CHICAGO — Convenience stores have long been synonymous with snacking, but appear to be trailing their competition for snacking in the foodservice category.
Just more than one-third (36%) of consumers said that they purchase snacks from convenience stores at least occasionally, which ranks below fast-food burger restaurants (49%), grocery stores (46%) and coffee shops/cafes (38%), according to the 2020 Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report by CSP sister research firm Technomic, Chicago.
Afternoon snacking shows promise, though, due to daypart flexibility and shifting consumer definitions of snacking in general, especially as the coronavirus pandemic alters c-store food trends.
“Consumers are making fewer trips and purchasing pantry essentials closer to home, relying more heavily on c-stores for their shopping needs,” said Mike Del Pozzo, chief customer officer for Frito-Lay North America, Plano, Texas. “There’s an opportunity for c-store operators to offer more variety—from more functional snacking like those that include positive nutrition like calcium or protein, to snacks flavors consumers have loved for years—and we expect this trend to continue for some time.”
Ditch traditional formats
Consumers are increasingly pivoting from the typical “three meals a day with snacks in between” format. In December 2019, only 35% of consumers said that this format fits their current dining behavior, an 8% decrease from January 2018, according to Technomic’s report. Additionally, more consumers now than two years ago are either having many snacks between meals or are simply not snacking at all between meals, something Technomic defines as an “extreme” snacking behavior. Capitalizing on consumers’ extreme snacking behaviors and ditching traditional snacking formats presents an opportunity for operators to tinker with portion size, unique items, fad diets and more.
“Shifts toward more extreme eating behaviors highlight the importance of menu versatility to maximize foodservice snacking opportunities,” Technomic said.
Focus on the food, not the time
Although snacks have historically been defined as foods that are consumed at nontraditional dining hours, this sentiment is changing. Sixty-one percent of consumers agreed with this statement in December 2019, according to Technomic’s report. Instead, consumers are increasingly defining snacking as when they consume any small or inexpensive items (5% increase), according to the report. Operators can combine small-portioned snacks and good value though items such as snack flights and shareable platters.
“Shifting snack views that place a greater emphasis on small and/or inexpensive items present an opportunity for suppliers and operators to cut food costs by reducing the portion size and price of some snack offerings,” said Technomic.
Nearly half (49%) of consumers said they mostly eat snacks en route when they consume them away from home, more than any other method, according to Technomic’s report. Operators focusing on portability should consider packaging that is suitable for driving, such as cupholder-friendly options, bite-sized containers and more, Technomic said.
“When consumers do snack away from home, ‘en route’ is now the most common consumption location, surpassing at-work occasions, which led in 2018,” it said.
Entrees as snacks
Convenience-store operators could benefit from offering more entrees, said Jerry Weiner, consulting partner for c-store consultancy b2b Solutions LLC, Lake Forest, Ill., and former head of foodservice for retailers Rutter’s and MAPCO. For instance, retailers can move roller-grill items to hot merchandisers for snacking occasions. Weiner did this while at Rutter’s. He also expanded beyond roller-grill dogs to include fries, Mozzarella sticks, fried pickles and more appetizers as snacks, he said.
“Focus more on food-type snacking instead of [packaged] sweet and salty snacking,” he said. “Everyone has pretzels and candy bars, so don’t be afraid to step out of the box and separate yourself from the competition.”
C-store operators should be adventurous when it comes to snacking, said Jessica Williams, founder of c-store consultancy Food Forward Thinking LLC, Louisville, Ky. Unlike other dayparts, snacking is the ideal opportunity for operators to “play around and get creative with new flavors, ingredients and products to help break up consumers’ routines,” she said. They can also experiment here by combining healthy and indulgent snacks, such as snack trays with apples and cheese, or even cookies with fruit, she said.
Take-home and multipacks
Take-home or multipack snack offers also stand as opportunities, said Del Pozzo of Frito-Lay. While the types of snacks consumers are purchasing hasn’t changed much from the start of the pandemic through today, the way they’re purchasing them has, he said. Take-home and multi-pack snacks allow customers to purchase large quantities of small snack packages at once to keep their trips to a minimum instead of frequently visiting the store.
“[Customers] are trying to limit trips to the store where they can, and with that in mind, we are seeing sales of items like our take-home size bags increase.,” he said. “The trend noted in take-home size bags as well as multipack snacks is happening at the c-store level.”
Forty-five percent of consumers said that they typically eat snacks in the evening, and nearly a third (32%) said that they do so late at night, a 5% increase from 2018, according to Technomic. Operators who stay open late can boost their late-night menus with offerings that are only available at a certain time, which can then carry viral social-media potential, Technomic said.
Weiner of b2b Solutions agrees that mid-evening and late-night snacking is essential for c-store operators. “Don’t lose sight of mid-evening snacking and snacking even around 2 a.m.,” he said. “Those are key dayparts.”