Hard candy is by definition, well, hard. Lollipops are just for kids and consumers won’t pay for a more expensive sucker. Customization is just a fad.

Don’t look now, but a wave of new hard candy is challenging these assumptions.

With the economy on the upswing there has been an increase in experimentation and premiumization. Consumers are purchasing slightly more expensive gourmet candy, while manufacturers like The Hershey Co. are creating new products that challenge category definitions.

Pete Chronos, v.p. of Sweet Services, Inc., says he’s seen a shift in consumer attitudes.

“I have seen a lot of people and a lot of companies going gourmet instead of going lower quality,” says Chronos. “I think that as the economy is turning around a bit, people are going to be willing to spend a bit more money on luxury items like a gourmet candy or a gourmet lollipop.”

The data backs him up — Symphony IRI data shows tremendous increase in one gourmet lollipop maker in particular, Original Gourmet, compared to last year for the week ending Feb. 19, the most recent data available. While sales in the hard candy sector increased by 5.74%, Original Gourmet’s classic pops posted a 43.97% rise in sales.

“The customer wants a better product, that’s for sure, and while price point is still important, they want a really, really great taste,” says Richard Alimenti, ceo of Original Gourmet. “We hit the right flavor profile, we hit the right color, and we have the right equipment to make the swirls.”

Moreover, Original Gourmet lollipops are aimed at a slightly different audience. While the confections sell quite well with children, the company produces pops for a more mature palate.

“There are also kid’s lollipops that kids eat, and then there is Original Gourmet, which is more of an adult lollipop that kids eat,” says Alimenti.

However, even kid’s lollipops are trying new things. Spangler Candy Co., known for their Dum-Dums line, added a new option to their website to allow consumers to add their own special touch to Saf-T-Pops pouches.

Customers are now able to personalize the pops with custom logos and messages or stock images promoting safety or birthday announcements.

“Customized Saf-T-Pops give businesses a new way to promote themselves and give their customers something to remember them by,” says Mattea St. John, e-commerce manager.

The minimum order for a customized lollipop is a 500-count box, but the minimum order for lollipops featuring a stock image is just a 50-count tub. They come in a variety of flavors, all Saf-T-Pops classics, including cherry, apple, grape, orange or assorted.

An improving economic climate also has allowed some companies to launch new products or line extensions. Chronos sees this trend continuing as manufacturers that haven’t introduced new products in the last few years start experimenting again.

“I see a lot of manufacturers out there that haven’t introduced new products recently, which might have to do with how the economy was these past two or three years,” says Chronos. “I hope and think that with the turnaround, there will be new products, new packaging, new everything, because that would be good for all of us.”

The Hershey Co., has already jumped on this trend. The company, which manufactures Jolly Rancher, the best selling hard candy, has introduced a new line for the brand — Jolly Rancher Crunch ‘N Chew.  The new sweet features a crunchy, hard shell and a soft, chewy center — a departure from the classic, fruit-flavored hard candy rolls. The change in texture is an innovation that would have been unnecessarily risky a few years ago, but may excite consumers looking for something new.

Wrigley, which produces Life Savers hard candies, has also decided to release new flavors because of consumer demand.

“Fruit flavors have been a key contributor to gum and candy growth and Wrigley continues to introduce new flavors to leverage this trend and delight consumers,” says Jennifer Jackson-Luth, Wrigley Corporate Affairs senior manager. “Specifically, Life Savers hard candy provides multiple fruit flavor options; the most recent flavor launches include fruit flavors such as Cherry Lemonade, Fruiteria, and Hawaiian Fruits.”

The key is reaching out to as many consumers as possible, says Luth, especially during a time when they may be willing to buy.

“With Life Savers, we’re happy to offer several flavor profiles within our fruit and mint categories—so there’s an option for almost any taste,” says Luth.

Flavor fusion certainly works well within the hard candy sector. For example, Original Gourmet’s CreamSwirl pops, which launched about a year ago, have increased spectacularly, with Symphony IRI reporting more than seven-fold boost in sales since last year.

But Alimenti insists that it is not just the economy that’s driving Original Gourmet’s rise.

“I believe the consumer will always want a better product—but it has to really be a better product,” says Alimenti. “If you make a ho-hum product, you are going to get ho-hum results.”

The focus on high-quality, gourmet hard candy is likely to continue, especially as other companies see the successes of companies like Original Gourmet. Alimenti predicts, however, that this focus on gourmet will not stop at hard candy.

“I do think there is a push toward high-end candy in hard candy, but I don’t think it’s just hard candy,” says Alimenti. “If you want to grow any category, you grow from the high end products. You grow the category by bringing in something from the top.”

 Candy makers aren’t done experimenting either — if the economy continues to recover, expect the consumer to demand more exotic flavors and textures — a demand manufacturers will be more than happy to fulfill.