Whitman’s Sampler was once one of the most popular and famous boxed chocolate brands in America. First introduced in 1942, the Whitman’s Sampler was known for its distinctive black box with the logo “Whitman’s” on top and a red band around the center. Inside each box was a selection of bite-sized chocolates in a variety of flavors and fillings. Generations of Americans grew up receiving Whitman’s Samplers as gifts for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions. At its peak, over 20 million Whitman’s Sampler boxes were sold each year across the United States. However, over the decades, sales and popularity of the Whitman’s Sampler steadily declined. By the 2000s, many candy lovers had never even heard of Whitman’s. So what happened to make this once beloved American chocolate brand fade into obscurity?
The Early Success of Whitman’s and Whitman’s Sampler
The history of Whitman’s Chocolates began in 1842 when Stephen Whitman opened a small candy store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Known for their high quality chocolates, Whitman’s thrived as a local Philadelphia business for over 100 years. It was not until the 1940s that the company achieved nationwide success.
In 1942, Whitman’s launched the Whitman’s Sampler as a gift item for Valentine’s Day. The Whitman’s Sampler was an instant hit with consumers. During World War II, product rationing limited candy production. But demand for the Whitman’s Sampler was so high that it continued to be produced. Soldiers abroad enjoyed receiving Whitman’s Samplers in care packages from home. By the 1950s, Whitman’s Sampler was a beloved American tradition for holidays and special occasions. The mix of flavorful fillings within its distinctive black box had mass appeal. An affordable luxury at about $1 per box, Whitman’s sold over 1 million Samplers per month. The company’s television advertisements in this era featured the catchy jingle “The Valentine’s box of chocolates that says it best.”
Acquisition by Pet and Rise of Competition
In 1962, Whitman’s Chocolates was acquired by food conglomerate Pet Incorporated. Under Pet’s ownership, Whitman’s continued to grow its production and distribution. But the landscape for boxed chocolates was changing. While Whitman’s was still dominating sales, competitors were emerging. In the 1960s, Russell Stover Candies became a national brand. Hallmark also introduced its own boxed chocolates. Then in 1969, General Foods Corporation launched the Gigi brand. With more competition, Pet Whitman’s began expanding its line of boxed chocolate products. Different sizes, packaging, and flavors were created to complement the classic Whitman’s Sampler. Pet also expanded Whitman’s distribution into drugstores and mass merchandisers like Walmart and Target.
The Decline of the Chocolate Sampler
In the 1980s and 1990s, Whitman’s market share in boxed chocolates declined significantly. Several factors contributed to this downward slide:
- More competition – By the 1990s, Whitman’s faced competition from Russell Stover, Hershey, Godiva, Lindt and other chocolate brands. This took away some of Whitman’s customer base.
- Changing consumer preferences – American tastes were shifting away from traditional boxed chocolates. Consumers wanted more premium and novel chocolates. Whitman’s classic chocolates seemed boring compared to new products.
- Over distribution – By making its products so widely available in drugstores and discount retailers, Whitman’s lost some of its prestige.
- Ownership changes – Pet underwent several mergers in the 1990s. The company was bought by Russell Stover in 1993. These ownership changes led to lack of consistent marketing and innovation.
By the early 2000s, annual sales of the Whitman’s Sampler had dropped to around 6 million boxes per year. It was no longer in the top 5 best-selling boxed chocolates. Competitors like Russell Stover and Hershey’s had taken over the market lead.
Attempts to Revive the Brand
Recognizing the decline, Russell Stover tried several strategies to revitalize Whitman’s in the 2000s and 2010s:
- Introduced new packaging and products – While retaining the classic black Whitman’s Sampler box, they launched modern twists like the Whitman’s Thin Sampler with thinner chocolate pieces. Seasonal samplers were added for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
- Expanded distribution and product lines – Whitman’s chocolates were brought into more mass market and grocery retailers. New chocolate bars, hot cocoa, and candy varieties under the Whitman’s name were launched.
- Advertising – Russell Stover attempted to revive nostalgia for Whitman’s classic chocolates in television advertisements with the tagline “Rediscover Whitman’s.”
These efforts provided a small boost but did little to return Whitman’s to its former national popularity. In 2014, Russell Stover was acquired by the Swiss chocolatier Lindt. Under Lindt’s ownership, the focus shifted from reviving Whitman’s to promoting Lindt brand chocolates. Today, Whitman’s classic chocolate samplers are still produced but mainly sold during the Valentine’s Day and Christmas holiday seasons.
Why Whitman’s Declined While Competitors Grew
How did Whitman’s Sampler go from peak popularity in the 1950s-60s to its diminished presence today? Here are some key reasons:
- Failure to innovate – For over 50 years, Whitman’s stuck with almost the exact same product. While new packaging was introduced, the chocolate itself did not evolve. Competitors innovated with new ingredients, textures, and candy formulations.
- Outdated brand image – Whitman’s was seen as an “old-fashioned” chocolate brand. The packaging and presentation style came across as dated compared to sleeker competitors.
- Decline in candy samplers – American tastes shifted away from mixed chocolates. Consumers began preferring standalone candies and bars over samplers.
- No clear owner – With Pet and its subsequent owners, Whitman’s lacked consistent leadership and marketing from one central company for over 50 years.
- Loss of prestige – Discount distribution took away Whitman’s air of exclusivity. It became seen as a drugstore chocolate rather than premium gift chocolate.
Contrast this to competitors like Godiva and Lindt that positioned themselves as high-end, luxury chocolates. Hershey innovated by acquiring trendy brands like Bark and Krave. Russell Stover expanded successfully into new candy categories. These competitors stayed ahead of evolving consumer preferences.
The Renaissance of Boxed Chocolates?
While Whitman’s has declined, some chocolate industry analysts see potential for a renaissance in boxed chocolates. Many millennials and Gen Z consumers did not grow up with chocolate samplers. A classic chocolate box may seem novel and nostalgic to younger consumers seeking retro gifts. Brands that can create modern twists on samplers may resonate. For example, boxes with inventive fillings or artisanal chocolate flavors.
If Whitman’s is to regain relevance, it will need to recapture its vintage charm while also innovating to meet contemporary consumer desires. A successful boxed chocolate brand today combines quality chocolate, beautiful packaging, an element of surprise, and a sense of enjoyment in discovering different fills and flavors.
As a classic American chocolate brand, Whitman’s still evokes fond memories across generations. By leveraging its heritage while also evolving for the future, Whitman’s may rediscover itself and inspire new generations of chocolate lovers.
For over 50 years, Whitman’s Sampler was the boxed chocolate that Americans thought of first during holidays and special occasions. Its decline since the 1980s reflects larger shifts in consumer preferences away from mixed chocolates toward premium, single-origin bars. However, with some innovation and nostalgia, Whitman’s and other boxed chocolates may make a comeback. By recapturing some of its vintage identity while also modernizing its offerings, Whitman’s can potentially sweeten its future and regain a central place in American culture.