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Fall 2002 Candle, Candle, Burning Bright

Pillars, tapers, tea lights, votives… candles in countless sizes, shapes, shades and scents have become a staple of home, hearth and beyond since the early 1990s. In the last decade of the last millennium, candle sales took off like wildfire: according to the National Candle Association (the primary trade association representing US candle manufacturers and suppliers), the candle industry experienced average growth of 10-15 percent a year. And in 1999, retail sales topped $2 billion—just candles, not accessories. But that was then. In 2001, sales growth cooled to just 5 percent. The challenge: heating up sales, and knowing what it will take to do that.

Pam Danziger knows. As president and CEO of Unity Marketing (Stevens, PA), a market-research firm specializing in consumer psychology, she shed significant light on the subject by asking and listening to countless consumers share their thoughts about candles—what they like about them and what they don’t, what they look for, why they buy, how they use and display them, and much more. And then she took all of that input to the candle industry.

Illuminating trends

Danziger identified several key trends from the data she and her firm gathered through those focus groups and phone interviews, plus surveys of some of the biggest candle manufacturers and retailers. (Unity Marketing published the results in their 200-page Candle Report 2001.) Some of the key findings: Candle manufacturers and retailers who tap into the emotional lives of consumers are the ones who gained the greatest market share in recent years; candles continue to be an important element in home décor; and manufacturers will continue to explore, develop and use new scents and waxes in their products.

Danziger’s research was consumer-based, and focused on larger retailers and chain stores. Do these trends apply to specialty retail as well? Many candle manufacturers that supply specialty retailers are small, independent operations. They and their specialty-retail customers have to compete with the bullies on the block: the mass marketers Danziger’s research focused on. How do independent manufacturers and specialty retailers hold their own and keep their edge? Do they see the same trends she reported?

imageIn a word, yes. Overall, a number of smaller manufacturers and distributors confirmed that many of the reported trends held true in the specialty retail market. While their viewpoints often differed on the strength of a given trend, they agree with Danziger’s most significant conclusion: the key to re-igniting consumers’ passion for candles lies in the candle-makers’ ability to create products that appeal to retailers and consumers on an emotional basis. To that end, candle companies selling to specialty retailers say they’ve broken out of the old molds to offer intriguing new scents and styles, and new ways to stir emotions, thereby giving consumers a compelling reason to buy candles—lots of candles—again.

Second that emotion

In her book, Why People Buy Things They Don’t Need (ParamountMarket Publishing), Danziger says that “as a consumer product, candles are unique… [They] work on many different levels to calm and refresh. A burning candle harkens back to hearth and home.” And they evoke a number of positive feelings. As one focus-group participant said, “Every woman looks beautiful in candlelight, and “it’s very relaxing” to watch candles burn. Danziger also confirms what specialty retailers already know: candles are “a favorite gift item for the holidays and throughout the year,” as consumers seek gifts that will help them connect emotionally with loved ones and friends. From another focus-group participant: “Everybody loves candles, and you can get a really nice, quality candle for $20 or $25, the price I like to spend on gifts.”

And that’s at the heart of what’s happening in candles today. According to the research, candle-makers and retailers who managed to tap into consumers’ emotional lives, giving them instinctive (as distinguished from “logical”) reasons to buy candles, have been the ones to gain the greatest market share in recent years. Danziger points out that consumers’ emotional reasons for buying go far beyond the comfort so many people sought after September 11th. As always, consumers want candles to help them relax, rejuvenate, set a mood and enjoy their environments. And, of course, they want a little romance.

Karen Kalisek agrees. As the national sales manager for Shadow & Light (El Cajon, CA), a manufacturer and distributor of candles and personal-care products, she says her company is “definitely selling an emotional concept. Whatever we do, from our bath products to incense, massage oils and candles—regardless of what line you’re talking about—we’re selling a concept.” In their labeling, packaging and marketing, the company emphasizes two factors: ingredients, and emotional benefits. “We combine the two. We have a new candle called Moonshine Romance, and it’s jasmine and sandalwood. How can I use this candle? For romance. And what’s it made out of? Jasmine and sandalwood. We couple the [mood and scent] to sell a concept.”

imageHearth & Home Traditions, Ltd. (Norwich, OH), a manufacturer and distributor, sells millions of candles based on food scents. Tom Humsche, vice president of marketing, has known for some time that he’s selling emotions, but they’re different from the romance and passion of Shadow & Light. His company’s candles are designed to tap into the collective yearning for simpler times. “Our customers want something that smells good and made them feel comfortable when they were younger,” Humsche says. He points out that one of the company’s most popular candles is the recently introduced Grandma’s Cookies, a triple-layer jar candle from their Tri-Essences line. It features the scents of sugar cookies, snickerdoodles and peanut butter cookies.

