Meat snack sales continue to trend upward heading into fall, and c-store retailers expect the category to close out the year with beefy fourth-quarter sales.
Marketing research firm Nielsen found meat snack dollar sales at convenience stores totaled $1.56 billion, up 8% for the 52 weeks ending Sept. 26, 2020. Jerky sales totaled $564 million for the same 52-week period, up 9.4%.
Dried meat snack sales grew to $1.8 billion, up 4.4% for the 52 weeks ending Oct. 4, 2020, according to Market Advantage TSV/IRI C-Store Liquid data, with jerky seeing dollar sales of $771 million, up 2.2%.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started in March, sales saw “a bit of a light decrease for a minute there,” said Devon Nitta, category manager for Holiday Oil, which operates more than 60 Holiday convenience stores in Utah. But since then, meat snack sales have been soaring. June sales were up 20%. July saw sales up 40%, and August sales showed 30-40% growth.
In non-pandemic times, Holiday offers a unique approach to selling meat snacks.
“We sell the major big bags, which are your typical 10-ounce size, and then the 3.25-ounce bags, sticks, etc. But in addition to that, a large portion of our business is bulk,” Nitta said. “We sell bulk bags, two-pound bags of slab jerky, retailing for $29.99.”
In addition to selling large, pre-packaged bulk bags, the chain also sells the same jerky sticks, slabs and so on in self-serve bins, so customers can select their jerky with a pair of tongs and fill their own bag. Unfortunately, the pandemic required Holiday to close its self-serve meat snack bins.
“I would say, for us, the major shift was definitely from bulk to just normal, everyday packaged jerky,” Nitta said.
But the shift hasn’t slowed sales.
“Overall, jerky itself has seen 20-40% increases for us year over year,” Nitta said.
The chain continues to see huge demand for meat snack items. Nitta suspects one factor is a fear of scarcity, with customers stocking up amid news that meat plant manufacturers are running at reduced capacity given the pandemic.
Over in the Midwest, Newcomb Oil Co. LLC, which operates 85 Five Star convenience stores in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana, also saw the effects of the pandemic on category sales earlier in the year.
“We have seen impacts to the category on both the retail and vendor side,” said Tim Young, category manager for Five Star. “In March, we saw foot traffic and transactions decline for the entire store, not just meat snacks. We did start to see that turnaround in late April/early May, and we have been showing positive numbers since then.”
Overall for 2020, meat snack sales are looking solid, and heading into fall, Five Star’s core meat snack business continues to trend upward.
Supply disruptions have been an issue in the category, Young pointed out, but haven’t slowed demand.
“There were several meat snack vendors who saw disruptions to their supply chain when some plants had some downtime, which impacts the pipeline,” Young said.
“Miraculously, we have had a really good year overall,” he added.
Five Star offers a large section dedicated to the category and includes larger bags — 10 ounces and above in the merchandising set. The larger packages continue to perform well, and the chain is looking to add new flavors.
Low-sugar meat snack options are seeing a big sales uptick at Holiday stores.
“We carry a pretty good assortment of the Tillamook jerky,” Nitta said, adding the company was a pioneer in developing a zero-sugar, simple-ingredient meat snack segment.
Zero-sugar offerings, specifically, have seen a lot of sales growth in the category, he said.
“People are looking for that higher-protein snack option that will satiate them and not be pure sugar,” Nitta added. “That’s our focus.”
Specialty jerky is also trending at the stores.
“There’s a local manufacturer here that produces jerky — imagine you take a steak and just ‘jerkified’ it,“ he said. “It’s a really unique experience.”
Nitta is always on the hunt for unique items. While customers gravitate toward old-fashioned, peppered and teriyaki jerkies — Nitta likes to spice up category sets with some interesting items that inspire impulse purchases and help grow the overall basket ring.
Nitta’s only concern heading into fall is whether manufacturers can keep pace with demand as hunting season gets underway. Hunting is a popular activity for Holiday customers and spurs snack purchases.
“It’s a very outdoorsy area, and jerky is a perfect tie-in and on, quite frankly, people’s lists when they go out for that experience,” Nitta said.
“Supply will be definitely an issue, I think, but hopefully (manufacturers) can keep up. Especially as we go into this November timeframe when the demand is even higher, paired with the scarcity that there is, we’ll have to navigate it,” he said. “But it’s something we’re trying to anticipate and hopefully mitigate.”
Nonetheless, Nitta expects rising sales through Q4, “based on the current trend for the last two, three months,” he said.
“Dollar for dollar meat snacks is one of those categories we have a big focus on because dollar per square foot or per linear foot — however you want to look at it — it generates more dollars for us than any other center-store category, maybe with the exception of candy,” Nitta said.
Five Star is also anticipating sales gains during the fall hunting season.
“Fall is a great time of year in our market for those guests that enjoy hunting or really just like being outside, especially after we all feel like we’ve been grounded for the past six months, and we have become a destination for the meat snack category,” Young said.
Young is also expecting continued sales growth in Q4, as the holiday season approaches, because meat snacks make ideal stocking stuffers.
“We do a ‘12 Days Until Christmas’ promotion that typically has several vendors participate, which creates excitement around the category,” he said.
Currently, Five Star is finalizing its planograms for the meat snack set in 2021, Young said. “Then you get the chance to sit back and see how some of the innovation is received by our guests.”