Hotel Chocolat store front

Hotel Chocolat is to relaunch free chocolate sampling in shops, in a bid to boost footfall amid what CEO Angus Thirlwell said was a wider shift in consumer shopping habits.

The high-end chocolatier stopped offering free samples during the Covid-19 pandemic but will reintroduce the experience at Easter, Thirlwell told The Grocer, adding that it will be rolled out permanently nationwide if it’s a hit.

Thirlwell said it was in response to a wider shift in consumer shopping behaviour the business had witnessed in the run-up to gift occasions and cultural events.

“We first saw that at Christmas, when it was very, very last minute. That was completely the opposite to the way it had been panning out for the previous three years where people were getting themselves organised in good time and shopping early,” he said, adding that the trend was repeated at Valentine’s Day.

Thirlwell believed the trend is being driven by the fact customers increasingly want to get “maximum enjoyment and value” at a time when the cost of living crisis means they’re being more careful about how they spend their money, and they also want to do more of their shopping in stores.

The business has taken a “cautious approach” to seasonal events because the shortened shopping window increased volatility, due to the heightened risk of being disrupted by a strike or bad weather, Thirlwell said.

However the return of free sampling would help the business “create its own interest, even if high street footfall is challenged”, he added.

The announcement came alongside the publication of the high street chocolatier’s interim results on Wednesday. Turnover slumped 9.2% to £129.8m in the 26 weeks to 25 December 2022 compared to the same period the previous year, pulled down by declining online revenues and a 69% drop in international revenues as the business readjusted its strategy abroad.

Sales across the UK and Ireland were down 5% year on year to £127.4m, however like for likes at UK stores grew 7% year on year during the half. Sales overall were 25% higher than they were pre-pandemic.

“Financial year 23 has been all about making some really, really good calls. To get the business into fighting shape again after three years of very, very strong growth,” Thirlwell said.

Hotel Chocolat is currently consulting with staff across the business as part of a wider restructure of its operations, that will result in some roles being “eliminated”, Thirlwell said.

He declined to say how many roles could be at risk, but said no single department was being targeted as part of the consultation, which will be wrapped up within two weeks.

“It’s a case of looking for tightening in efficiency opportunities across the whole business,” Thirlwell said, adding that plans to open 50 more stores over the next three years meant the business would be a “net job creator”.