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CORRECTED-Gum, mints and snack bar sales slump, as U.S. consumers order online amid COVID-19 crisis

Martinne Geller

(Clarifies paraphrased comment in last paragraph)

By Martinne Geller

LONDON, May 28 (Reuters) - Impulse purchases - gum, mints and snack bars tossed into a shopping basket as one snakes through the supermarket checkout line - are falling as more people get groceries delivered or pick them up curbside.

U.S. sales of mints are down 30 percent year-on-year at stores tracked by market researcher Nielsen in the 11 weeks ending on May 16, while sales of gum are down 28 percent.

The pandemic has prompted many people to switch to online grocery shopping rather than visiting stores, where snacks and other so-called "impulse purchases" are placed strategically near checkout lines.

"Sales in our gum and mint category have also been significantly impacted by social distancing protocols," Hershey , maker of Ice Breakers mints, said in a filing on Wednesday.

Mondelez International last month forecast "material declines" in its gum business, which includes Trident and Stride, in the second quarter, describing that category as "the most impulse in nature." Gum, which is mostly consumed when people go out, is often bought in convenience stores, many of which are closed, it added.

Consumers are not, however, abandoning oral care amid social distancing measures.

Toothpaste and mouth wash sales are up 12 percent and 13 percent, respectively, for the 11-week period, according to Nielsen.

In general, packaged food makers, including Nestle, Kraft Heinz and General Mills have seen a huge boost since the pandemic forced the closure of restaurants, bars and hotels, leading people to eat more at home.

The shaky economy in the United States could be another factor in the decline in sales of the "to-go" snack items, because they're not seen by consumers as necessities, according to Amy Goldsmith, a food marketing consultant in Los Angeles.

"With the economy, snacking is probably going to take a hit, if it hasn't already," she said. "If you're not on-the-go, you can make yourself a sandwich or have leftovers from last night, so you're not wasting."

Performance nutrition bars, which many companies pitch as healthy snacks, are down 19 percent in the 11 weeks ending on May 16, according to Nielsen.

Daniel Lubetzky, founder and executive chairman of KIND Snacks, said there remained a lot of uncertainty. "It's very difficult to plan," he told Reuters.

"People aren't working out, they're not on the go as much," Jon Nudi, General Mills' head of North America retail, told Reuters on Wednesday, noting that diet-focused bars with low calories or sugar were particularly affected.

General Mills, owner of Nature Valley and Larabar snack bars, is the biggest player in a global snack bar market worth $16.7 billion at retail, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.

"People, at least for the time-being, have put off dieting ... to embrace more indulgent things," Nudi said, noting his company's Betty Crocker dessert mixes saw sales jump more than 100 percent in the early days of the pandemic.

Nudi said snack bar sales should improve as lockdown rules ease, and noted that recessions usually cause people to seek out value brands, where most of its bars play.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller; Editing by Aurora Ellis and David Evans)