CSP Magazine

Hop on Pop(corn)

New flavors push popcorn toward the top of the salty-snack set

What’s whole-grain, gluten-free, light as air and tastes like blue cheese? Or maple bacon? Or smoked chipotle peppers? Or bananas?

Popcorn is the tofu of the salty-snack world. Plain, it tastes like nothing. But it has an amazing knack for assuming the identity of any number of flavor profiles. The fact that it has a healthful veneer doesn’t hurt either.

Sales of ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn have been growing by double digits for the past couple of years, according to internal figures from McLane Co. But they really began to take off toward the end of 2014. Driving the recent sales growth is a combination of trends, says Kristen Hamby, category manager of grocery and snacks for the Temple, Texas-based distributor: flavor innovation, increased snacking, the popularity of grab-and-go, immediate-consumption items and popcorn’s better-for-you appeal.

“There is definitely a healthy halo around popcorn,” says Hamby. “When you look at all salty snacks, it is on top when carving out a better-for-you section.”

And the category isn’t relenting. Total popcorn sales are expected to jump 34% from 2014 to 2019, according to market research firm Mintel Group Ltd. That growth is being driven by RTE offerings and consumer perceptions that it is a healthful, natural snack, especially compared to other salty snacks.

Aaron Mace, center-store category manager for La Plata, Md.-based Dash In, says his 65-store chain has increased packaged popcorn’s space contribution over the past six months. “In 2014, our chain only had a few popcorn SKUs—mostly in the single-serve size, some via our warehouse distributor and some DSD, such as Frito-Lay,” says Mace. “This past summer, we reset our stores and rolled out five SKUs of single-serve popcorn through our warehouse distributor, plus the SKUs we already had via DSD.”

But while RTE popcorn’s growth has been explosive, it has also come off a very small base, especially in the c-store channel. According to NACS State of the Industry figures, RTE popcorn represented only 4% of c-store salty-snack sales in 2014—a 2-point increase from 2013, but still dwarfed by heavies such as potato chips, tortilla chips and the catch-all “other salty snacks,” which combined supplied nearly 60% of sales. The lesson: Savor the flavors, but merchandise popcorn in moderation.

Flavor Country

Bold and spicy flavors have grown 15% to 20% in the salty category this past year, driving sales in everything from nuts to meat snacks, according to manufacturer figures. For popcorn, flavor is right at the forefront of the segment’s growth.

Hamby calls out Open Road Snacks’ Rocky Mountain Popcorn Co. Sriracha, Jalapeño and Bacon Cheddar varieties for hitting high flavor notes, and also for their potential to attract millennial consumers, “who are actively looking to try new and exciting flavors,” she says. Popcorn, Indiana has its own Sriracha variety too.

Other c-store-friendly popcorns include Open Road’s SkinnyPop Popcorn Original and White Cheddar flavors for their low calories and female-friendly packaging design. Popcorn, Indiana’s Sea Salt flavor and Chicago Style—a caramel and cheddar mix—are now available in convenience-friendly 2-ounce bags.

Manufacturers are elevating plain salted popcorn with gourmet touches such as olive or coconut oil, or sea salt or Himalayan pink salt. Open Road differentiates the kernels with its Sinfully Thin Blue Corn with blue corn kernels.

At Dash In, two SkinnyPop single-serve SKUs have led the way in popcorn sales, followed by a slightly decadent, sweet/salty Werther’s Original Caramel Popcorn from Storck USA. Alongside these items, the retailer also merchandises Pirate Brands’ Pirate’s Booty Aged White Cheddar puffs—technically rice and corn puffs, not popcorn—“since they satisfy the demand for healthier, lighter snacking occasions,” Mace says. The chain is also considering adding Angie’s Artisan Treats’ BoomChickaPop and LesserEvil’s Buddha Bowl brands to the popcorn set.

While the Werther’s and Pirate’s Booty items have not generated a huge amount of sales, they “have done relatively well. Considering the forecasted growth around popcorn-type products in the next few years, I expect all of the aforementioned brands will continue to grow in sales,” Mace says.

In Perspective

According to McLane figures, average c-store and travel-center sales per store per week of RTE popcorn in third-quarter 2015 rose 32.5%, and they were up 21.3% year to date. Impressive, no?

Well … “[It] is big growth, but it’s still a very small allocation of dollar share,” Hamby says. For example, popcorn moves on average $4 per store per week, compared to “all other” salty snacks, which move anywhere from $24 to $60 per week, she says. In 2014, consumer unit sales averaged 3.76 units per store per week; in 2015, this figure inched up to 4.4 units per store per week, or a 17% increase.

This reality is “really important to keep in mind when you’re allocating space in the salty set,” she says.

For a standard 12-foot salty-snack set, Hamby recommends no more than four RTE popcorn SKUs, including original and healthful varieties such as plain salted and kettle-corn options. For the other two, pick the most popular flavorful and indulgent varieties, such as jalapeño and caramel. “That way,” she says, “you’re hitting all of the different preferences.” —Additional reporting by Steve Dwyer

Ready-to-Eat-Popcorn Brands

According to IRI, c-store sales of ready-to-eat popcorn rose nearly 9% in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 29, 2015.

BrandC-Store Sales ($ Millions)PCYA*Unit Sales (Millions)PCYA*
Cracker Jack$16.1(4.0%)11.2(1.5%)
Lance Fresh$10.5(14.6%)7.0(14.5%)
Rocky Mountain Popcorn Co.$4.416.8%2.613.3%
Popcorn, Indiana$3.99.9%1.5(8.2%)
Private label$3.71,212%2.0449.2%
Jays O-Ke-Doke$3.5(32.9%)2.7(34.7%)
Total (including brands not show)$207.38.5%124.86.9%

Source: IRI

Spin the Wheel

Popcorn is the perfect base for a range of flavors, from basic to spicy and sweet. Here are some of the newest to hit the market.


  • Sinfully Thin’s Blue Corn is popped from real blue corn kernels.
  • Herr’s Go Lite! Is popped with coconut oil and seasoned with Himalayan salt.
  • G.H. Cretors Organic Popped Corn is simply flavored with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt.


  • Cheddar meets caramel in Popcorn, Indiana’s Chicago Style mix.
  • KettlePop’s Organic Kettle Corn is popped in a fıre-burning kettle with non-GMO popcorn.


  • Erin’s Churro popcorn is sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon to evoke the fried Mexican pastry.


  • The SexyPop line includes Pineapple Habanero, a variety offering sweet with a little heat.


  • Rocky Mountain Popcorn’s Sriracha variety features the trendy sauce.


  • SkinnyPop White Cheddar offers big cheesy flavor in a 100-calorie serving.
  • Van Holten’s Bacon Cheddar popcorn’s bold, cheesy flavor comes in 3-ounce peg bags

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