(This April 28 story corrects to show 1.8 billion SEK for 2019 is group revenue, not Sweden only, in paragraph 8)

By Colm Fulton

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – While the coronavirus has not stopped Swedes from eating in restaurants, drinking in pubs or playing organised sport, it has halted the country’s love affair with pick & mix candy.

Swedes chew through almost 33 pounds of candy per person each year – around 15 bags of sugar – more than any other nation, according to a 2018 study by the Swedish Board of Agriculture.

Displays of colourful sweets, marshmallows and liquorice are prominent sections of most Swedish supermarkets. However, candy-crazy Swedes now give these a wide berth.

Although health authorities have not cautioned the public against pick & mix, shoppers fear touching the well-handled shovels and bins of loose sweets.

“I see a lot of hesitation. People hanging around the candy display, but then walking away, sometimes grabbing something pre-packaged instead,” said Filip Herrstedt, 22, a supermarket assistant at Coop in central Stockholm.

Swedish sweet producer Cloetta said last week the coronavirus had “significantly reduced” demand for its pick & mix candy, as it issued a profit warning for the second quarter.

“I have stopped because of corona,” said Saija Hiltunen while shopping at Coop. “In my head, I can see the virus on the plastic shovels. It feels stupid to buy it now.”

Cloetta has cautioned that it does not expect its Swedish pick & mix business to break even by year end. The candy segment generated group sales of 1.8 billion Swedish crowns in 2019, a third of which in Sweden.

Cloetta is seeking to boost sales of pre-packaged candy to cushion the blow, but Anna Bartholf, the company’s marketing director, conceded that pick & mix held a special and not easily supplanted place in many Swedes’ hearts.

“We as Swedes have a Saturday tradition of treating ourselves and our families with “lördagsgodis” (Saturday candy),” she said.

Hiltunen said pre-packaged sweets were not an authentic replacement: “The experience is different … there’s something comforting about the ritual of picking it yourself.”

(Reporting by Colm Fulton; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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