Chocolate firms give thanks for pounds 260m Easter rising

Helen Jones reports on how the industry persuades us to shell out on eggs
IF YOU have just polished off an Easter egg or two, spare a thought for the stalwart staff of Thorntons, who this week have used 6,000kg of sugar icing to decorate 1.3 million personalised eggs.

"I can't wait for the Easter season to end," said one staff member. "The public are queueing out the door to have their names iced onto eggs. By the end of the day I'm cursing parents who give their children names of more than five letters because they are harder to do and I never want to see another egg again - well, at least not until next year."

The Easter season, which generally begins as soon as Valentine's Day is over, is a vital period for the UK's confectionery manufacturers. This is especially so for Thorntons, which last month issued a profits warning and blamed costly store refurbishment and falling sales during last summer's heat wave. A successful Easter may go some way to help it get back on track.

Easter confectionery, whether traditional milk chocolate eggs or novelty shapes such as ducks and parrots, has never been so popular. London department store Selfridges stocked 120 different types of eggs and novelties this year to satisfy British chocoholics. The UK Easter egg market is one of the fastest growing sectors of the chocolate industry, according to Tony Bilsborough of Cadbury's communications department, and was worth pounds 260m last year.

Shell eggs remain the most popular, followed by filled eggs such as the Cadbury's Creme Eggs which, contrary to popular belief says Mr Bilsborough, "are only delivered to the trade for sale between January and Easter, but many shopkeepers order enough to extend the season beyond Easter".

Such is the popularity of the Creme Egg that Cadbury trots out its own Everest statistic - a vital tactic for any branded good supplier when it wants to impress upon the public the vastness of its sales. According to Cadbury: "If all the Creme Eggs made by Cadbury were stacked on top of each other, the pile would be 900 times higher than Mount Everest." Well, there you have it, but how long it took Cadbury's statisticians to work that one out is anybody's guess.

What is certain is that Cadbury is the market leader in the Easter egg sector, closely followed by Nestle, with Mars a fairly distant third. This may be because Mars did not begin to manufacture eggs until 1987, while Cadbury introduced its first egg in 1875. Mars's entry into the market has coincided with the broadening of the sector beyond gifts for children. The emergence of eggs with plainer, more masculine packaging and not a fluffy duck in sight is aimed directly at teenagers and men who make up a growing share of the market.

As with many British traditions, the giving of chocolate Easter eggs was made popular by the Victorians, although the giving and receiving of painted eggs was a spring-time tradition throughout the world for centuries.

The Victorians were also responsible for devising Easter cards bearing religious and mythological images - the crucifix, flowers, eggs, ducks and rabbits.

According to the Greeting Card Association, it is a healthy but fairly static sector of the market and managed sales of 43 million cards last year with a retail value of about pounds 20m.

Easter to many Britons now has little religious significance and means no more than chocolate eggs and plenty of sport on TV. So while chocolate manufacturers can look forward to bumper Easter sales, churches are expected to have falling attendances.

Last year the Churches Advertising Network, an inter-denominational organisation, launched a high-profile marketing campaign with posters bearing the line: "Surprise! said Jesus to his disciples three days after they buried him..."

This year CAN will not run a specific Easter campaign. "We will be focusing on issue-based campaigns rather than festival-based work," said the Reverend Richard Thomas, CAN's co-ordinator.