By Jeffrey Steele, Contributing Editor
It wasn’t that long ago that offers of meat snacks didn’t have a lot of variety to choose from—making for a category without much spice. That can make for a static category. However, as snack manufacturers are launching new flavors and product lines to capture consumers’ imagination convenience stores are capturing more meat snack sales.
The average U.S. consumer enjoys meat snacks about 10 times a year—significantly more than the eight times that consumers were purchasing meat snacks in 2012, said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm.
“That increase actually makes it one of the fastest-growing savory snacks out there,” said Seifer. “Savory snack foods are growing as consumers become increasingly concerned about their sugar consumption.”
Meat snacks fit well within that trend, including the popularity of such brands as Slim Jim and Jack Link’s.
Consumer research firm Mintel Group Ltd. found one of the most notable innovations in the category is the launch of higher-quality meat snacks in response to customer interest.
A Mintel survey conducted this past summer indicated 41% of consumers would like to see more meat snacks made from premium meat cuts. Twenty-eight percent of those polled found appealing the idea of grass-fed meat snacks and almost as high a percentage—26%—like the notion of preservative-free products. Along with these trends has come growth in the number of meat snacks free of additives like hormones, and the number claiming humanely-raised ingredients.
Another noteworthy trend is that more than a quarter of consumers surveyed (27%) expressed an interest in purchasing meat snack bars, according to Mintel.
While traditional meat snack offerings still have the upper hand at Portland, Ore.-based Plaid Pantry, the growth of new meat snack options has been steady, said Tim Cote, Plaid Pantry’s vice president of marketing.
“The consumer profile varies a bit by brand,” said Cote. “Many of the newer entries into the market have flavor profiles and bite types that appeal to a broader base of customers than the more established brands. Many of the older bands are more male dominated. And while they pull sales from all age groups, the newer brands do skew a bit younger.”
Seifer agreed that meat snack purveyors are responding to snack fans’ desire to try something new.
“Consumers are always asking, ‘What else do you have for me?’” said Seifer. “So it’s not a surprise more flavors are being introduced. While the traditional flavor was cured beef, now we’re seeing habanero and sriracha. A lot of the new flavors I’m seeing are about spiciness and boldness, and giving the snack a new kick.”
Mintel found that if only two meat snack types were available to customers, almost two-thirds (65%) would be attracted to either spicy flavors or meat snacks from prime cuts. If only three meat snack types were available, nearly three-quarters (74%) would find either spicy flavors or meat snacks made from prime cuts or variety packs appealing.
The quest for what Mintel calls “new meat snack formats” is largely driven by younger buyers, who also are more likely to buy meat snacks in general than older buyers. Among those aged 18-34, 32% express an interest in purchasing meat snack bars, while 29% are intrigued by meat snack trail mixes. Younger buyers are also more inclined toward what might be called socially-conscious meat snacks. Nearly a third (32%) show interest in grass-fed meat snacks and 28% appear up for humanely-raised meat snacks.
Increasingly, Americans are seeking some sort of health benefit in the snacks they select, Seifer said.
“Protein is something consumers want, one of the few things they’re demanding more of,” Seifer added. “And we’re seeing the avoidance of sugar doesn’t appear to be a flash in the pan. It will be around for a while. The consumer mindset has shifted in terms of what we should be avoiding, and meat snacks fit with that avoidance.”
Above all, the fact that meat snacks are among the fastest-growing snack offerings should keep retailers on their toes, Seifer said.
“It would behoove retailers to ensure [meat snacks are] easy to find in store,” said Seifer. “Whether that be at checkout, or popping off the shelves more visibly, retailers should ensure they’re not losing out on a sale that otherwise would take place.”
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At 109-store Plaid Pantry chain, newer meat snack flavors sell well. But the market is still dominated by what Cote calls “the big three,” a trio consisting of original, peppered and teriyaki.
“Sriracha may be a bit post peak,” said Cote. “Habanero and Hatch Chili have shown promise.”
Cote said meat sticks sell most productively from the front counter, while bags fare best on an end cap or in line. He also believes meat snacks are very good candidates for promotions, noting they “drive huge lift at higher-than-average retails.”
Asked when changes he’d like to see from meat snack purveyors, he didn’t mince words.
“Introducing a new flavor is fine; putting more effort into the maturation process for these flavors is important,” he said.
“Working items into off-shelf display and clip strip offerings would be a start.”
At Team Oil Travel Center, a convenience retailer based in Spring Valley, Wis., retail manager Jesse Streater reported meat snacks have been growing more popular, and that’s led to increased product stocking.
“We’ve just been getting more of everything, at different price points,” Streater said. “We have a bunch of Jack Link’s products, and we also have Kickass Snacks. We carry their jerky and meat snacks. We also have a local meat producer who makes his own jerky and meat sticks and strips himself . . . it’s very popular with the hunters around here. This time of year, we sell a lot more meat snack products, including jerky and meat sticks they can take with them.”
Meat snacks are merchandised with other salty snacks at Team Oil, but get their own section within that area. The local meat producer’s product must be refrigerated. “So we keep them in the cooler, but half of one of our cooler doors is dedicated to those products,” said Streater.
When it comes to flavor preferences, the Team Oil customer base may be bucking the trend toward more flavor experimentation. The store got a shipper once with what Streater calls “odd flavors,” but there was no reorder. “We sell more of the beef sticks, teriyaki and peppered, the classics,” she said.
Summer with its family road trips, and fall with its hunting expeditions tend to bring out the greatest meat snack sales, she added. But throughout the year, the meat snack category is simply becoming a bigger and bigger phenomenon at Team Oil.
“It has gotten more popular, we’re definitely selling more of it and dedicating more space to it,” said Streater.