From candy and chips to popcorn and jerky, U.S. snacking isn’t defined by one consumer trend. Still, convenience stores are positioned to capture the bulk of them.
By Howard Riell, Associate Editor
There are few things closer to Americans’ hearts than snacking—in all its textures and flavors. So, it’s not surprising that the snack category is one of the easiest to gauge for retailers with their finger on the consumer pulse.
Anymore, Americans search for convenient snacks with bold flavor profiles and healthy ingredients. Cross-promoting snacks with food items has always been a good idea, but more so going forward as dayparts blur and more singles dine at nontraditional times of the day.
According to market research firm Mintel Group Ltd, total U.S. sales for chips, salsa, dips, cheese snacks, popcorn and pretzels was roughly $20.47 billion. In addition, Information Resources Inc. reported that both U.S. confectionery (1.9%) and snack (2.7%) sales increased slightly in 2014.
About 123 million U.S. households purchase chocolate, non-chocolate candy, gum or mints each year according to the National Confectioners Association. Americans seem to like breakfast-flavored snacks.
As the group recently pointed out, “breakfast will soon no longer be just for the morning. Maple and maple syrup-flavored candies and snacks are just the tip of the iceberg. The flavors and foods usually consumed before 8 a.m. are inspiring candies and snacks across the board—from yogurt snacks to waffles, and from peaches and cream to bacon.”
Demographics play a key role in such sales. The growth in snack foods being consumed at meal time is largely driven by people who are eating those meals by themselves, according to NPD Group’s recently released Snacking in America report.
In 2014, annual ‘eatings’ per capita of snack foods consumed at meal times among solo diners reached 191 compared, to 167 in 2011, which stretched across the U.S. population represents a difference of billions of eating occasions. Similar to larger households, health and weight management is among the key motivations to eat snack foods at meals for solo diners, particularly better-for-you snack foods, NPD found.
“Tying into the rise of single-person homes, the most common over-indexing motivator cited across the better-for-you categories was the fact it came in a single-serve package,” said Darren Seifer, NPD food-and-beverage industry analyst. “Food manufacturers and retailers should think about the unique needs of the solo consumer when developing products and packaging, and marketing messages should be crafted to be relevant to them and their snacking behaviors.”
But while major brands and upstarts alike continue to introduce new and exciting flavors in an attempt to capture consumers’ imaginations, many retailers are slow to bring these new items in or allot much room. Some c-store operators are also finding two-fer offers less effective than cross-merchandising snacks with grab-and-go food items like sandwiches and drinks.
Regional tastes vary and smart retailers make it their business to know what they are.
“In our area, Elk City, we see a lot of beef jerky,” said Sean Higgins, director of marketing for Hutchinson Oil Co. of Elk City, Okla., which operates 14 convenience stores. “In fact, we see all of the different kinds of jerky. That’s kind of a trend in our area. It’s been a big thing for us. We sell elk and bison jerky, and it seems like that’s been a hit lately—not in all of our stores, but the majority of them.”
Higgins suggested that much of the impetus behind the rise in sales could be due, aside from his marketing efforts, to his region’s cultural history.
“Jerky has always been kind of a big deal, so we like to really push that product. It’s something that a lot of people prefer. We’re actually out in the country,” Higgins said. “We’re a small city in western Oklahoma, and so a lot of people here like that Western kind of feel.”
The main driver of snack traffic is the stores’ signage, Higgins said. Banners on the outsides tell consumers about selection and promotions. “We also have some point-of-purchase signage inside that kind of grabs your attention as you are walking in.”
Impulse marketing is highly effective.”We do it almost as a reminder,” Higgins explained. “We have signage near the counter that reminds them as they begin to want a little something extra on the way out. It’s impulse sales. We have giant posters that advertise deals, like ‘Buy Hershey’s bars, two for $2.22.’”
Perhaps the single most effective item with which to pair snacks has been milk. “We really push our milk purchases,” Higgins said. “We have a rewards program where if you buy a certain amount you get one free, and naturally we like to push that program.”
He also runs other promotional deals, like get one Hershey bar free with the purchase of five. “Our reward tags track people and how many they buy, so if they don’t remember they can always swipe their tag to keep track of how many they’ve gotten and still need in order to get that free one.”
Like other retailers, Higgins said healthy snacks continue to show strength.
“We have a ‘healthy’ section where we keep our healthy snacks in case there are people who are a little self-conscious or hesitant about what they eat,” he said. “It’s there that we sell a lot of our granola bars and breakfast bars.”
Hutchinson’s management is currently planning its marketing program for 2016, Higgins said, and snacks figure prominently in those plans.
“We’re still trying to come up with a game plan and figure out the best way to go. But we definitely do see the healthy snack section being a big part now,” Higgins said. “There are quite a number of people who browse that area because they don’t want all of the junk food.”
For another c-store, expansive snack sales have allowed it to try different approaches, including complementing its foodservice program with snack options.
“Sales are up and we are toying with different ideas,” reported David Kraning, who this January will take over from his retiring father, Jim, as president of the five-unit K&B Kwik Stop in Pocatello, Idaho. “We are experimenting with some different brands and seeing what our customers want. We’re having a lot of success trying different brands, different varieties rather than having to stick to a planogram set forth by Kellogg’s and all those other companies.”
K&B allots from 12-16 feet of shelf space to snacks in various locations around the store. “Some of those areas have three to four shelves, depending on the size of the product,” he added.
Kraning has found that combining snacks and food items in promotions works well. As a result, his top foodservice sales store gets three weekly snack shipments from Frito Lay, while other stores get only two. That store contains a Sub Express toasted sub sandwich concept, as well as a Charlie Biggs Chicken program. “A lot of people will have chips with their sandwiches or chicken,” he said.
“Right now at one location we’re getting really big into the foodservice program itself, so we’re doing breakfast sandwiches,” Kraning reported. “And while we haven’t really experimented with breakfast-themed snack foods, that may be something we have to look into.”