For the Snacking Occasion, Anything Goes

Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

Historically an indulgent in-between meal, snacking is the new 24-7, and every food is trying to get into the game.

Take the olive. Musco Family Olives now offers a car-friendly 4-ounce serving that fits into a cup holder. “It used to be that the only time you ever saw olives as a snack was as part of a holiday tray,” says Jim Hertel, senior vice president of Long Grove, Ill.-based Willard Bishop, an Imar Analytics Co. “Now they’re moving to fit it into mainstream snacking behavior.”

And then there are the interesting pricing implications that follow. The price per ounce of olives is 20% to 25% higher in the snack size, but people are willing to pay a premium for the portability and convenience.

You can attribute the rapid rise in snack consumption over the past two years to busier lifestyles and the increased availability and variety of snack items, according to Technomic’s 2016 Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report. Equally important, the study suggests, is how we define what is a snack. No longer limited to Reese’s Pieces and potato chips, snacking today captures energy bars, nuts, smoothies and anything else considered moderately appetizing and relatively satiating.

For the convenience channel, any expansion of a core category should spell opportunity. But to maximize it, we need to understand who the target market is and how best to draw them in. We must appreciate the delicate balance, for example, between indulgence and health and other dichotomies that permeate the snacking occasion.

Two in One

The biggest trend in snacking is actually the convergence of two smaller trends, says Hertel. One is the move toward more frequent consumption of smaller portions of food, or grazing. The other is the shift toward healthier eating.

“This is not to be confused with healthy eating,” Hertel says. “It’s really more about people eating foods they think are better for them than the foods they would normally choose, selecting products with cleaner labels, fewer processed ingredients, etc.” The result, he says, are snacks such as green-bean crisps and dried fruit infiltrating the snack aisle.

Laura McGuire, director of editorial for Chicago-based Technomic (a sister company of CSP magazine), expects c-stores by this fall to employ more “better-for-you” buzzwords—such as superfood, antioxidants and non-GMO—that spotlight the use of real ingredients. In Technomic’s 2016 snacking report, 51% of consumers reported that “healthfulness” is very important to them when selecting a snack.

“The more portable a snack is, the more likely it is to be selected.”

Notable in the better-for-you movement are protein snacks, says Hope LaGrone, product director of snacks and grocery for McLane Co., Temple, Texas. That slate of protein items includes a diverse blend of products including protein bars, fortified shakes/milk, jerky and snack bars. A 2014 Euromonitor International Study found that high-in-protein claims have helped new consumers embrace old c-store favorites, such as jerky and nut mixes, and have galvanized sales of less traditional offerings such as yogurt.

In this opportunity, nutrition and energy options can shine. But the dedication to perceived better-for-you items wanes as the day goes on, LaGrone says. Consumers still rely on indulgent snacks in the afternoon and evening.

Tale of the Taste

Indulgent snacks, meanwhile, are ideal for smaller packaging because it drives consumers to think, “If I eat more than a few, I will be disgusted with myself,” says Hertel. Indulgence, he continues, “is rationalizable.”

In the 2016 Technomic study, the desire to treat oneself was one of the biggest motivators reported by consumers for their snack purchases, second only to hunger. And studies show that consumers are more willing and effective in rationalizing a treat later in the day.

A 2015 study conducted by Tyson Convenience Foodservice and Anheuser-Busch found that 78% of people say they are snacking weekly or more often during the evening. If done right, snacks can drive foot traffic in c-stores during evening hours when they’re typically less busy, says Holly Veale, product director of foodservice for McLane.

“While evening and snacking both present a large opportunity on their own, combining the two into a single focus can result in increased sales, increased foot traffic and increased profitability,” Veale says.

So what should operators consider when curating a snack selection to attract evening traffic? Hertel believes there’s a tiny bit of overlap between better-for-you and indulgent snacks that’s worth their attention.

Snacks in this overlapped space are typically imported confections that can’t really be described as “healthy,” but they do boast cleaner, simpler, higher-quality ingredient lists. These quality indulgences are the kind of specialty items stores can become known for carrying.

But generally, in the realm of indulgence, one element stands alone as the most important factor.

“Taste is king,” says Paul Darrow, director of innovation and insights for Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich. “In any study you do, taste is what drives consumers.” The 2016 study Darrow managed for Kellogg, which took a close look at immediate consumption (defined by the study as food eaten within three hours of purchase), found that afternoon is when most immediate-consumption purchases are made.

“If I were a c-store operator, I would make sure I’m ready to go at those times of the day, shelves stocked, good floor plan and assortment,” says Darrow.

The study showed that the consumers who tend to go to convenience stores skewed more heavily on impulse purchases. In the convenience channel, 65% of consumers first desired a snack when they walked into the store, significantly more than consumers whose snack craving hit while walking the aisles or at checkout. To capitalize on this behavior, Darrow recommends placing snack items near your store entrance and indexing your assortment around taste and craveability.

The Technomic study confirms this. Eighty-fi ve percent of respondents marked “flavor or taste” as the most important factor when choosing a snack. And for the millennials surveyed, flavors that are new or unique are increasingly important. The number of 18- to 34-year-olds who cared about uniqueness was up 12% from 2014.

Looking to fall, flavors such as pumpkin, cinnamon, pecan and apple are traditional favorites with high seasonal craveability. But lesser-seen flavors such as chestnut and maple are “emerging fall flavors” that McGuire of Technomic believes will play a more prominent role in rollouts this year, appealing to millennials who are looking for something different.

Poppable or bite-sized foods that facilitate eating without a mess, and reclosable and resealable packaging are some of the ways those seasonal favorites might be showcased in new ways.

“The more portable a snack is, the more likely it is to be selected by a consumer,” LaGrone says, pointing out that cereal cups have made a comeback as a snack rather than a breakfast item because of their portability factor. Technomic’s report cited the expansion of breakfast as well, stating that “all-day breakfast is a major industry trend, and it’s well-suited to snacking occasions due to its relatively small portion size and price point.”

Continued: How to Keep Current