Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chocolate Sales Stay Sweet Despite Melting Economy

This Valentine’s Day, despite the economic crisis surrounding every decision individuals—and couples—must make, sales of boutique chocolates remained comparable to previous years in New York City’s West Village and SoHo districts. Though it would seem that sales would melt they held strong because of the emotions, feelings and traditions that connect chocolate to many major holidays and events, especially Valentine’s Day.

It is difficult for a weak economy to affect Valentine’s Day. “People like nice things and if they won’t buy them on other days they will buy them for Valentine’s Day,” said Jackie Caruso, an assistant manager at Vosges Chocolates. Most of the chocolates purchased on or before the holiday were bought as gifts. Though fewer customers bought the truffles that Vosges is known for, those who did purchased more. The average purchase was $45 but customers bought individual pieces ($2.25) and boxed sets whose price depends on the number for chocolates purchased.

Similar trends were found at other stores in the area. This Valentine’s Day “people aren’t spending as much on big luxury items but chocolate is still a luxury and it’s affordable,” said Keeling Tong, owner of Kee’s Chocolates. In fact, at Kee’s, this year’s Valentine’s Day was “a little better than last year’s,” continued Tong. This is important because the cost of cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is higher than it was before past Valentine’s Days. The International Cocoa Organization shows prices for January 2009 at $2,600 per ton of cocoa, up $400 from 2008 and $900 from 2007.

Despite the increased prices for raw goods Tong hasn’t raised prices. “It is more important to maintain the product and customer base and to keep the customer’s happy than to gouge prices to make a better profit,” said Tong. At Kee’s Chocolates a single bonbon costs $2.35 and the average Valentine’s Day gift purchase was a box of 12 pieces for $30.

Like Kee’s Chocolates, Li-Lac Chocolates experienced strong sales this Valentine’s Day also. There wasn’t really difference in sales “and if there sales were different, they were a little higher,” said Martha Bond, owner of Li-Lac Chocolates.

Having owned the store for 21 years, Bond’s contacts reach as far as Hershey’s bars. The “old-timers say, in their experience, that chocolate does well” no matter what the economy is doing; “it comforts people and is an affordable luxury. It is part of almost every holiday,” said Bond.

The comfort and traditions associated with chocolate may help it survive, especially because it is often given as a gift. “I would continue [buying chocolate] no matter what. The amount might go down but I would still give it as gifts” for others and myself, said Lee Russeth, a regular consumer of Vosges Chocolates.