The snacking consumer returned to c-stores in 2021, driving double-digit sales increases for both salty and meat snacks. Hot and spicy flavor profiles are on fire in the category as supply chain disruption and an inflationary economy failed to douse flavor innovation and optimism for the coming year.
“2021 has seen huge growth in center store,” said Joseph Bortner, center store category manager for York, Pa.-based Rutter’s, which operates 79 locations in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. “Two categories experiencing the largest gains are salty (snacks) and meat (snacks).”
The overall trend throughout 2021, Bortner observed, was that the instant consumable shopper had returned. Through 2020, he said, he saw a shift to larger pack types as consumers indulged at home. “With consumers back on the move, they’re shifting back to instant items and with higher demands than ever before,” said Bortner.
The surge in demand is evident in sales numbers for the year. Meat snack dollar sales totaled $1.92 billion, an 18.4% rise for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 27, 2021, per NielsenIQ Total U.S. Convenience data.
Meat snacks of all forms saw a dramatic lift in sales during fall of 2021 compared to fall of 2020, according to data from National Retail Solutions (NRS) for September through November 2021 measured against the same period in 2020. Overall, meat snack dollar sales increased 43.9% for the period with meat sticks showing the largest jump at 49.6% and gathering just over half of the category’s share of the segment. All other meat snack segments were up by double digits, as well: jerky at 37.3%, bars 34.4%, and meat and cheese combo 43.7%, NRS reported.
Part of that could be that meat snack consumers are buying bigger bags, a trend that Holiday Oil Director of Merchandising Devon Nitta said began midyear 2020 and hasn’t let up.
“People are really trading up in the sense that, ‘I will pay more for a 10-ounce bag rather than opting for my 3.25-ounce bag just because I know I’m getting more for the dollar,’” said Nitta.
And while meat snack sales at Salt Lake City-based Holiday, which operates 66 stores across the state of Utah, have “skyrocketed,” according to Nitta, he added that the chain has dealt with supply issues. Holiday has been able to work around the problem by stocking local brands that have been able to fill the shelves.
For Rutter’s, Bortner said the brands driving the most growth year-over-year have been Old Trapper, Bronco Billy’s and Sweetwood Smokehouse’s Fatty Smoked
Promotions pairing a fast-mover with another item may ratchet those sales up even higher. For all meat snack segments, NRS reported that customers preferred a soft drink to accompany their purchase.
Salty Sales Rebound
While not showing as big of a lift as the meat snack category, salty snacks also saw a healthy jump from a year ago. For the 52 weeks ending Nov. 27, 2021, category dollar sales rose 10.3% — outpacing an anemic 0.3% sales bump in 2020, according to data from NielsenIQ. Potato chips led the category, taking in $1.87 billion, followed by tortilla chips at $1.15 billion.
Healthy preferences, while not a large share of category sales, are on the upswing. Dollar sales doubled in bagel chips (103.6%) and rice chips (111.3%), and nearly that much in seafood snacks (93.1%).
For Nitta and Holiday, salty snacks with high-intensity flavor profiles are driving sales. “People are seeking unique flavors,” Nitta said, “things that have a punch to it, things like that. Not just spicy, but other things that are unique.”
He said that Takis were doing so well at Holiday stores that the chain added more display space for the fiery snack, which boosted sales even more. He also cited Dot’s Pretzels’ southwest profile items as well as flavor innovation from Fritos and Jalapeño Ranch Ruffles.
Retailers would be wise to not overlook the mainstays, though. “The largest contributors to the salty category have been single-serve chips and nuts and seeds,” noted Rutter’s Bortner. “Both far exceeding high expectations we had on the subcategories for 2021.”
While Nitta has seen the same popularity among the smaller bags at Holiday, he said that there’s also been a noticeable uptick of 5-10% over the previous year in larger, 7-10-ounce package sizes.
Cross-branding continues to drive innovation in the snack arena. Nitta cited the Candy Pop popcorn brand as a popular choice. “It’s popcorn but co-branded with Twix, Snickers, M&M’s, Sour Patch Kids,” he said. “That’s really been a hot seller for us. A lot of the cross-branding in different product categories, I find that people are really gravitating toward.”
Bortner sees the snack category continuing its upward trajectory in the coming year, despite inflationary trends. “Consumer behavior may see some shifts that are shaped by new pricing standards,” Bortner predicted, “but that overall category will see double-digit growth.”