You only need to look at what happened to Masterfoods last year to recognise the importance of effective merchandising?.

The confectionery

giant believes sales of its Celebrations were down £5.2m in the final four weeks of the Christmas season, which it attributes to poor availability and merchandising. "Product just wasn't on the shelf," says trade relations manager Andrea Taylor. "We know people who tried to buy the product but couldn't."

While this problem was not just about merchandising, but also how the product moved from storage to shelf, it did give Masterfoods food for thought.

As a consequence, this year its tins are stackable to ensure that more product can go on gondolas at any one time.

With the confectionery market relatively flat, there are grounds for a call to action from a merchandising perspective in order to kickstart sales.

Yet, despite these warning signs, most players in the market seem relatively satisfied with the status quo.

There are some dissenters, however. "Independent research we undertook last year found that the confectionery fixture was a 'sea of sameness' and a 'confusing place to shop'," says Alison Radley, trade marketing manager at Leaf UK, the manufacturer of kids' brand Chewits.

Martin Southerland, head of marketing at Bon Bon Buddies, echoes that opinion, adding: "There should be more in-store theatre."

He says ?the multiples have room to introduce devices such as more licensed characters to appeal to children, and adds that tools such as shelf-ready packaging (SRP) could be better utilised to perk up the confectionery section in any store format.

Shelf-ready packaging is gradually becoming the norm in the confectionery category, driven by the multiples' need to reduce costs and improve availability. There are varying levels of compliance so far, but most suppliers say they expect to see the industry completely SRP compliant within the next two years.

SRP offers a range of merchandising possibilities and the confectionery sector could be taking more advantage of them.

Mark Palmer, marketing director at Green ?& Black's, says his company has been SRP compliant for at least five years, dating back to the time it was a small independent brand.

"We felt it was money we were happy to invest. Our chocolate bars are ideally merchandised upright in portrait rather than landscape layout and SRP helped with the execution of that."

He says ?Green & Black's also designed its packaging to provide visual impact when merchandised in groups, because the flavours are differentiated only by a colour band across the top.

While differentiation is critical, it isn't easy for small brands to achieve. Doug Struthers, sales director at The Burnt Sugar Sweet Company, says that the multiples are a challenge for smaller brands because their merchandising is driven by category and format.

For example, Burnt Sugar's everyday luxury fudge ?is merchandised in an eye-catching array of tubs, a format more typically found in gift sections.

Struthers believes that retailers will be better able to bring excitement to the confectionery aisle if they embrace a wider variety of approaches.

But he is optimistic that the situation will evolve, saying: "There is an increasing realisation that you can't just paint the aisle in Nestlé Kit Kat red."

Mike Tipping, head of customer relations at Cadbury Trebor Bassett, is pleased with the way confectionery is merchandised, but feels there is room for some improvements.

He says, for example, that some confectionery should be included in an everyday share display at the front of stores, alongside large bags of crisps and dips, to encourage uptake. He also believes that retailers are not doing enough to help the mint category.

Mints are products that people want to eat after food so they should be located with anything consumed on-the-go that may taint people's breath.

"This is one area that is under-exploited."

Taylor echoes this sentiment and advises that confectionery be located at different areas throughout the store to capitalise on its impulse credentials.

"One area we are focusing on is lunchtime," she says. "It is a big opportunity because 50% of shoppers say they would buy confectionery with their lunch, but only 20% of them actually do.

"We need to create a convenience outlet at the front of store to allow people to grab a sandwich and chocolate and pay as quickly as possible. Dual siting utilises different buying occasions, from lunch and sharing to a gift for the family.

"The more options the consumer can be confronted with, the better," she adds.

Another trend changing the look of the confectionery aisle is own label.

The prevailing point of view is that there is more of a role for own-label confectionery in supermarkets than convenience stores, although few view it as a threat to high-end brands.

Some, however, reckon that own label will gradually take root in the category.

Chris Marshall, chairman of own label and branded confectionery company Tangerine, concludes: "Retailer brands have grown in presence in the market and, looking ahead to the next ten years, I would expect this growth to continue?."n