“Nostalgia scents are huge, definitely,” says Allen Dudash, manufacturer’s rep for Chesapeake Bay Candle (Rockville, MD). To capture more of the nostalgia market, which he says has grown since September 11th, the company is working on two new lines for 2003. One is Movie Lovers, designed to take shoppers back to the carefree days of Saturday matinees. “We’re looking at scents like popcorn, root beer, pizza,” Dudash says. “We’re also taking a look at the labeling and packaging as far as whether [they] will relate to old-time movie theaters or drive-ins and things like that. Nostalgia is definitely reflected in the packaging… I don’t know that the fragrance itself is necessarily nostalgic… it’s more the whole idea, the whole theme.” The other line in the works is Candy Lover, based on “the candies that were meaningful to [our customers] when they were growing up… [like] Pixie Stix” or various basic candy bars—favorites not only of years past but also favorites of the region someone grew up in. “There’s a lot of nostalgia in those scents.”

Consumers who buy candles from specialty retailers are “looking for something that’s going to speak to them in some deeper way, a spiritual way,” says Chris Balthasar, vice president of Nirvana Candles (Freedom, CA). His four-year-old company has stayed focused on “tapping into the deeper needs that people have, what they really burn their candles for. That’s what our company has been all about,” he says. “Some of the messages might be pretty generic—love, peace, harmony—but they still speak to whatever that person is looking for in their life. If they’re stressed and they see a peace candle, boom! That speaks to them… to their personality.” In fact, every candle the company makes is designed to speak to consumers’ emotions, Balthasar says. “In our Mystics line, mystical symbols [such as] dragons and secret hearts have been wonderfully popular. And our Karmic Cube, which is very much like a votive, has been flying off the shelves.”

While the fundamental need for comfort or relaxation is a constant influence, “what really sells our candles is the design,” he says. Tastes in home décor, colors, fragrances and styles are constantly changing. Shoppers of all kinds still want “something that’s going to look really nice on their mantelpiece.”

Home, sweet home

“Candle companies are very much in tune with consumer demand for candles and accessories as home-décor items,” says Danziger. And that’s a good thing, since the home-décor market is one of the fastest-growing consumer segments in the US. She estimates that American consumers spent about $585 billion in 2000 on all kinds of items for their homes, up nearly 27 percent over 1997 sales of $462 billion. And the home is the target candle makers aim at. “Just in the past year alone, innovative designs, shapes and color schemes have appeared, as companies are intent on catching the decorating consumer’s eye,” she says.

imageThat “decorator’s eye” is changing, says Balthasar. It always does, sooner or later. He notes a shift in color preferences toward earth tones, which Danziger’s research also revealed, as well as an increased interest in pastels, a trend several manufacturers also identified. “Our pastel colors are really what I consider to be our comfort line,” Balthasar says. “The labels have a floral look… that would look nice in any bathroom, whether it’s in San Francisco or Omaha. And the earth tones are more of a contemporary, artsy-looking candle—kind of a jazzy, fun look,” he says. “And we introduced some natural colors that look like marble or granite, rocky-looking colors with a green, a red, a brown.”

Northern Lights Candles (Wellesville, NY) also closely tracks home décor trends. According to Deanna Davison, director of Northern Lights at Home (the company’s direct-selling division), “We’re always aware, very early on, of the newest trends in home décor and [we] follow suit with colors, styles and fragrances that will enhance new home styles.” In addition to their dozens of candle styles for indoor décor, the company recently introduced several Rustics candles to fit into the growing popularity of the lodge look. Available as tapers, columns, pillars and votives, the Rustics line has had “tremendous growth in the last few years, and we will continue to expand these lines in 2003,” says Andy Glanzman, Northern Lights president and CEO.

Adding versatility to the mix, a few of Northern Lights’ newest home-décor lines are designed for indoors or out. One line is specifically for the garden, another tremendous growth segment in recent years. Danziger estimates that the market for garden décor (as opposed to garden equipment and furniture) reached $1 billion in 2001. Glanzman also noted that trend. “We’ll be expanding our line of garden items in 2003,” he says. The company has already introduced the Garden of Light line, which was “specifically created to address this important category.” This is an assortment of handcrafted “rustic vessels filled with a unique fresh-fig or red-papaya fragrance.” Also new are the Palm Beach Patio Lanterns for indoors and out. These are iridescent lanterns that subtly shimmer when a glass votive or tea light is placed inside and lit.

