market is undergoing 'premiumisation', as more consumers around the world are turning toward chocolate with high cocoa content, for its health benefits.

Shpakovich said: "The use of natural ingredients is becoming more important nowadays. I think manufacturers should produce healthier options and work on improving the nutritional value of confectionaries."

With the promise of more choices and healthier alternatives, chocolate manufacturers around the world are finding innovative ways to build customers' loyalty and interest. But perhaps they do not have to work so hard, because most chocolate lovers would agree - there is no substitute for chocolate.

Retail: Healthy trend

How focussed on chocolate are consumers in the UAE? What is their buying behaviour like when it comes to the dark temptation?

Gulf News tried to gain an insight by speaking to retailers in the UAE.

Abela and LuLu, both supermarket chains, said that they meet the demand by offering a large variety. Both high and low-end brands are available to satisfy consumers with different tastes.

Apparently, chocolate consumption has changed over the years. New trends have come to the fore, especially when it comes to the type of chocolates people prefer. Health conscious people opt for sugar-free chocolates and high-end products are gaining popularity as the ideal gift.

David Derrick, retail general manager, at Abela Supermarket, told Gulf News: "There has been a growing trend of dark and low-calorie chocolates in the recent past."

A spokesperson from LuLu Hypermarket agreed, but said: "Consumers these days are a bit cautious, but that is just a small segment of the entire market. This would not have a large impact on the general trends." With the increasing range chocolates available, it is quite obvious that chocolate lovers refuse to let go of their "source of happiness".

Retail stores decide on the variety based on brands and their promotional strategies. Competitors strive to flaunt their top brands on the main display shelves, especially to attract impulse buyers.

Derrick said: "The brand with the largest display is Mars GCC (Master Foods Middle East), with products such as Mars, Twix and Snickers. They are the brand leaders in probably eight out of the top ten chocolate products available in our store."

International brands of chocolate with manufacturing units in the UAE seem to have an upper hand when it comes to retail, as their stock and quality is always maintained. "The chocolates with highest sales in one typical shopping day are Kit Kat, Snickers and Mars," Derrick said.

Loyal customers are generally not willing to change their preference, but sometimes the promotional offers provide an incentive to try something new. "Some companies spend a lot on their advertisements," he added.

Source: GulfNews

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