Hotel Chocolat has reported a surge in subscribers as chocoholics have signed up to regular sweet treats during the pandemic.
The upmarket chocolatier’s online and subscription sales will overtake store sales for the first time as the Covid crisis boosted demand for “regular happy treats” as well as gifts for family and friends, said Angus Thirlwell, the chief executive who co-founded the business in 2004.
Online and subscriptions are set to make up more than half of all sales this year, compared with 15% to 20% before the pandemic. Hotel Chocolat has 3 million customers on its database, up 66% since the end of 2019.
Overall sales at the chocolatier were 34% higher in the 10 weeks to 27 June compared with pre-Covid levels . Sales were 63% higher compared with the equivalent period in 2020 when all its shops were closed because of the pandemic.
“We’re probably in the best shape we’ve been in in our history; it’s been a tough 18 months but we’re through that,” Thirlwell said. “Our online business has grown exponentially. The evidence is that it’s here to stay; it’s not pandemic only.”
Over the summer so far, passion fruit and mango and cacao gin have been popular, as well as the retailer’s ice-cream.
Hotel Chocolat has reported declining sales in UK city centres, where commuter and tourist numbers have slumped, but this has been countered by strong trading in market towns such as Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, St Albans and Hitchin in Hertfordshire, Stamford in Lincolnshire and Harrogate in Yorkshire.
With more people working from home, or splitting their time between home and the office, stores in smaller towns will continue to trade well, said Thirlwell. He expects stores in city centres to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, but this could take some time.
The company’s Unbelievably Vegan range has recorded triple-digit growth, and it is building a separate facility to ramp up vegan chocolate production at its main factory in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. Its warehouse in St Neots has almost doubled in size. Expansion plans also include a fourth truffle-making line and a second Velvetiser line to make products for its home drinks subscriptions.
Hotel Chocolat is recruiting 250 more people in the UK, including designers, engineers and data experts, taking its workforce to 2,000. It has 126 stores in the UK and Ireland, 26 in Japan and four in the US, with plans to open more shops.
The company said it would repay the entire £3.1m funds it has received from the government under the furlough scheme this year. Revenues rose 24% to £165m in the year to end June compared with 2019 levels, and the company expects to beat forecasts for pretax profits.