CHICAGO — With the dawning of a new decade and changing tastes and preferences driving consumption choices, it’s fair to ask: What are snack seekers craving in 2020?
While the larger trends haven’t changed, they are building momentum. Case in point: healthful, less guilty offers. Sixty-three percent of consumers desire more healthy food options at c-stores today, and 46% of these folks are hunting for healthier choices more so than two years ago, according to data from CSP sister company Technomic.
Peter Frattarola, senior category manager for The Wills Group Inc.’s Dash In chain, La Plata, Md., which has more than 50 locations in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, sees plenty of growth opportunity in this area.
“In 2019, we grew snacks by 3.5% over the previous year,” Frattarola says. “And early indications are that 2020 will be even better. ... Our single-serve snacks, nutritional and energy bars segments and meat snacks are driving our positive growth trends.”
According to IRI, c-store dollar sales of salty snacks ranked sixth in in-store categories at $5.87 billion in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 29, 2019, up 6% from 2018.
Retailers and snack experts CSP spoke to for this story point to the profit potential of one snack category in particular in 2020: dried meat snacks, which saw sales rise 4.7% to reach $1.73 billion in 2019, according to IRI.
“With the latest trends leaning toward protein, low-sugar and low-carb, meat snacks are the perfect grab-and-go snack,” says Dawn Letson, category manager for Temple, Texas-based distributor McLane Co.
Dash In’s top snack SKU in growth by dollars in 2019 was Jack Link’s 3.25-ounce Teriyaki Bites. Old Trapper’s Peppered 10-ounce bag is a top-five item in meat snack sales, while Oberto Flank Steak 9-ounce bags and Oberto Smoked Sausages 12-ounce bags are both within the top 14 in sales dollars for the retailer.
Nati Rezene is director of center store and category management for Core-Mark Holding Co., Westlake, Texas, which distributes to about 140,000 North American c-stores, including 7-Eleven. Meat snacks had a banner year in the stores of Core-Mark’s clients in 2019, she says.
“Sticks tend to do best, but bigger-bag meat snacks have been doing well lately vs. single-serve,” Rezene says. “It helps that there are a lot more meat snack manufacturers playing in this space today.”
While 2.5- to 3.5-ounce jerky bags continue to dominate in the convenience channel, 10-ounce and larger packages led the pack in driving the total category, with 19.3% growth in the past year at McLane. Old Trapper had 44% of sales and three items in the top 10 for jerky, followed by Jack Link’s with 12.6% and Cattleman’s Cut with 7.8%, according to McLane data.
Letson says concentrating on bigger packages throughout the snacks category is a growth opportunity in 2020.
“It’s all about finding the right balance between core items and innovation to maximize the profitability of the space,” she says. Toward that end, McLane plans to offer larger sizes of all types of snack products, including jerky, chips, cookies and crackers.
“Consumers often see the value in trading up to larger sizes for not a lot more money, which only adds to the register ring for retailers,” Rezene says.
Take-home and share-size package sizes are top snack sellers at most of the more than 200 Stripes convenience stores operated by Frisco, Texas-based Cal’s Convenience Inc. This is probably due to “a mixture of our current economy and the perceived value of a larger bag,” says Abigail Cerra, marketing manager for Cal’s Convenience and CSP’s 2020 Category Manager of the Year in multiple categories.
“The larger-portion meat snacks are really driving growth in the bagged jerky segment,” Cerra says.
The takeaway is clear, Letson says: “Adding more big bags to a set can mean more total dollars in your bottom line.”
More healthful snacks are also commanding greater shelf space at many outlets. That includes at MAPCO Express stores, where Kelley Gutierrez manages the candy and snacks category for the Franklin, Tenn.-based chain.
“I make sure that I have items in our store for a keto-lifestyle person and for a mom or dad that’s shopping for a small child that wants something healthier for them,” says Guitierrez, a nominee for CSP’s 2020 center store Category Manager of the Year award. The keto diet emphasizes high fat and protein intake and low carbs. She says she also makes sure to offer vegetarian and vegan snack items.
