With the nation enduring COVID-19 lockdown conditions, consumers are spending more time at home working and playing, and they’re reaching for snacks that make them feel good.
Indeed, the salty snack segment as a whole has been relatively flat for the year, seeing a 4.7% dip in convenience channel sales during the 21-week period ending July 25, 2020, compared to last year, according to Nielsen data. Conversely, meat snacks have seen an annual 5.9% lift and muscled an impressive 8.1% boost for that 21-week period — which roughly parallels the pandemic’s timeline.
One reason could be that, COVID-19 or not, manufacturers are staying aggressive with flavor innovation.
Spicy Choices Heat Up
“Spicy is dominating everything, whether it be in meats or snacks,” said Robyn Gettleson, category manager for United Pacific, with 453 company-operated stores and 56 fee-operated locations along the West Coast and in Colorado. She said that holds true especially in urban areas with more culturally diverse markets.
April Gelber, category manager for Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Holmes Oil and its 26 Cruizers stores throughout the central region of the state, has observed the hotter snack trend as well.
“Because, as you well know, right now people are looking for a lot of spicy flavors,” she said.
As far as consumers’ meat snacks preferences, those can vary regionally. “We are particularly a meat sticks rather than jerky seller,” said Gelber. “We have the four core that we sell, the main stuff, obviously with the Jack Link’s.”
Because United Pacific’s footprint is so large, Gettleson said she sees the differences even within her chain. “I know Denver is very much more in the jerky versus sticks,” she observed. “(The Pacific) Northwest is very heavily locally branded.”
But the spicy trend, Gettleson said, is cutting across the entire category.
“I think it’s just going more to bold, spicy-type flavors; (I’m) seeing a lot more mixes out there,” she said. “So not just your plain old potato chip anymore — combining a couple different textures and flavors and that kind of thing within the salty.”
One prime example, according to Cruizers’ Gelber, is the Takis chip.
“The Takis Fuego (flavor) is one of the hottest items,” Gelber said. “I know they sell them out west, but here in our market area, it’s very, very popular. It does really well for us.”
An often-overlooked snack item is also grabbing flavor attention at United Pacific stores.
“It looks like the ‘chicharrones,’ or the pork rinds, are coming back and in new flavors,” Gettleson said. “They’re doing Korean barbecue and Himalayan sea salt. So those are coming back. I think that has a lot to do with keto and low carb (trends).”
Health vs. Indulgence
Gettleson observed that the pandemic may have many consumers fighting the internal “health vs. indulgence” battle with their snacking choices.
“Everyone’s straddling that fence,” Gettleson said. “They know they need to be eating healthier, and especially, they want to stay healthy so they don’t get sick; but I think people are stressed out.”
Multigrain snacks, generally perceived as “healthy snacks,” for example, have seen a slight dip in the 21 weeks ending July 25, 2020, according to Nielsen, but were up a strong 5.5% for the 52 weeks.
Cruizers’ Gelber said that for her stores, energy bars are weathering the pandemic lockdown storm quite well.
“They’re actually holding strong,” she said, “which means that even due to the traffic decrease, we haven’t seen a huge decline.”
That said, snackers are still embracing indulgence, especially during lockdown. Market research analyst Mintel found the pandemic is driving salty snack sales, which customers are turning to as a comfort food to alleviate stress.
And while category managers across the nation and product spectrum have had to compensate for pandemic-driven supply chain disruption, other products like popcorn and pretzels are filling in the snack aisle nicely at both United Pacific and Cruizers locations.
Cruizers is holding strong in the subcategories within salty snacks, too. And while some manufacturers are pushing promotions back until there’s more clarity with the pandemic situation, consumers in general are still buying. “In fact, two weeks ago, we had the highest selling day since the opening of our company,” said Gelber.
United Pacific’s Gettleson sees similar robust business coming back to c-stores and in nearly all categories. “Washington and Oregon, we’re not seeing any declines,” she said. “We’re actually up over last year.”