Mars plant

The Mars Chocolate North America plant is located at 1001 Texas Central Parkway. A fire outside the facility Tuesday afternoon damaged six trailers.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file

Candy is king this time of year, when goblins and masked superheroes roam in search of treats, and economists are saying confection sales are running nearly 6 percent ahead of last year due to growing consumer confidence and falling gas prices that create more disposable income.

M&M Mars, the candy giant with a plant in Waco that employs more than 500 people, says early fall is among its busiest times of the year, as production peaks for Halloween and cold-weather holidays.

The local facility makes Snickers-branded bars, which Forbes magazine listed as the second-most popular Halloween candy, behind only Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. It also produces Skittles candies, which rank No. 9 on Forbes’ Top 10 list.

All told, Americans will spend $9.1 billion on Halloween-related merchandise this season, up from last year’s $8.4 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. It added online that candy sales should hit $2.7 billion, as the nation’s collective sweet tooth bows to cravings.

“This is one of the higher-volume stores when it comes to candy sales, and we noticed heavy Halloween-related shopping over the weekend,” said Ronnie Bush, who manages the Walmart on Hewitt Drive. “Halloween, Easter and Valentine’s Day all are about the same in terms of quantity. We receive larger shipments almost every year, and they increase typically by at least 10 percent but some years approach 30 percent.”

At the Target Greatland store on Bosque Boulevard, assistant manager Michelle Visy said candy sales this Halloween season have eclipsed those of last year, though policy would not allow her to give specifics.

The National Retail Federation expects holiday retail sales in November and December to increase 3.6 to 4 percent for a total of $678 billion, according to its annual forecast that excludes vehicle, gasoline and restaurant sales.

“Our forecast reflects the very realistic steady momentum of the economy and the overall strength of the industry,” NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said in a prepared statement on the federation’s website. “Although this year hasn’t been perfect, especially with the recent devastating hurricanes, we believe that the longer shopping season and strong consumer confidence will deliver retailers a strong holiday season.”

Christmas falls 32 days after Thanksgiving this year, one day more than last year, and is on a Monday instead of a Sunday, giving consumers an extra weekend day to complete their shopping, according to the NRF.

NRF spokeswoman Ana Serafin Smith said in a phone interview the organization is not predicting that registers will ring often during the last two months of the year due to brisk Halloween-related sales.

“Halloween does represent the start of something, a shopping season, if you will, but there is a big difference in the reason for spending,” she said. “At Halloween, you are typically buying for others, especially as it pertains to candy, whereas we often shop for ourselves later in the year.”

Gas prices

Consumers may not see a strong relationship between gasoline prices and candy sales, but some retail observers say one exists.

The price of regular unleaded has been steadily falling for weeks, as refining capacity on the Gulf Coast returned to normal following Hurricane Harvey. The average in Greater Waco hit $2.16 late Monday afternoon, a 1.5-cent drop from Sunday, a 4-cent dip from a week earlier and 23 cents below the $2.39 average a month ago, according to GasBuddy.com.

A year ago, Waco motorists were paying right around $2 a gallon for regular unleaded, GasBuddy.com said in its report.

Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, said in a phone interview he does not expect prices at the pump to decline much longer.

“Oil prices have rebounded in the last week, led higher by geopolitical tensions and declining inventories, leading gasoline prices in some parts of the country to make an unseasonable move higher,” he said in a report Monday.

He added that exports of crude oil from the United States are flowing at a record pace, also putting upward pressure on fuel costs.

Still, for now, bargains abound in pockets of Greater Waco, with the Murphy USA kiosk outside Walmart at Franklin Avenue and New Road charging $2.06 a gallon for regular unleaded on Monday. The same price was on display at the Stripes store at Robinson and Primrose drives, while the Sam’s Club on East Waco Drive was asking $2.07 a gallon.

Karr Ingham, an Amarillo-based economist who tracks local trends for the First National Bank of Central Texas and the Tribune-Herald, expressed surprise Monday that gas prices locally were continuing to fall.

“Enjoy it while you can,” he said by phone.

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