Back-to-College Snacking

Students nosh a lot—on candy, fruit, chips and more.

August 27, 2019

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—College students are headed back to school, and 70% of them, by their own admission, will be consuming multiple snacks per day, reports

According to a survey by Barnes & Noble, which operates on 700 campuses nationwide, college kids’ snacking behavior can be inspired by anything from boredom (51%) to required concentration on studies (50%). Nearly 60% snack at home or in the dorm, while slightly more than half say they snack on the go.

When deciding on a snack, students say convenience is just as important as price. Other factors that attract them to on-the-go items are quick consumption and single-serving packs. Fifty percent of these consumers say nutritional value is an important consideration, and protein is a valued snack attribute, followed by natural options and low calories. The least important product claim for college students is gluten-free, Barnes & Noble reported. When selecting a to-go healthy snack, pre-packaged nutrition options, such as granola or protein bars, rank second behind fresh fruit.

Nearly 60% of students surveyed said that when no incentive to buy is offered, they are most likely to buy a healthy snack, followed by salty items, candy and sweet products.

Special offers and discounts, social media posts and in-store sampling help motivate their purchases. In fact, 94% of students show some interest in a product promoted with free samples, while half of the students said promotions made them “very or extremely interested,” according to the survey.

With candy and sweet snacks seen as “treats” and largely bought on whim, it’s not surprising that about half of the students surveyed are more likely to purchase snack products when they’re on display in checkout areas. Conversely, salty snacks seem to be less impulse driven. Just 37% reported a likeliness to buy from that sector when on display.

Chips dominate salty snack purchases among college students, with more than half seeking chips to satisfy cravings. Traditional potato chips are No. 1, followed by organic and natural options and tortilla chips. Rounding out the most popular salty snacks are bagged nuts and pretzels, which are purchased by 45% of college students.

Like snackers of all ages, college students are drawn to chocolate, and nearly 70% report choosing chocolate when they purchase candy. But chewy and sour candy also are common selections.

Among other sweet snacks, cookies are in demand, followed by brownies and donuts. Oreos are three times as popular as other options. However, Barnes & Noble reports the fragmented nature of sweet snacks makes it difficult to compare brands.

College students are a diverse demographic mix, but they display three major tendencies in snacking, reports Lisa Shapiro, director of café and convenience, Barnes & Noble.

One tendency is a preference for customization as these young consumers seek ways to control portions, and often choose spreads and snacks that can be dipped. “We first saw this demand as one of the five exclusive retailers to launch Nutella & Go products in the U.S., and now with newer options such as Reese’s Spreads Snacksters,” Shapiro explains.

They also appreciate functionality, particularly in regard to health benefits. Examples include gummies with protein or vitamin C and snack mixes fortified with probiotics.

As in the past, college students’ tendencies are expected to continue to influence the evolution of products. Mini- and snack-size candies are popular because of easy consumption and portion control, and Shapiro sees this trend expanding. “The next wave of sweet snacks evolved straight from minis,” she says. “We see interest in cookie and brownie crisps, as well as candy thins.”

In a high-intensity environment, mini- and snack-size treats with portion control make snack choices easier to select, making those snacks following this trend more likely to be met with success in the future, both on and off college campuses.