Also likely to extend their garden line in 2003 is Spa @ Home (Tallahassee, FL). “Garden products are getting a lot of attention, and the crossover between garden and candles, like lantern candles, is going to be really hot now,” says A. J. Chad, VP of sales and marketing. “It’s already been hot, but specialty retailers and gift shops are asking for really nice designs for the garden. They don’t want what’s already available in the common stores like the box stores… They’re asking for something more designer-type, and that’s what we’ve got for them in our recent Lantern Collection,” he says. These metal candle lanterns, which hold a votive, come in styles such as cat and fish designs.

This year, Spa @ Home introduced several innovative candle lines exclusively for indoor use. One of them is the Elegance Collection, made of a mix of vegetable waxes and “looks like a drinking glass with a silver lid on top,” Chad says. Another is the Beaded Lamps collection, which holds a votive inside a delicately beaded (but durable) lamp shade. And gel candles—despite the bad rap they’ve suffered recently because of some low-quality imports—”are still selling really well for us, and are still very popular” as home-décor accents, Chad says.

Home-décor candle sales are also up at Oddity (Pottsville, PA), a candle and candle accessories distributor (with heavy emphasis on accessories). According to Susan Williams, Oddity’s marketing manager, sales are up for “anything that lends itself to country, from apples and other fruit to wood. Country is still a strong, strong portion of our business,” she says. “It’s even taken on a different look with the shabby-chic look, and elegant country, and the whitewashed-furniture look.” The country theme is reflected in their line of candle lamps, introduced in 2000. “Last year we sold out,” Williams says, so for the Christmas 2002 catalog, “we added some new designs and colors. We hired an artist who’s known for her whimsical designs, and now we have glass votive cups and some ceramic items that match [the candle lamp designs].”

“Candle retailers have an awesome market right now,” Williams says. “Because of everything that’s happened in the country over the last year… people are staying home and want to enjoy their living space a bit more. We’ve always called candles ‘inexpensive luxuries’… To make themselves feel better, instead of going out and buying a new car or a new $200 outfit, they’ll go to a gift store and buy themselves a candle.”

Maybe even a St. John’s Wort candle, made with the herb that’s said to lift mild depression. Now available from several candle manufacturers, St. John’s Wort is just one of the many unusual scents and other innovations they have introduced in the last few years.

Beyond bees

While beeswax may be classic and paraffin may be predominant, the big news in wax is the use of all-natural vegetable waxes as a base. One of those is soy wax. Another is palm wax, which manufacturers say is difficult to work with but gives candles an extra burst of scent as the candle burns. Unlike some manufacturers who started all-natural lines based on soy, Northern Lights went with palm wax. Glanzman says, “Although it’s a bit harder to work with [than soy], once the candle is made we believe that the characteristics of palm far outweighed those of soy.” Their new palm candles include the Luma Verde line, a collection of pillars and votives with scents of Fresh Linen, Patchouli and Green Meadow. “We loved the appearance of the unique crystalline structure of the wax,” he says. “The look we were able to achieve is very unusual and way cool. The way palm delivers fragrance is unbeatable. It burns clean and gives off a beautiful translucent effect.”

Shadow & Light uses both soy and palm waxes in its latest products. “The Tea Collection is palm wax,” says Kalisek. “The Soy Collection is coming up soon.” The Tea Collection consists of four scents: Black Tea and Honey, Green Tea, Chai Tea, and Oolong Tea. Another unusual scent is Nag Champa, the newest addition to their Herbal Collection. Nag Champa is a “very unusual scent” with origins in India, Kalisek says. And the candles are “very unusual. It’s the only product line that I know of like it. In that particular line, it’s our best-selling candle.”

All of these and other new, forthcoming candles are strong indicators of an industry working to stay on top of its creative game-and on top of the market. “You know, it’s a ‘What’s new?’ industry we’re all in,” says Glanzman. “Fortunately for us as a company, we’ve created a deep, inbred culture of creativity that’s always flowing. It’s what gets us up in the morning, gets us high, and sustains our growth.” It’s also what sells candles.

Nancy Tanker

Nancy Tanker is the former managing editor of Specialty Retail Report. She has covered the specialty retail industry for nearly 15 years for a variety of publications and can be reached at

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