Some Americans crunch for comfort, others to satisfy cravings for something savory and salty. Retailers tell how they follow flavor, texture and “better-for-you” trends to keep customers snacking happy.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
When you think of comfort food, you might envision mom’s meatloaf or grandma’s apple pie. But as growing numbers of today’s consumers are turning to salty snacks to relieve stress, especially as snacking increasingly becomes a substitute for regular meals, according to a recent report from Mintel market research.
Three in five (62%) consumers surveyed said they seek comfort from salty snacks when their stress levels are high. That’s a major spike compared to the 16% of individuals who said they did so the year before.
In its 2016 Trend Insight Report, FONA International, creators and manufacturers of flavors for the food and beverage industry, reported that 90% of households in America purchase salty snacks. Eighty-two percent of people who buy those snacks do so for their own consumption.
Fifty-six percent said they were concerned about the ingredients in salty snacks. And about 76% believe there are a greater number of healthier salty snack options than ever before.
FONA reported that in the U.S., salty snack sales have increased 28% since 2008. Sales are expected to grow another 31% by 2018.
Chicago-based market research firm IRI confirms that hikes in dollar and unit sales reflect the nation’s penchant for salty snacks. Total dollar sales for the category totaled over $4.8 billion for the 52-week period ending April 17, 2016, up 5.75% compared to last year.
Potato chips led the pack, with dollar sales of $1.5 billion, up 3.77% over last year. Tortilla/tostada chips followed with $905 million in dollar sales, which was up 5.12%. According to IRI data, cheese snacks rose 10.53% to $586 million, corn snacks, except tortilla chips, earned $356 million, a 7.59% increase; and dollar sales of pretzels rose 5.7%, to $237 million.
In addition to the salty standards, FONA pointed to cracker/chips, “a lighter, healthier version of a potato chip but with the flakiness and vehicle capability of a cracker,” as a new alternative that consumers are embracing. As examples, the company pointed to Cheez-It Grooves Original Cheddar Crispy Cracker Chips and Kellogg’s Special K Salt and Vinegar Cracker Chips.
Phil Sutton, category manager for Alon Brands Retail, which operates 309 stores in west Texas and New Mexico, agreed that sales in the salty snack category continue to grow year over year. Sutton pointed out that he has seen the strongest growth in tortilla chips and ready-to-eat popcorn.
Alon reserves between 20 feet and 28 feet of shelf and rack space to accommodate between 500 and 600 SKUs, depending on the size of the stores. He noted that this includes a recent three-foot space increase “to capture the expanding assortment of this growing category.” Sutton explained that the salty snacks are merchandised on the return path from the food and/or fountain areas to the register “to leverage the high-impulse nature of the items.”
Big, bold flavors are attracting more consumers to the category, he said. Manufacturers are also appealing to consumer health and dietary consciousness with more “gluten free” and “low sugar” labels on their products.
Upgrades in packaging are also helping to move product, particularly among Millennials, Sutton pointed out.
“Not only are manufacturers introducing new flavors and healthier options to meet the needs of this growing customer base, but they are also revamping the look and feel of old favorites,” Sutton said. “We’ve seen everything from completely new package designs to new package finishes that they are hoping will put a fresh spin on classic products.”
Sutton explained that manufacturers are also “doing a great job showcasing their products with attention-grabbing display opportunities.”
He has also noticed that instead of inundating the market with a flood of new products, manufacturers are focusing on making a big impact with fewer introductions.
“Manufacturers seem to be placing their big bets on a smaller number of new offerings than they have in the past, which enables them to market these products more efficiently and effectively,” he said.
Like Sutton, Danna Huskey, category manager for E-Z Marts Inc.’s 285 stores, located in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, has been seeing more health-oriented call-outs such as non-GMO and gluten free on salty snacks packaging. Huskey dubbed sriracha “the flavor of the moment.”
While the overall category is “growing nicely,” according to Huskey, she has seen the biggest rise in sales in the “other salty snack” sub-category under which such trending items as hot fries, pork skins and pita chips fall. IRI reported that the sub-category it tracks as “other salted snacks,” which does not include nuts or pork rinds, increased dollar sales by 3.37% over last year to $841 million. Pork rinds alone saw a sales spike over 15.87% to close to $151 million.
To keep salty snacks in front of customers as they shop, E-Z Mart provides multiple display locations throughout the stores. Inline sections range from four feet to 12 feet, depending on the size of the store; an end-cap that also includes cookies and breakfast bars; and an inline space and end-cap for Frito-Lay products.
Huskey said she likes the pace at which manufacturers are introducing new products.
“We have the tried and true, but we can always expect a twist each year,” Huskey said.
Even if a product isn’t new to the market, she said, a change in packaging graphics can make it look fresh and inviting.
“Packaging can always use an update to keep the customer engaged,” Huskey said.
She also appreciates that some manufacturers are really listening and responding to the needs of convenience store retailers. As an example, she pointed to the smaller count displays some are offering for salty snacks to make merchandising the products more space-efficient.
Students and faculty at California State University at Long Beach’s eight 49ers Shops never seem to tire of salty snacks that are spicy hot, said Patrick Joyce, manager of the campus’ convenience stores.
“Hot, hot, hot has been selling for years and years,” Joyce said. “Even though we’re seeing an increase in customer interest in more healthful and gluten-free snacks, this hasn’t affected the popularity of Flaming Hot Cheetos.”
Customers, he said, tend to go for extreme flavors such as sriracha and wasabi. Among the emerging flavors on a list compiled by FONA are jalapeño pepper, sriracha and chipotle barbecue.
New items also pique the curiosity of consumers. Joyce explained that this is one reason why potato chips are such big drivers at 49ers stores.
“We see chips in all kinds of unique flavor profiles from garlic to cheeseburger to biscuits and gravy,” Joyce said.
But not every flavor becomes a favorite.
“Of the 10-15 new flavor profiles we see in a semester, only about five or six stick,” Joyce said.
Although new items create excitement, some traditional salty snacks never seem to lose their appeal.
“Good old-fashioned pretzels are gaining ground, including twists and sticks,” Joyce said. “Flavor options for pretzels are more subtle, like honey.”
The university’s convenience stores range in size from 500 to 1,500 square feet. About 40% of their allotted space is dedicated to salty snacks displayed on two racks flanking the open cooler “within arm’s length” to encourage impulse purchasing.
Joyce said he also hopes that manufacturers will continue to create more eye-catching packaging and displays for the salty snack category.
“We always want to have something new, whether it is a new product or new packaging to put in front of our customers,” Joyce said.