Neither a price hike nor the added strain of life in the United States since the terror attacks of Sept 11 have deterred some chocolate buyers from getting their dose of sweets, say industry watchers.

People describe comfort food like candy as nurturing, soul-satisfying, wholesome and meant to connect you to special memories of holidays or seasons, or a warm kitchen. You probably didn't make chocolate with your mother, but it certainly is near the top of the comfort food list these days.

In the aftermath of Sept 11, fretful consumers are dealing with mounting layoffs, longer commutes, stricter baggage checks, extra security measures; in a word - STRESS.

Everyone deals with stress in a different way, but comfort food is more acceptable than alcohol or drugs and easier than yoga or exercise.

THE DATA SHOW

According to data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI) of Chicago, Illinois, total U.S. chocolate candy sales on a unit basis rose 2.4 percent in the four weeks ending Oct 7 compared to the same period a year ago.

IRI collects scanner data from supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers, explained Kevin Bender, an IRI spokesman.

Eric Katzman, food analyst with Deutsche Bank said, "IRI growth numbers have been up 2 percent. Anecdotal reports say it was a decent Halloween season. (Sales at) Wal-Mart, Safeway, Walgreen were respectable and in line with expectations."

He added, "Others were mixed. Hershey's numbers are up 2 percent. Traffic in airports is slower, but Hershey has very little of the business in airports."

Market leader Hershey raised prices on its bag business Sept 17.

"(We had) about a 7 percent increase to all people who buy from us and we discontinued the 8-ounce and went to a 10-ounce size," said Christine M. Dugan, spokeswoman for Hershey.

The last price adjustment, according to Dugan, was in March 1996 when there was an indirect price increase via a 7 percent weight decrease in their product.

COSTS GOING UP UNEVENLY

While cocoa prices based on the nearby March futures contract in New York have soared 54.8 percent in the four months since July 12, this sharp advance has not affected everyone evenly.

"My prices are pretty stable. They haven't changed much," said Patti Cohen-Hecht of Patti's Outrageous Confections in Danbury, Connecticut.

"My sales picked up for Thanksgiving. I doubled my sales at the Chocolate Show this year compared to last year," said Cohen-Hecht, referring to the Fourth Annual Chocolate Show held last month in New York.

Martine, owner and president of Martine's Chocolates inside upscale Bloomingdale's department store in Manhattan, said she raised the price of her fresh gourmet chocolates after Sept 11, her first increase in more than two years.

"The cost of cocoa has gone up dramatically," said Martine.

While consumers continued to buy their chocolate goodies at supermarkets and drug stores, department stores in New York City saw shopper traffic stop abruptly as Sept 11-shocked consumers feared going out and parked themselves in front of their televisions or stereo systems.

Michael Simon, vice president of marketing for Godiva North America, said Godiva's sales were hurt just a bit by the reduced traffic to the shopping malls.

"Godiva chocolates are the perfect comfort food. It's an affordable luxury," said Simon.

Godiva's input costs have not been significantly affected by the steep rally in cocoa bean prices.

"We have no plans near term to change prices. We've purchased our cocoa. We're locked in and covered for a while," he said.

Perhaps a new marketing spin will help boost sales further.

For instance, sales of salty snacks are up more than 4 percent since Sept 11, according to IRI data.

Anyone for chocolate coated pretzels?