By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.
A convenience store’s strategy to boost salty snack sales can be bolstered by understanding the growing body of research examining consumers and their snacking habits, then making adjustments to accommodate customers’ buying habits.
“If you can unlock a real insight, it can create unbelievable demand,” said Anindita Mukherjee, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer for Frito-Lay North America, during the recent Snack Association’s Snaxpo.
The numbers reveal America’s growing interest in healthy food, but willingness to look the other way at times when it comes to satisfying its cravings.
“Overall,” Mintel noted in a recent report, “healthier options, such as baked or popped chips, are less frequently purchased than their regular versions, indicating there is still interest in indulgent snacks.”
Despite increased health and wellness interest and concerns, 60% of American survey respondents said they eat just as many
snacks as they did last year, according to James Russo, senior vice president of global consumer insights for the Nielsen research firm. In fact, a whopping 78% of them reported binge snacking, with 8% confiding they “always binge snack,” a total of just over 19 million peoples in the U.S.
Nielsen researchers found that women prefer sweet chocolate, candy or cookies, whereas men opt for salty treats like pretzels and chips. On the other hand, women also snack more: 25% of women interviewed said they snack three or four times a day, versus just 19% of men. Nearly half of Americans (47%) purchase salty snacks and dips for snacking throughout the day, which gives convenience stores a solid advantage over supermarkets.
What researchers also make clear is that this is an impulse-driven category. Purchase decisions are truly made on the spur of the moment, Nielsen reported, with 52% of all respondents citing cravings as their No. 1 reason to snack.
Both statistical and anecdotal research show clearly that consumers are looking for more exotic, often hotter and spicier flavors in their salty snacks.
“More customers than ever are choosing salty snacks as a meal replacement,” said Judy Gleason, a category manager at CST Brands Inc. in San Antonio. “Since they are looking for variety this has led to a flavor explosion, particularly in Asian and hot Hispanic flavors. For example, the new Frito Lay “Do Us a Flavor” items for this year include Mango Salsa-and Cappuccino-flavored potato chips, which also speaks to the wide variety of flavor profiles customers are looking for. The hottest snacks today are really just that—hot.”
C-store customers, and specifically younger customers, seem to be much more used to exotic flavors and foods, Gleason pointed out.
“They look for hot and then try to make it hotter,” she said.
Demand is increasing rapidly, as well, for healthier products, many of which can be found in salty snacks, such as nuts and baked items. “Finally, due to increased retails in candy, salty snacks have become a somewhat more attractive price value,” Gleason said. “This has led to more rapid growth in salty than other snack categories.”
CST Brands operates nearly 1,900 Corner Stores across the U.S. and Dépanneur du Coin locations in Canada.
For other c-stores bold flavor can be snacking gold.
“Consumers’ biggest change and desire is bold new flavors, and both my suppliers, Lance/Tom’s and Frito-Lay, are doing a great job with innovation to meet those needs and match those tantalizing taste desires,” said Jim Callahan, director of marketing of Fairburn, Ga.-based Geo H. Green Oil Co., which owns and operates convenience stores. Lance’s items such as Buffalo Cheddar Kettle Chips, Spicy Jalapeño Kettle Chips, and Tom’s with Cheddar Fries and others, have each proven strong performers.
History also shows that promotions work especially well in the salty snack category. For example, executives at CST have found a trio of strategies that have generated strong results for the chain.
“First,” Gleason said, “any product with an extreme value that is easy for our customer service representatives to suggestively sell consumers is a big win.”
Also, pairing salty snacks with any beverage takes advantage of the rapid growth in convenience packaged and fountain drink sales.
“Finally, consumers often appreciate the value of multiple price discounts, such as two-fers,” Gleason said.
At Corner Store, snacks are considered to be market-basket builders and profit generators. As a result, adjacencies to planned-purchase items are critical.
“We never pass the opportunity to merchandise salty snacks near beer and other cold vault beverages and we create various points of interruption throughout the store in high-traffic lanes,” Gleason said.
Finding out what consumers savor can drive sales, starting from the top down.
“Frito-Lay is in the second year of running customer contests in which they ask consumers to submit innovative flavor ideas that they then build salty snacks around,” Callahan said.
These resulted in three new flavors in 2013 and another four types in 2014. Frito-Lay then solicited consumer approval by having them vote for their favorite new chip flavor, with the top vote getter receiving a million-dollar prize, or 1% of the items sales for a full year.
“This year’s new ideas are now on sale,” Callahan continued. They include Cappuccino flavor on Lay’s classic chip; Mango Salsa on Wavy Lay’s; Cheddar Bacon Mac n Cheese on Lay’s classic chip; and the one that is selling best in his stores, Wasabi Ginger on kettle chips.
“Consumers are looking for bold flavors to titillate their taste buds,” Callahan said. “Last year’s three finalists, all on Lay’s classic chips, were Sriracha (a type of hot sauce made from a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt), Chicken ‘n Waffles and the million-dollar winner, Cheesy Garlic. I’m not sure though what staying power the various new items will have.”
The bottom line, both statistically and anecdotally, is that knowing consumer demographics, their consumption preferences and tendencies, and the use of promotions can all provide c-store operators a bigger piece of the growing salty snack category, if they pay attention and react appropriately.
Researchers find that the salty snacks and dips category is well poised for future growth due to increased product innovation and the prevalent U.S. snacking culture.
“In the end,” noted the Snack Food Association, “more healthful alternatives are broadening the appeal of the snacking occasion, but it’s the core categories like potato chips that do the heavy lifting by providing nothing more than simple enjoyment to everyone’s lives.”