For the past few weeks, every time I visit my favorite Publix my eye is drawn to a prominent display of Russell Stover candies.
These aren't boxes of the typical Stover holiday selection, though. They're the company's new line, Russell Stover Urban.
The boxes, featuring stylized images of cityscapes, are filled with flavors including Key Lime, Sea Salt Soft Caramel, Grapefruit Ganache, Espresso Truffle and Pistachio Nougatine.
In the store, the Urban chocolates sit next to another revamped classic, Whitman's Soho, from the people who brought us the beloved Whitman's Sampler. The box features a comparable selection of treats - Pear Praline, Sea Salt Caramel, Madagascar Vanilla Brulee, Pistachio Nougat, Cacao Truffle and Raspberry Ganache. (Turns out Russell Stover actually owns Whitman's, which is probably why the flavors are similar).
The Urban and Soho lines are clear attempts to reach out to a growing demographic of chocolate connoisseurs, who are looking for something beyond a choice of caramel- or cream-filled.
I consider myself a sophisticated chocoholic, but these new lines perplex me.
The business logic behind the new direction makes sense. According to Advertising Age, Russell Stover sales dropped 4 percent in 2006 and Whitman's fell 12 percent, while sales at Lindt and Ghirardelli, which are known for a more "gourmet" selection of chocolates, jumped 87 percent and 244 percent, respectively.
Branching out into something a little more sophisticated is a no-brainer. But it seems like the Russell Stover folks brainstormed a little too hard when coming up with these flavors. Do we really need grapefruit, Key lime and pistachio flavors in one box?
These flavors are such a departure from the standard - and yes, slightly boring - nougats and cherry-filled candies that it seems hard to believe they'll resonate with loyal customers.
It would be like if Werther's started offering mojito-flavored hard candies. Or if Cracker Barrel started serving a tapas menu.
And I'd be interested to see if the new lines attract many new customers, seeing as they're saddled with the undoubtably old-fashioned connotations of the Russell Stover and Whitman's names.
I do appreciate my grandmother-in-law's Christmas tradition of giving everyone on her list pretty tins full of Whitman's chocolates. But it's never been about the chocolates themselves, which, as I mentioned, are fine but nothing spectacular.
It's the retro attractiveness of the packaging, the sense of familiarity, and the memories of Christmases past that make me fond of that particular gift.
When it comes to Russell Stover, Forrest Gump got it wrong. Sometimes you do know what you're gonna get. And sometimes that's exactly what you want.
E-mail Shelley Mann at email@example.com.