Frattarola of Dash In believes manufacturers may have more work to do to sell convenience-store consumers in his markets on healthful snacks.
“We have to carve out exactly what ‘better for you’ means and communicate that in a way that doesn’t muddy up the waters.”
“The majority of healthful products we sell are energy or nutritional bars with indulgent flavors, like cookie or chocolate chip,” he says. “We have seen that the consumer still needs the balance of great taste along with healthy attributes in their products for them to make short- and long-term commitments to purchase a certain brand or product.”
Cerra’s largest hurdle is continuing to gain incremental sales with center-store items from younger consumers who are more focused on better-for-you snacks.
“With more label readers than ever before, it’s important to begin introducing cleaner-label products into snack sets to keep those incremental sales,” she says. Cal’s Convenience is looking to add cleaner-label products to all its snack categories. Cerra points to General Mills’ low-sugar, paleo-friendly Epic meat snacks as one example of an on-trend product.
Regulations are tightening on better-for-you and healthier snacking options, Rezene of Core-Mark points out.
“We have to carve out exactly what ‘better for you’ means and communicate that in a way that doesn’t muddy up the waters for convenience retailers and their customers,” she says. For example, snack bars lagged last year due to the number of added manufacturers.
“With bars, the message has become a bit more diluted,” Rezene says. “We want to be more specific and purposeful this year with bars and partner with industry leaders while also giving enough space to the innovators.”
“In the bar segment, there’s some confusion on shopping the category,” agrees Charles Simpson, director of category management for Advantage Solutions, Irvine, Calif., a c-store broker that represents snack companies such as Abbott Nutrition, manufacturer of ZonePerfect bars, and Simply Good Foods, manufacturer of Atkins bars. “There’s some contraction going on in the category.” According to IRI, sales of c-store snack bars slipped 2.1% in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 29, 2019.
Brands that are doing well are emphasizing healthy attributes such as protein, sugar and fiber content on their packaging while also offering unique flavors, Simpson says. He cites One Bar, available in flavors such as birthday cake and maple glazed doughnut. According to IRI, One experienced double-digit gains in c-store sales in 2019.
Leaning on New Products
New products are the lifeblood of the snack category. Over the past year, spicy, healthful and high-protein items have risen to the top.
Dash In’s top three new snack items in 2019 were the 3.125-ounce Flamin’ Hot Doritos, 10-ounce Old Trapper beef jerky and The Wonderful Co.’s Wonderful Pistachios with no shells. In the nutritional/energy bar segment, Dash In added four Lenny & Larry’s vegan, high-protein nutritional cookie SKUs as part of its fall reset. “Three out of four of these SKUs are in the top 10 in sales dollars within that subcategory,” Frattarola says.
Gutierrez of MAPCO is hopeful that plant-based, nut- and dairy-free energy bars will catch on with consumers.
“I’m excited for that because I know there are parents out there who have kids that have allergies,” she says. One example is That’s It allergen-free fruit bars.
Letson of McLane sees novelty as a snacks draw in 2020. She cites The Most Stuf Oreos, Cheez-It Extra Cheesy, Slim Jim Savage Size meat stick and Mt. Olive Munchies kosher dill sticks as promising new snacks.
Rezene of Core-Mark is bullish on Schuman Cheese’s Whisps Parmesan Cheese Crisps, a keto-friendly product.
“Take a chance on the flavor profiles you previously might not have,” Rezene says.
Likewise, it’s important to pursue new promotions and strategies. Cerra says her company will ramp up snack promotions in 2020 and launch a loyalty platform and mobile app “that will open the door to promotional opportunities we didn’t have before.”
Dash In plans to expand its meat snack offerings; identify the top shippers and temporary displays that bring in the best limited-time offers; and keep a closer eye on pop culture trends that could inform snacking strategies.
“Our core customer at Dash In is looking to spend a minimal amount of time in our store,” Frattarola says, “and they’re trying to find snacks that provide indulgence, energy and even meal replacements to support their busy lives.”