Thanks to its targeted spending on consumer behavior and analysis over the past several years, confections and candy giant Hershey's has been able to thrive during the pandemic, reporting a 41% profit jump in the fourth quarter.
For Hershey's business purposes, 2020 was marked by a surplus of at-home occasions, CEO Michele Buck said on a call with analysts Thursday.
"People were staying home with their family, doing movie nights. Products like Twizzlers [and S'mores] turned out to be incredibly important for consumers during this very difficult time where they wanted to cling to as much normalcy as possible," she said. "The seasons are really about traditions, rituals and connections with family and close friends."
Hershey has gleaned these consumer behavior insights from its recent investments in market research. The findings have helped it improve its forecasting ability, execute on its supply chain, apply data and analytics to its sales and media "in ways we believe some others can't," Buck said.
"One of the things that was interesting this past year, I think, is just how precious family rituals and routines were around the seasons, and that played to our strength," CFO Steve Voskuil told Yahoo Finance last week. "We have a fantastic manufacturing team, great agility on the supply chain side, and a really strong in-store retail execution team."
The company's streamlined supply chain combined with consumers' hunger, "not just for chocolate, but for routine, rituals and family time," were strong reinforcements in 2021, Voskuil said.
But is this passion sustainable? Will customers still flock to the candy aisle when the world is still so uncertain? Voskuil said Hershey's, which is known on Wall Street for its consistent stream of new products, is encouraged.
"As we start the year, we see momentum in the business coming out of the holiday season, [and] we look ahead to Valentine's and Easter," he said. "And even though in the back half of the year, we'll face some more challenging laps, we're excited about what this year can bring."
Hershey's is relaunching its zero sugar line and working on organic products, Buck and Voskuil told analysts Thursday. The brand will bring "several" zero sugar products to market, Voskuil said, adding it's "very interested" in the better-for-you confection space.
"We recognize that palates and diets have evolved, and continue to be diverse," he said. "We introduced Thins last year, and we want to build on that this year."
"We also are building on our zero-sugar platform," he added. "We've had low- and zero-sugar products in the market before, but I think we have an opportunity to rebrand those this year and really give them some more energy in the market. A lot of those will be hitting the shelves here in the first half of the year."
In its earnings report, Hershey shared plans to raise prices on its seasonal items during the 2021 holiday season. Voskuil told Yahoo the prices would rise by less than 10%.
"It'll take effect for the holiday season in 2021, and then Easter and Valentine's season [in 2022], so we'll see most of that effect in the fourth quarter," he said. "We're doing it this year through price pack architecture: looking at the contents of the packaging and making some adjustments [to] better align with what consumers are looking for."
Bolstered by a strong fourth quarter performance, Voskuil told analysts Hershey's "has the appetite" for potential M&A deals more than in years past.
"We have the appetite, and we have a great balance sheet," Voskuil said. "We generate a lot of cash; we've got flexibility; we like where we're at; we're poised for the environment we're in."
Voskuil echoed his comments to Yahoo. "I would say our balance sheet's probably stronger today than it was even a year ago," he said. "And we continue to look for things that fill in incremental snacking occasions across our portfolio."
As Hershey's considers potential acquisitions, Voskuil said he sees "some places" in the confection business that the company doesn't play as strongly as it could, and sees opportunities in the salty snacks businesses.
"Now, I will say, as strong as the balance sheet is, we also have high financial hurdles," Voskuil added. "So we want to make sure those opportunities will fit with the long-term interest and value creation thesis we have for our shareholders."
Representatives for Hershey's and for Voskuil did not immediately respond to requests for comment.