While salty snacks, and especially chips, continue to drive traffic and sales in convenience stores, the product profiles consumers ask for — fueled by popular promotions — are shifting alongside evolving trends. While shoppers will always pick up their traditional favorites, Americans increasingly clamor for better-for-you items and a host of daredevil flavors that are anything but traditional.
Consumer tastes are evolving because consumers themselves are changing.
“The number of millennials shopping at c-stores is growing, and they want something new and unique. Not all flavors are a home run, but having a unique item gets trial; sometimes the flavors work with consumers, and sometimes they don’t,” said Mike Jackson, category manager for High’s Stores in Baltimore.
High’s, which operates 46 c-stores in highly-populated areas of the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor, enjoyed big success last summer with Herr’s Sweet Roasted Popcorn, which mimicked the flavor of grilled buttery corn on the cob. “It was a perfect flavor for summer,” Jackson said.
Meanwhile at Cenex Zip Trip in Spokane Valley, Wash., salty snack sales are up slightly over last year. “But we are seeing higher margin dollars as we are seeing sales shifting to higher-margin items,” said Jon Fleck, merchandising manager for Cenex Zip Trip, which operates 36 locations in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Managing the category closely is essential. Stores must continue to monitor sales to see what is moving, and alter planograms to increase shelf space for those items, said Fleck. “We must continue to keep our fingers on the pulse of this category.”
That pulse remains strong and steady. In the convenience store channel, for the 52 weeks ending Feb. 24, 2019, IRI found total salty snacks sales topped $5.6 billion, a 5.4% rise over the previous year. Sales of potato chips reached more than $1.7 billion, up 2.6%. Tortilla/tostada chip sales exceeded $1.1 billion, an increase of 11.6%, and pretzels recorded $245.1 million in sales, up 2.2%. And those weren’t the only salty snacks to enjoy gains. Other salted snacks (no nuts) rose to more than $919 million, up 6.1%. Cheese snack sales topped $742 million, a 7.1% gain, and ready-to-eat popcorn/caramel corn sales came in at $236.5 million, a 3.4% gain.
Healthy snacks benefit both the body and a customer’s conscience.
“Consumers are looking for that snack with fewer calories that still tastes good,” Fleck said. “This includes popcorn, which is still seeing steady growth, though not as high as it has been over the past couple of years.”
“As the fresh convenience market, Alltown Fresh has noticed that consumers are looking for healthier and/or functional alternatives to the standard c-store offering of chips and salty snacks,” said Christian Pratt, category manager – snacks for Global Partners LP’s Alltown Fresh chain. Global Partners supplies fuel to more than 1,600 locations, and owns and operates 300 c-stores under various banners.
While grab-and-go snacks continue to be the go-to for quick pick-me-ups between meals, Alltown Fresh has seen increased demand for products that provide wellness functions, such as added protein, pre- and probiotics, and other gut-healthy items.
“It’s also important to note that while guests are seeking cleaner items in every c-store category, taste continues to be equally as important as the ingredients,” Pratt said. Alltown Fresh executives taste-test all packaged products prior to stocking them and encourage guests to sample products and ask questions prior to purchase, especially with unfamiliar items.
Pratt believes c-stores should work to incorporate growing health-food trends into product offerings to cater to consumer demand. While younger millennials are more adventurous in trying bold snack flavors, older millennials gravitate toward healthy choices.
“While it may seem out of character for c-stores to shift in this direction, Alltown Fresh offers classic snack options such as Doritos but continues to see healthier alternatives shine,” Pratt said. The market’s No. 2 product in the salty snack category is Vegan Rob’s Cauliflower Puffs.
Protein will be a key driver for this category moving forward, Pratt added, as well as clear, concise packaging. “Easy-to-read labels and callouts for non-GMO and gluten-free products makes it easy for consumers to understand products and know what they’re putting into their bodies.”
Flavors Heat Up
The hot trend in salty snacks remains, perhaps ironically, hot flavors.
“Intense is the new normal,” Fleck said. “Customers are gravitating to hot, hot, flaming hot. Even regular Doritos now comes in a Flamin’ Hot flavor.” Other popular flavors, he added, include buffalo and wasabi.
“Millennials are driving the need for unique flavors, and manufacturers are coming up with some unusual flavors like lime and sea salt, spicy dill pickle, wasabi (and) beer cheese,” Jackson noted. “I think we are going to continue to see the trend to release new limited-time offers (LTO) to continue to meet the wants of the new younger c-store consumers.”
To really drive sales, Jackson recommends rotating through new varieties to keep snack options fresh. “If you can find an item and have it before your competition, and it’s a hit, that means the customer will come back to your store to purchase it again. Do not be afraid to try something different. Sometimes an item can set you apart from your competition,” Jackson said.
At Alltown Fresh, consumers value variety and a wide range of flavor profiles the most. To enhance the way people eat and shop in c-stores, and to accommodate the market’s adventurous consumer base, the chain has leaned into bold, new flavors that satisfy hunger and cravings.
“LesserEvil Himalayan Salt Paleo Puffs, Hippeas Sriracha Sunrise Chickpea Puffs and Prana Exotic Fruit and Nut Mix are classic go-to’s,” Pratt noted. “Snacks with a fruit influence, such as Barnana Fruit Chips, Mavuno Harvest 100% Organic Dried Fruit and Matt’s Munchies Island Mango Fruit Snacks, have been a recent highlight, with Stretch Island Snacks Fruit Leather being a great option for kids.”
Driven by taste and texture, Pratt predicted, consumers will continue to seek out bold flavor offerings and unique ingredients while shifting toward snacks that serve a purpose. “Demanding snacks that taste good, fill you up and have wellness functions will become the standard for c-store guests, with an emphasis on digestive health and prebiotics,” Pratt said.
Promos & Combos
Two-fers on smaller sizes help increase sales, Fleck said. “We offer a 5-8% discount when we do this, but the promotional signage draws the customers to the deal, which drives those sales.”
In the past, bigger bags did well when promoted, Fleck added, but now consumers are looking for snacks they plan on consuming as part of their lunch, or just to munch. Bundling with cold beverages and roller-grill items show growth, but signage in each of these areas is highly critical to its success. Jackson has found that two-fer deals work well with some salty snack categories, but not with others. Running a two-fer on tube nuts, for example, usually increases take rate and overall units purchased.
“On other hand, with items like chips, popcorn or tortilla chips it does not work as well,” Fleck said.
Cenex expects the share of space for intense flavors and better-for-you varieties to continue to grow in the salty snacks segment.
“Long gone are the days where regular flavors dominate this category, and their multi-facings in the stores will dwindle as each year ticks by,” Fleck predicted. “I can only imagine what the planograms for chip/salty snacks will look like in another five years.”