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Snack Food Nation

Salty snacks are uniquely positioned at the intersection of traditional mealtimes and immediate consumption.

​By Chris Blasinsky

Among today’s time- starved consumers, grazing is the new normal, which makes salty snacks an important center store category for meeting this fill-in and meal replacement environment. Lucky for the convenience industry, pretty much every store sells products that comprise the salty snacks category, including the sturdy staples such as potato chips and tortilla chips, to new entries that appeal to the more health-conscious consumer, such as kale chips.

Data Driven
In 2015, salty snacks took off in terms of gross profit dollars growth, overtaking other tobacco products, packaged beverages, candy and beer, according to the recently released NACS State of the Industry Report of 2015 Data.

Average sales per store per month of the salty snacks category brought in nearly $86,000, roughly a 9% increase over 2014. The category is also the eighth largest in-store category for convenience stores in terms of total sales. As for gross margins, the category reached an average of more than $33,500 per store per month in 2015, which also helped catapult the category to No. 4 above candy.

Salty snacks is the largest of the center store categories (salty snacks, candy, packaged sweet snacks, alternative snacks) in terms of sales and gross profit dollars. These products are essential for convenience retailers and customers alike, led by potato chips, tortilla corn chips, puffed cheese products and pretzels.

The biggest mover within the salty snacks category goes to nuts/seeds, which experienced a double-digit sales increase of 11.4% and the highest unit increase of 6.2% in 2015, according to NACS data. Rapid growth of the nuts/seeds subcategory signals that more consumers are looking for an anytime boost of energy or protein to get them through the day. Nuts/ seeds also satisfy consumer demand for healthier snacks, which is a hugely important factor for the younger, millennial shoppers.

Trends in Traditional
“The key with the salty category is balancing healthy and indulgent while looking to opportunities for innovation that will excite the consumer,” said Stephan Mecklenburg, research coordinator at NACS. “Most snack manufacturers are creating new products or modifying existing ones to capture what the current shopper is looking for in a snack. At the moment, shoppers are looking for more than just the traditional potato chip, and want to see a variety of products when they enter a convenience store.”

Here’s a glimpse at how salty snacks are evolving:

  • Potato chips cooked with avocado oil, coconut oil and Himalayan salt are positioned as better-for-you alternatives.
  • Chips are moving beyond the traditional potato by introducing chips made from root vegetables such as parsnips and beets, as well as sweet potatoes, plantains, snow peas or apples.
  • Clean labels tout qualities such as natural, gluten-free, organic, non-GMO, no artificial colors, no artificial preservatives and allergen-free. 
  • Premium brands of snack foods, such as Frito Lay’s Simply Tostitos Black Bean chips, are made with ingredients like real black beans.
  • Baked snacks such as pretzels and pita chips remain popular.
  • Indulgent potato chips and popcorn varieties include salty-sweet flavor profiles like caramel and sea salt, and sweet-spicy flavors combine dark chocolate and chili.
  • Bold and spicy flavors are strong for nuts/seeds, corn chips and popcorn, such as Sriracha, curry, BBQ, Cajun, chili-lime and jalapeno.
  • Snack mixes have nutritional benefits such as high protein and fiber and contain essential vitamins and minerals.

Younger shoppers are definitely looking for new flavors. This generation gets excited by unconventional flavor combinations and unusual spices, but also prefers to snack on healthier options. Given the grab-and-go, impulsive environment of a c-store, convenience retailers are in a strong position to meet and exceed all types of consumer preferences.

It also might not be enough for a snack just to be a snack. For some consumers, they want their snack to do something, which is where the desire for better-for-you salty snacking options comes into the mix.

Snack Time, Anytime
“The eating habits of Americans are undergoing a wholesale change as snacking becomes more a part of the daily routine,” NACS reported a few years back in the 2013 State of the Industry Report. “In fact, 24/7 snacking is becoming the new normal for today’s consumers.” Three square meals a day doesn’t work for consumers who are seeking instant gratification: eating what they want, where they want and when they want.

According to Mintel’s April 2015 report, “Snacking Motivations and Attitudes,” 94% of Americans are snacking every day, and half of all U.S. adults snack two to three times per day. In comparison to Mintel’s 2014 report on the same topic, just 64% of consumers said they often snacked between meals. The research firm also suggests that more frequent snacking may be replacing standard daily meals.

So what else is driving snacking behavior? Mintel suggests these factors:

  • To satisfy a craving
  • Too late or too early for a meal
  • Emotions or stress levels are running high
  • Boredom

“Older consumers did not grow up with all-day snacking and may continue to view snacks as treats,” said Amanda Topper, food analyst at Mintel. “Millennials are also more likely than older generations to indicate [that] snacks with added nutrition and flavor variety are important to them. As a result, they may be drawn to products with high fiber, energizing claims or protein content to stay satiated, as well as bold flavors to help add variety to their frequent snacking occasions and eliminate boredom.”

Mecklenburg of NACS added that consumers are indeed supplementing meals for snacking occasions, making it important for salty snacks to offer enough nutrition to satisfy hunger cravings. “Going hand-in-hand with that trend is the need for products to be conveniently packaged so that consumers can easily snack on the go,” he said.

Consumer Behavior
For the salty snacks category, there’s not a lengthy time period before a purchase is made. NACS Convenience Tracking Program (CTP) data in 2015 reveals that in the convenience channel, nearly all of consumer salty snack purchasing decisions happen that same day, with 79% of the purchasing decisions premeditated before a customer pulls into the parking lot:

  • 40% of salty snack purchase decisions happen prior to a customer driving or walking to a c-store;
  • 39% of purchase decisions happen in-route; and
  • 21% (1 out of 5) of decisions happen onsite (impulse).

“In terms of what shoppers are looking for in their salty snacks purchase, they turn to grocery for assortment, discount, dollar and mass merchandisers for value, and for immediate, grab-and-go consumption they turn to convenience stores,” said Leroy Kelsey, director of industry analytics at NACS.

During a week-long time frame, NACS CTP data reveals that 41% of convenience store shoppers are loyal to a particular c-store site for their salty snack purchase—53% to a particular c-store banner. However, one out of two c-store shoppers also buy salty snacks at another c-store chain or retail channel each week. “Convenience stores are the No. 2 channel of trade for salty snack volume, however half of all c-stores shoppers frequent another c-store or channel to fulfill a salty snack need throughout the week. The opportunity lies in creating a non-commoditized shopping experience that competitors find difficult to duplicate further insuring a dominant role in c-stores shoppers’ consideration set,” Kelsey added.

In terms of missed purchases, NACS CTP indicates that in the 2015 the majority of missed transactions within the salty snacks category (8.3%) were due to preventable factors, such as out-of-stock situations, product placement and assortment efficiency.

Given the current trends in snacking behavior and different need states throughout the dayparts, creating a salty snack destination that is well-stocked, offers variety and choices for health-conscious consumers is more important than ever for the convenience store industry.

Chris Blasinsky is the managing editor of NACS Magazine. She often eats popcorn for dinner and her favorite go-to salty snacks are spicy hot peanuts, pistachios and trail mix with M&Ms. She can be reached at