The Cotton Candy Effect

When I was a kid, going to the fair was a special treat that came each fall. Looking forward to the fair- for us it was the Deerfield Fair- started as soon as the weather turned in mid-September. Dad would pull the pumpkins from the garden and we knew it was soon to going to be fair time. The Deerfield fair is a small community fair where you can see oxen or horse pulls on Friday nights, run around the midway with your friends, sample some homemade fudge, see your school projects in the School Building and see your 4-H projects in the 4-H building.  It’s a place where you can find homemade strawberry rhubarb pie and find my mom at the horse show.

Each year, I couldn’t wait to go to the fair! I mean truly, where else can you get a purple feather ‘roach clip’ for your hair and a Def Leppard mirror for your bedroom, right?  Besides the freedom from my parents the fair provided as I got older, my favorite part of the fair was the food. Nowhere else could you get candied apples, caramel apples, and cotton candy. I would dream about eating that cotton candy. It was a fair exclusive and that made it even more delicious when fair time came and we could get some. Remember watching the man make the cotton candy? How he spiraled the stick around in the machine and layer upon layer of the sweet stuff piled on until you had a huge glob of the sweet goodness to eat? And remember how it made your lips pink and it melted in your mouth? Warm cotton candy was the BEST!  As time wore on the vendors started making it ahead of time and bagging it up, selling both bags and sticks of candy. This was an interesting complement in their product line because it allowed them to sell to the audience of people who wanted to ‘save it for later’. Even still though the candy was relatively fresh and the portions were huge.

Fast forward 30 years… now you can get cotton candy in the grocery store! It’s a travesty. True, those of us who had the fresh made cotton candy on a stick at the fair know the store-bought version does not compare, but try to tell the next generation that.

The cotton candy effect refers to over saturating the market with a particular product. For me it’s cotton candy, but there are other items where I’ve seen this effect happen. Taking something and changing its position in the market, can lead to more sales in the short-term because you have a larger audience, but in the long-run you’ll see a decline in those short-term sales as people realize there’s nothing special about the item, your prices go down and your margins will decrease.  When this happens the product has moved from the specialty market to the commodity market. Why should someone pay $5 for a stick of the puffy fluffy sweet stuff that’s bigger than their head, when they can get a condensed (and I mean dense) bag of processed gunk for $2 at the grocery store? There’s a shift in quality, quantity and price and with that is a commodity. I call this shift from specialty to commodity the ‘Cotton candy effect’.  Think of it as too much of a good thing.