50 Flavors of Yuck: Why More Candies Aren’t Like Jelly Bellys

Every once in a while I am reminded that I hate Jelly Belly jelly beans. Even after carefully selecting only those flavors that look safest (usually the fruity ones), I am nevertheless tortured with at least a couple nasty tasting jelly beans. This repeated bad experience makes me (i) thankful that most candies aren’t sold in such unnecessary variety and (ii) curious why nearly all candies are sold in assortments of less than 6 flavors.

Candies rarely come in very large flavor assortments. Of the “Top 50 Candies of All Time” published by USA Today, Jelly Belly is the only candy with more than 5 flavors in a single assortment. Of candies that come in assortments at all, combinations of 4 of 5 flavors (e.g. Starbust or Skittles, respectively) are far more common. So why aren’t more candies sold in larger flavor assortments?

I can think of two main reasons. First, confectioners want each flavor to appeal to the greatest number of consumers while simultaneously offending as few as possible. This means that flavors that are generally disliked (e.g. “Buttered Popcorn”) or even highly polarizing (e.g. “Black Licorice”) are usually avoided. A consumer is usually less willing to purchase an assortment of candies if a sizeable portion of those candies aren’t palatable to him/her, even if some of the other flavors are quite delicious. It seems that consumer tastes have converged on roughly four flavors with broad appeal and limited strong dislike: grape, cherry, orange, lemon-lime. Deviations from these basic flavors will appeal strongly to a slim minority of consumers while turning off several more.

Second, because most candies are sold in packages with small quantities (Skittles, on the high end, has 60 candies per typical package), consumers want a reasonable guarantee that they’ll receive enough candies with their preferred flavor. For example, a consumer intuitively knows and expects that roughly 20% of the 60 Five-Flavored Skittles in a typical package will be his favorite flavor. The probability that a consumer will find none of his favorite flavor in the package (assuming a uniform distribution of flavors) is very small, roughly 0.00015%. In contrast, Jelly Bellys, which has 50 classic flavors, has a much greater chance of excluding a particular consumer’s desired flavor.  In a random package of Jelly Bellys containing 60 candies, a consumer runs a 29.8% risk that his favorite flavor won’t be in the package (again assuming that flavors are uniformly distributed).

Then how does Jelly Belly stay in business? Jelly Belly continues to succeed in the gift candies market niche, which is distinct from mass candies like Skittles, Starburst, or even Sour Patch Kids. When buying gifts, consumers don’t know whether or which flavors are disgusting to the gift recipient, thereby mitigating the purchaser’s aversion to any particular flavor. Jelly Belly profits from gift-givers’ ignorance about the taste preferences of their recipients.

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